We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.—John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)
Dedicated to the memory of Samuel Paty, who was murdered by an Islamic extremist in October 2020 for his commitment to secularism and free speech.
As I write these words, a mob of religious fascists has intimidated a school in West Yorkshire into suspending a teacher for displaying “offensive” images of the alleged Prophet Muhammad. One of the protestors—if we must use that euphemistic term—philosophised that there is “a line you can’t cross.” Given that another teacher, Samuel Paty, was slaughtered on the streets of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine last year for the same “crime,” this is a worrying sentiment, to put it mildly. Another protestor, without a hint of self-consciousness, said, “We would not like any form of extremism, any extremist viewpoints, to be taught to children.” The most absurd element of this farce is the school’s grovelling response and capitulation to the blasphemy taboo. The stink of this will remain whatever happens with the case. But what can you expect, when we failed to heed the warning of 14 February 1989?
Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Many people are standing up—and have stood up—for free speech. There were heroes (along with villains, cowards and prevaricators) in the case of Salman Rushdie’s “unfunny Valentine” from Ayatollah Khomeini, which sentenced him to death and forced him into hiding for a decade for writing a (beautiful) novel. For example, there was a Christopher Hitchens, not just an Ayatollah and an array of Berger-style equivocators. Hitchens was one of the great champions of free speech in our time, and it is instructive to remember his solidarity with Rushdie during the fatwa years, as well as that of Rushdie’s many other brave defenders, including some who paid very dearly for it. There are lessons here that can still guide us three decades on.
To briefly reprise the story: in 1988, Salman Rushdie, the bard of cosmopolitanism and poet of cultural hybridity, published a novel called The Satanic Verses, which, among other things, explores the nature of religion, faith and revelation through a fictional lens and from a secular point of view. The religion that inspired Rushdie’s novel was the one he was born into, Islam, though the book does not mention that faith, but creates a fictional analogue to it. Long before Khomeini got wind of the novel, India became the first nation to ban its importation; death threats were issued and received; the Union of Muslim Organisations of the UK called for it to be banned; South Africa, Pakistan and a slew of other countries prohibited it; and seven thousand Muslims in a festive mood attended a book burning in Bolton, England. In February 1989, after fatal riots in Pakistan and Kashmir, the Ayatollah issued a fatwa calling on the world’s Muslims to murder everyone involved with the novel’s publication (in case paradise was not an enticing enough reward, millions of dollars were also offered). Rushdie was forced into hiding until 1998, when a deal was struck between Britain and Iran, though the fatwa is still in force and, indeed, in 2016 Iranian state-run organisations raised $600,000 to add to the bounty.
In one very important sense, Rushdie won this battle: he continues to write and is a free man once more. But the lesson has not been learned: instead of standing up to the forces of persecution and hatred, we all too often choose the path of appeasement and self-censorship. The frothing fatwa hurlers of all times and places still “[ask] the slightly lazy but nonetheless conscious heirs of the Enlightenment to adopt, not the practice (which never dies out, as we know to our cost), but the principle of censorship,” as Hitchens put it in 1989. And, sad to relate, some of those heirs to Voltaire and his ilk have been all too happy to bend the knee.
The poltroons and equivocators of the fatwa years form a list too long to recapitulate in full, but they include George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher and various other British and American conservatives who resented Rushdie’s radicalism and anti-racism and seemed hardly able to contain their glee, as if they thought the chickens had come home to roost. On the left, such luminaries as John Berger, John le Carré and Germaine Greer tutted at the offence that had been caused, thus blaming the victim. Leaders of fellow monotheisms complained about insults to religion. As Hitchens puts it: “The spring of 1989 ought to be remembered for its harvest of sorry evasions.” Rushdie himself, perhaps forgivably, tried to apologise, declaring (falsely) that he adhered to the Islamic faith, but to no avail—which only reinforces the lesson that negotiation with such people is impossible, as well as undesirable.
But the main lesson of the fatwa years is the need for solidarity. So it is fitting that, on the evening on which Edward Said received a prepublication draft of The Satanic Verses in the mail from Rushdie, he happened to be having dinner with Christopher Hitchens, Rushdie’s friend and ally. (In a note enclosed in the package, Rushdie asked Said for advice, because he thought the novel might cause some offence.) In his memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens recalls how he felt later, when he heard about the fatwa:
I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship—though I like to think my reaction would have been the same if I hadn’t known Salman at all … No more root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment (on the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille) or to the First Amendment to the Constitution, could be imagined.
And Hitch not only felt complete commitment to Rushdie’s defence—he also showed it. As did many others, including Susan Sontag, who was “absolutely superb” according to Hitchens, corralling uncertain writers into attending events in support of Rushdie (Norman Mailer, says Hitchens, was actually talked out of raising money for a reprisal hit on the Ayatollah). Hitchens himself suggested that writers and intellectuals sign a public declaration saying that they, too, were “involved in the publication” of The Satanic Verses. The declaration was published in the 3 March 1989 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, with over 700 signatures. This principled strategy of showing identification and solidarity with a persecuted figure was echoed—albeit in an attenuated and somewhat ineffective form—by the Je Suis Charlie declarations in response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings. It remains the best strategy for those of us who value free speech today.
But as the years went by and Rushdie remained in hiding, making only occasional public appearances, a kind of stasis became apparent. Was this to be Rushdie’s life now? Would he be forgotten, having been victimised and humiliated by the Ayatollah and a whole diverse host of representatives of bigotry and reaction? That might well have happened, had he not decided otherwise. In 1991, after the release of Iran’s American hostages in Lebanon, Rushdie realised that “it would be absurd to fight a war for freedom of speech by remaining silent.” And so he and his allies embarked on a loud campaign for attention and solidarity from world leaders. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes not, but they continued to push.
In March 1992, Rushdie travelled to Washington, D.C., but his planned meeting with top Congressional legislators was cancelled, reportedly because of pressure from the Bush administration (“just an author on a book tour,” explained the White House Press Secretary, unconvincingly). Later, having met Václav Havel and Mary Robinson, Rushdie hoped Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, might be his next supporter. Hitchens took a lead role in trying to get Rushdie together with Clinton. After meeting with a series of evasions, Hitchens finally succeeded, with the help of George Stephanopoulos and others, and Rushdie received a presidential handshake (which Clinton soon afterwards declared to be informal and not for the record, alas).
While in Washington, Rushdie stayed at Hitchens’ apartment, “which had been turned into an armed command post by the security services,” as he recalls in Hitch-22, which also contains a lovely word portrait of a Thanksgiving spent with Rushdie, during which the pair discussed literature and culture: “this was the Salman I wished the world could see, and hear.” After the visit, Hitchens was informed by a security official that there was trustworthy intelligence that the Iranians wanted to kill Hitchens and his family in retaliation for his part in hosting the visit.
In the end, of course, Rushdie survived, as did Hitchens, but others were not so lucky. The novel’s Japanese translator, Professor Hitoshi Igarashi, was butchered on his university campus, while the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo survived an attempt on his life. Perhaps the most physically courageous of the Rushdie defenders was William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, who was shot and left for dead in Oslo but survived and stood firm. Rushdie received a phone call from Nygaard as he lay in hospital: “I just want you to know that I am very proud to be the publisher of The Satanic Verses” were the brave man’s words. Nygaard’s publishing house kept the novel in print and he recovered from his wounds, going on to write a 1996 book about free speech. In his foreword to that book, Rushdie writes: “Will the so-called free world ever be angry enough to act decisively in this matter [of the fatwa]? … Our leaders should recognize that their lack of sufficient anger indicates their own lack of interest in freedom. By becoming complaisant with terror, they become, in a very real sense, unfree.” In other words, either we are all free or none of us are.
There are many lessons that we should have learned from the Rushdie affair, including the following. There will always be people who wish to impose their views on others and curtail speech they do not like, just as there will always be people willing to appease such fascists, even on the most important issues, for a variety of reasons—from cowardly fear of offence to sympathy with the thugs. Accommodation with the forces of hatred is as unattainable as it is undesirable. Self-censorship is suicide. Fundamentalism and hurt feelings are not justifications for suppression of speech. Solidarity is a powerful weapon. Principles should be stood by, not abandoned at the merest tremor of trouble. And steadfastness is vital if we wish to resist the censorious onslaught and affirm the ideals of freedom, literature, secularism, science, love and friendship. Defending someone under attack on principle—even someone we do not know personally—is an act of love.
Alas, these essential lessons were not learned in 1989. Theo van Gogh was murdered. Madness and mayhem were the response of many to blasphemous Danish cartoons. French cartoonists and teachers, Bangladeshi bloggers, the women of Iran and Afghanistan and so many more have faced beatings, slaughters and beheadings simply for freethinking, for seeking freedom and for fighting against the intellectually and spiritually arid autocrats who would rule them—and us. And, to their eternal shame, many western feminists, leftists, liberals and supposed radicals have looked away from the oppressors, if not enthusiastically supported them.
Nevertheless, there is hope to be found in the growing resistance to Islamic fascism that is underway across the world (documented in Ibn Warraq’s excellent book Leaving the Allah Delusion Behind). Islam, of course, is hardly the only instrument of censorship and suppression of free thought. The identitarian left and cancel culture enthusiasts (on both right and left), Christian and Hindu fascists, the totalitarian genocidaires of Xi Jinping’s China, and many others represent the same enemy in different forms, though they too are being defied (last year’s Harper’s letter against censorship, happily, includes Salman Rushdie’s signature). The enemy, as George Orwell rightly puts it, is “the gramophone mind”: the mind that mechanically repeats ideological orthodoxies.
Though we should have woken up long ago—on 14 February 1989 at the latest—and stood up for the principles of liberty, we at least have the examples of heroic men and women, past and present, to inspire us, including Socrates, Lucretius, Ibn al-Rawandi, Rhazes, Ibn Rushd/Averroes, John Milton, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Darwin, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, George Orwell, Martin Luther King, Jr., Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, Christopher Hitchens, William Nygaard, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Masih Alinejad and Maryam Namazie. Then there are those who banded together to produce a volume entitled For Rushdie, a collection by persecuted freethinkers who identified with the novelist and wanted to defend him, and whom Rushdie never fails to mention in his defences of freedom.
I am proud to be a foot soldier in one battalion of this war, as a staff writer for this magazine, founded by Malhar Mali in 2016, named for John Milton’s impassioned defence of a free press, Areopagitica, and stewarded by the indomitable Helen Pluckrose from 2018 until 4 May 2021, when command passed to Iona Italia.
“Without the freedom to offend, [freedom of expression] ceases to exist,” Rushdie wrote in 1990. Literature, as he has frequently argued, is a place of freedom, where all things can be thought, probed, dissected, parodied, valorised. Or, as the character Baal in The Satanic Verses phrases it: “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” Or, as Martin Amis writes: “In literature there is no room for territoriality … Go where your pen takes you. Fiction is freedom, and freedom is indivisible.”
Literature—indeed all art—is a deep legacy of our evolution. Our big brains are unique in the extent of their ability to simulate intricate internal models of the world, allowing us to range freely over past, present and future; to conjure the most complex configurations of ideas; to create nonexistent worlds; to peer into the minds of others; to think expansively, abstractly, concretely and deeply. From so simple a beginning—the need of our genes to replicate in the ancient African savannah—we have become uniquely free to reason and to imagine.
The censors, whatever form they take, are therefore enemies of one of the things that make us human in the first place: censorship is as unhuman as it is inhumane. We must stand firm in defence of what Milton incisively calls “the known rules of ancient liberty.” As Rushdie writes: “Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.” We must reject both the practice of fatwa and the psychology that underlies it. Wherever there is a Salman Rushdie, we are called upon to channel the spirit of Christopher Hitchens.