Twenty-five years ago, the joyless cleric at the helm of the Iranian theocracy declared that Muslims should kill Salman Rushdie and everyone who was complicit in the publication of his book The Satanic Verses. One of our eminent novelists was forced to go underground, and while he endured years of frightened isolation others were even less fortunate. The offices of his publishing houses were firebombed. His Japanese translator was stabbed to death. His Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously wounded. Thirty-seven Turks were killed in an attempt to slay a maverick writer who had begun a translation.
Years passed and violence broke out time and time again. Theo Van Gogh was murdered and Ayaan Hirsi Ali went into hiding. Robert Redeker faced death threats. Lars Vilks was the target of at least three murder plots. Kurt Westergaard faced the threat of an axe-wielding assailant. Gibson Square was firebombed for publishing Sherry Jones. Molly Norris went into hiding over an Internet prank. Charlie Hebdo offices were torched over its mischievous cartoons. Lars Hedegaard was shot. This is without mentioning the thousands who have been killed or detained in Islamic nations.
I observed this week that some free speech campaigns are over instances of expression that are so uninspiring as to leave me with no stomach for the fight. It did not escape my notice, though, that when The Independent reported on the prohibition of materials boasting the image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster at an English university their article was accompanied by a picture of the thing. When it addressed the campaign against Jesus & Mo, though, it did not feature an image of the cartoon prophet. Its author admitted that this was an editorial decision.
These posters and drawing hardly seem to be the stuff of Voltairian pamphlets. They do not renew the liberal flames in me. What should inspire one, though, is the response to them. It is alarming that our national media feels that it cannot publish a drawing of a cartoon man for fear of violent reprisals. If people are scared to show innocuous cartoons, how might they react to a novel that may provoke controversy, or to academic research that might inspire outrage? (If Penguin India’s withdrawal of an irreverent study of Hinduism is anything to go by it may be with submission, though the media has had no qualms about showing its contentious cover image.) If, indeed, Rory Bremner is scared to joke, or Grayson Perry to make art, how many commentators, novelists and scholars have allowed their thoughts to be repressed?
This actual fear works alongside a cultural hypersensitivity that dissuades people from investigating the beliefs of others. In the 80s, and afterwards, people from John Le Carre to Jimmy Carter fretted about Rushdie’s irreverence. Such knee-jerk responses have now solidified into an ideological opposition to critical analysis. One need not even raise a threat to cause many to hold their tongues. Their biases will do the work.
I am not at all sure, then, that a novel like Rushdie’s would be published today. Yet the issues that it raised are more relevant now than they were twenty-five years ago. Then Islam was of no clear relevance to the West. Samuel Huntington was still writing about Brazil. Now, sectarian warfare has spread across the Middle East. Saudi-style Wahhabism is promoted across the globe. Organised theocrats preach within our borders to audiences of thousands. (It is almost enough to make one pine for the 80s.) Rarely has there been such a need for clear-eyed investigation and rarely have we been worse placed for its execution.
Be careful with your speech, then. Damn careful. But for fear of doing an injustice to the truth – not of provoking hair-trigger sensitivities.