It was twenty years ago today. Kenan Malik explains “How the West was lost for free speech” in The Australian, September 26 (thanks to JE):
TWENTY years ago today, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Four years in the making and supported by a then almost unheard of advance of $850,000 from his publisher, Penguin, Rushdie had hoped the work would cement his reputation as the most important British novelist of his generation. The book certainly set the world alight, though not quite in the way it was meant to.
Thanks to the fatwa, the Rushdie affair became the most important free speech controversy of modern times. It also became a watershed in our attitudes to freedom of expression. Rushdie’s critics lost the battle; The Satanic Verses continues to be published. But they won the war. The argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case – that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures – is now widely accepted.
In 1989, even a fatwa could not stop the continued publication of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were killed, bookshops were bombed and Penguin staff had to wear bomb-proof vests. Yet Penguin never wavered in its commitment to Rushdie’s novel.
Today, all it takes for a publisher to run for cover is a letter from an outraged academic. US publisher Random House recently torpedoed the publication of a novel that it had bought for $US100,000 ($119,000) for fear of setting off another Rushdie affair. Written by journalist Sherry Jones, The Jewel of Medina is a racy historical novel about Aisha, Mohammed’s youngest wife. Random House had sent galley proofs to writers and scholars, hoping for endorsements. One of those on the list, Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at University of Texas, condemned the book as offensive. Random House immediately pulled the book.
In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa, in effect, has become internalised. Not only do publishers drop books deemed offensive but theatres savage plays, opera houses cut productions, art galleries censor shows, all in the name of cultural sensitivity.
“You would think twice if you were honest,” said Ramin Gray, associate director at London’s Royal Court Theatre when asked if he would put on a play critical of Islam.
“You’d have to take the play on its individual merits, but given the time we’re in, it’s very hard because you’d worry that if you cause offence then the whole enterprise would become buried in a sea of controversy. It does make you tread carefully.”…
Dark times. Read it all.