The controversy over The Satanic Verses


In Britain last week, the novelist Salman Rushdie went into hiding, guarded by police. This followed widespread protests by Muslims in Britain and throughout the world against the book The Satanic Verses. Already the book has been banned in six countries, including India and Pakistan. In demonstrations against the U.S. publication of the book, which were held outside the U.S. Cultural Centre in Islamabad, Pakistan, the weekend before last, at least six people were shot dead by police. In India, another person died in similar circumstances. Then it was widely reported in the media that Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, speaking in his religious capacity, had declared Rushdie, a man of Muslim background, sentenced to death. The writer considered his life was in danger. Now he has issued a public apology for the offence caused t Muslim believers in order to remove the alleged death threat. But the book is still not withdrawn.

Many people are asking what is going on. What sort of book is this that can lead to such tragedies, create such discord, so inflame passions.

It is not intended to review the book in this article. Nevertheless, it must be said that it is a thoroughly vile book. There are sequences in the book, clearly referring to the prophet Mohammed, which are calculated to be deeply offensive to believers of Islam. There are no positive characters in the book. It gives a universally sour view of the world. It is a very obscure book, mixing fantasy and real events. But in virtually all of them, gross sexual indulgence is a feature. In addition to the offence against believers of Islam, it attacks the leaders of the Iranian revolution which overthrew the Shah as mass murderers. Rushdie, who claims to be a socialist, denigrates the progressive movement. His book depicts those who protested against the American aggression in Vietnam as a senseless mob, those who protest against fascism as self-indulgent posturers. He makes various insulting statements about immigrant communities in Britain. From literary, social and cultural points of view, the book is a failure.

The book was published in Britain late last year, apparently against the advice of some of the publisher's consultants, who warned of trouble. While many critics said that it was pretentious and self-indulgent, the book was widely promoted and became a best-seller. It was featured in two of Britain's main literary awards, being shortlisted for the Booker Prize and runner-up for the Whitbread Prize. Next, it many be nominated for the Nobel Prize, considering the retrogressive filth it spreads. It is quite telling, indeed, that those who should have rejected the book as trash and not worthy of print are praising it, while it has fallen on the shoulders of Muslims, who are condemned as medievalists, to oppose it. It goes to the credit of Muslims that they have raised their voices against it. Surely all civilized and cultured people should do the same. Muslim religious leaders asked the publishers to withdraw the book, and were surprised when the publishers refused. In January, more than 2,000 demonstrated against the book in Bradford in the north of England. The book was burned in their midst. Certain booksellers in Bradford removed the book from their shelves, concerned for the safety of their staff.

Now the book has become headline news. People in high places condemned the book burning. Some compared it with the book-burning of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, called for tolerance of controversial views. A Times editorial told the Muslims to behave. Rushdie himself spoke of freedom and rights, but reportedly said he was pleased it had led to increased sales. Then came last week's events. Again a great clamour broke out. Government ministers concentrated on Khomeini's statement, while Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, spoke of the author's "civil rights under the law in Britain to publish a book." A delegation of writers led by the playwright Harold Pinter went to 10 Downing Street to protest against threats to freedom of expression.

What is one to make of all this?

Firstly, it is surely not right to insult people's religious beliefs in this way. The world is made of believers and non-believers, and while all democratic people would oppose the use of religion by various ruling circles to mislead and oppress the people, it is accepted that personal religious belief must be respected. This is only civilized behaviour.

And it is even more reprehensible if the insult is such as to inflame passions to the extent of this case. Freedom of expression must certainly be defended. But this cannot mean the right to publish anything. It must be in the context of what is or what is not in the interests of the masses of the people. It surely cannot be extended to the group insult and the incitement of millions, as with this book. And those who raise a clamour about book-burning seem to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. A protest against such insult cannot be equated to a vile program aimed at promoting racism and obliterating progressive ideas.

But there is another issue too. Account has to be taken of the developments in the Islamic world and their bearing on the world situation. It is a fact that this very week the Afghan people have won a famous victory, forcing the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces after ten years of barbarous occupation. These brave people happen to belong to Islam. The Iranian people ten years ago overthrew the fascist Shah and rid themselves of domination. Recently, after resisting long years of resisting attempts to sabotage their revolution and independence, after the incitement and continuing of the bloody Iran-Iraq war by the superpowers, they have won a just peace and the opportunity to rebuild their shattered country. These brave people too happen to belong to Islam, but as with the Afghan people's victories, whatever the religion, these are real victories for national sovereignty and progress. Meanwhile, the United States and the Soviet Union, eager to hang on to or regain their spheres of influence, both raise a hue and cry about "Islamic fundamentalism," depicting these achievements as well as the great movements for freedom in the countries where the people are overwhelming Islamic as having the feature of fanaticism and mediaevalism, obscuring the fact that these are just struggles and deserve the sympathy and support of the freedom and justice-loving people of the world.

This is not the case of an individual writer simply giving personal views. This is a servant of the rich and powerful playing his part on the literary front in the attempt by the great powers and their allies to keep millions in the oppressed countries in bondage and ignorance under the domination of foreign capital. This is a deliberate attempt to incite religious fervour, to exacerbate tensions, to divert, divide and sabotage what is fact a great movement for freedom, independence and progress whatever the religion. To ban such a book would not be suppressing the just freedom of expression. It would be a progressive act.

*This article was originally published by The New Weekly Magazine, March 1, 1989, Volume 3, Number 8. Chris Coleman, member of the National Union of Journalists, was the magazine's correspondent for Britain and Europe