The fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989 was a death sentence. His crime, according to Ayatollah Khomeini, was to insult Mohammed and mock Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. And for this alleged blasphemy, the Ayatollah called on “all brave Muslims” to kill Salman Rushdie (and his publishers and translators) for the greater glory of Allah and the spiritual desire of martyrdom.
There had been previous attempts to assassinate Salman Rushdie, and his Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was indeed murdered. Others have been assaulted and seriously injured over the decades as a result of the Ayatollah’s exhortation “to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth”.
It has only taken 33 years for an assassin to finally stab Salman Rushdie around a dozen times, but the Shi’a fatwa doesn’t sleep. It was reportedly abrogated in 1998 when Iran and the UK were normalising relations, but junior foreign ministers don’t trump grand ayatollahs, whose title literally means ‘word of the God’. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei confirmed in 2017 that the fatwa was still in effect, and Ayatollah Hassan Saneii made martyrdom even more attractive with the inducement of a $3million bounty.
To their credit, Penguin have never given in to the threats, and they still publish it. But even today, booksellers don’t sell The Satanic Verses for fear of retribution, having seen book stores firebombed or ransacked. The book is banned totally in many countries with significant Muslim populations. For a fictional comedic work of turgid prose and a barely detectable plot, you might consider this a slight overreaction, but it touches on a quranic controversy of some critical historical and literary interest; namely, whether the Qur’an was ‘infiltrated’ by the words of Satan, and Mohammad was deceived into thinking they came from Allah.
This is not the time or place for quranic form criticism or an exposition of Prophetology; merely (or not so merely) to make an observation that Salman Rushdie is supported robustly by advocates of free speech and secular-humanists, many of whom decry an awful lot of religion as ‘fanatical’, but less support is coming from Church leaders (the Archbishop of Canterbury only tweeted at 10.00pm last night, and nothing at all has been heard from Pope Francis). It’s as though they have some sympathy with the cause of the fatwa, if not the fatwa itself; that Salman Rushdie is entitled to express his views freely, but in The Satanic Verses he went too far and offended religious sensitivities.
But people should be free to criticise and lampoon religion, not least because so much of it absolute tosh an eminently lampoonable. If authors like Salman Rushdie must be censored for expressing a view on an aspect of ‘Muslimness‘, then anyone who speaks or writes what may be considered ‘offensive’ may be no-platformed or have their work banned, for why should Islam uniquely be protected?
Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa didn’t terminate our foundation of liberty (being the freedoms of conscience and religion, speech and expression), but there is now a discernible tendency to self-censor; to remain silent instead of defending free speech, especially in the public space of media and the institutions of education.
After all, there is still an RE teacher somewhere in Batley (or maybe no longer in Batley) who lives in hiding in fear for his life.
Tolerance seems to have become a one-sided imposition rather than a mutually-expressed value, which is perhaps why both the Archbishop and the Pope remained silent. Salman Rushdie ‘disrespected’ Islam, they might say. And yes, we must all be tolerant of his right to express his views, but since religious zealots are somewhat lacking in tolerance, it is incumbent upon the rest of us to tolerate their intolerance and retreat from freedom of expression.
But why should the Qur’an (or any aspect of Islam) be protected from free inquiry? Why should authors and publishers be intimidated from expressing or propagating such inquiry?
Blasphemy has consequences, and zealots don’t give up even if the blasphemers retract or apologise. And so we self-censor, or our institutions ensure that we comply with ‘hate speech’ legislation, which extends to any criticism of whatever may be held dear if someone decides to feel offended by what you say. Nothing may unsettle the spirit; nothing may disturb the mind.
So when JK Rowling is threatened with death on Twitter for her belief that that there is male and female and trans-women are not women, it is a fatwa decreed and promulgated by the self-appointed zealots of another religion. And when she expresses compassion for and solidarity with Salman Rushdie, the fatwa is reiterated.
Astonishingly, this isn’t considered by Twitter to be a breach of the code of conduct, so JK Rowling simply has to live with.
Or not live with it.
It calls for a special kind of bravery to confront the moral fatwas of postmodern pluralism, or endure the oppression of its prophets, priests and kings. Far easier – as it has always been – to remain silent, or to recant swiftly and hope and pray for the best.
Far easier to ensure ‘trigger warnings’ are given, plays aren’t performed, texts are bowdlerised, comedians are cancelled, books are removed altogether, and thoughtful and intelligent speakers are ‘no-platformed’, rather than defend the right to freedom of expression, which necessarily includes the right to offend. But when the authoritarian instinct is to bully the nonconformist by public shaming and destroying the reputations of those who dare to challenge the new moral orthodoxy, it is unsurprising that few feel strong enough to make a stand.
And so one fatwa leads to another, because all must be ‘protected’ from the new blasphemy. You may agree with Salman Rushdie completely: you might even be a Muslim and praise him for his enlightenment. But God help you if you express it publicly – or in the university, when reasoned critical argument and the tolerance of opposing views on some matters is no longer a cherished virtue of the learning experience.
And if you refuse to self-censor, your criticism of whatever sacred cow is turned back on you, such that your argument is considered ‘hate’, and your reason becomes bigotry. The objective is to smear the target, control the language of debate, even censor discussion on matters of political morality altogether. Once you shame nonconformity and crush dissent, you control the public space.
It is for this reason that the freedoms of speech and expression must defended robustly, because those who are not free in speech or expression are simply not free. Yes, you might offend against someone’s cherished spiritual beliefs, but so what? Are we really prepared to live in a society where the pursuit of free inquiry is bound by perpetual pussy-footing around ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’?
And to those who say a ‘balance’ must be found, there is none to find between freedom of expression and ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’ in relation to religion. All gods, prophets, sacred beliefs and holy books must be subject to criticism, scorn, mockery and defamation. If they are not, we coerce the unbeliever to tolerate the intolerable; to respect that which is unworthy of respect because its precepts are repugnant, its prophets are false, and its god is a myth.
Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are the philosophical progeny of freedom of religion. Where there is freedom of religion, there must be freedom from religion. When our mainstream media and political leaders demand obeisance to ‘tolerance’ in relation to religions – meaning, of course, one religion in particular – we must necessarily subsume the freedoms of speech and expression to the new sharia blasphemy code, which you breach it at your peril.
And you won’t find many books, discussions or guest speakers on this in the university.