When he was a child Salman Rushdie’s father read to him ‘the great wonder tales of the East’ – the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, the animal fables of the ancient Indian Panchatantra, ‘the ‘tales of the mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama’, that tell of the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, uncle to the Prophet Mohammed, and the ancient Persian classic, The Adventures of Hatim Tai. Rushdie’s father ‘told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way’.
To grow up ‘steeped in these tellings’, Rushdie writes in his memoir Joseph Anton, ‘was to learn two unforgettable lessons’. First, that ‘stories were not true… but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him’. And, second, that all stories ‘belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else’. Most of all, the young Rushdie learnt that ‘Man was a storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away’.
Except that by the time Rushdie was old enough to read these stories to his own son that was exactly what many people wanted to do. And to take away not just his birthright but his life too.
It is exactly 25 years ago today, on Valentine’s Day 1989, that the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Rushdie, for the ‘blasphemies’ of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie had in effect been sentenced to death for writing a story. Many were to be killed for translating and publishing that story. Bookshops were bombed for stocking it. It is a measure of the strangeness of the world in which we now live that storytelling can be such a hazardous craft. It is a world far stranger than any imagined in Rushdie’s tales.
Thanks to the Ayatollah’s 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. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were assaulted and even murdered. In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese professor of literature and translator of The Satanic Verses, was knifed to death on the campus of Tsukuba University. That same month another translator of Rushdie’s novel, the Italian Ettore Capriolo, was beaten up and stabbed in his Milan apartment. In October 1993 William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, was shot three times and left for dead outside his home in Oslo. None of the assailants were ever caught. Bookshops in America and elsewhere were firebombed for stocking the novel.
Peter Mayer was the CEO of Penguin at the time. He was subject to a vicious campaign of hatred and intimidation. ‘I had letters delivered to me written in blood’, he remembered. ‘I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.’ Yet neither Mayer nor Penguin countenanced backing down. What was at stake, Mayer recognized, was ‘much more than simply the fate of this one book. How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.’
It is an attitude that seems to belong to a different age. Contrast Mayer’s courage in 1989 with Penguin’s decision this week to withdraw all copies of Wendy Doniger’s controversial book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Doniger is Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, and one of the foremost authorities on Hinduism. Her book, first published in 2009, has won many accolades; it has also angered many hardline Hindu groups. In 2011 a New Delhi-based group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan brought a court case against the book claiming that it consisted of a ‘shocking and appalling series of anecdotes which denigrate, distort and misrepresent Hinduism and the history of India and Hindus’.
The Satanic Verses itself was banned in India even before it was published. But in 1989, Penguin continued to fight for the right to free expression. Today, in the case of Doniger’s book, there is no state ban, only private litigation. And the publisher has surrendered in the face of groups shouting ‘offence’.
Mayer and the old Penguin belonged to a world in which the defence of free speech was seen as an irrevocable duty. ‘We all came to agree’, Mayer told me, ‘that all we could do, as individuals or as a company, was to uphold the principles that underlay our profession. We were publishers. I thought that meant something. We all did.’ He took his cue from Baal, the irreverent, satirical poet Baal in The Satanic Verses. ‘A poet’s work’, Baal observes, ‘To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.’
Today’s Penguin, like many publishers, like many liberals, takes Baal’s observation to be not self-evident but shockingly offensive. To such an extent has the Rushdie affair transformed the landscape of free speech that what many fear today is precisely starting of arguments. What they most want is for the world to go to sleep.
Perhaps nothing expresses this shift in attitude than the latest 'cartoon controversy' that has gripped Britain. Eight years on from the furore over the Danish Muhammad caricatures, there is something quite surreal about the latest storm. The cartoons in question are ‘Jesus and Mo’, a web-based cartoon strip which features Jesus and Muhammad sharing a house, and discussing matters of religion, philosophy and politics. They had caused little fuss. Until, that is, a prominent British Muslim declared that he was not offended by them.
Maajid Nawaz is a one-time Islamist turned anti-extremist campaigner. He is a founder of the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank dedicated to combating extremism. He is also a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats, the junior party in the current Coalition government.
Nawaz took part in a BBC debate about religious offence, insisting that he found nothing offensive about the cartoons. Astounded by the fact that BBC had refused to show the cartoons on air, Nawaz later tweeted an image of one to once again make the point that there was nothing offensive about it. At which point all hell broke lose.
Prominent Muslim ‘community leaders’ organized a vicious campaign – including a call out to Islamic countries – hounding Nawaz for causing ‘immense offence and disrespect to the religious beliefs and sentiments’ of Musims and calling for his deselection as a parliamentary candidate. Nawaz has received a torrent of abuse on social media and a sackful of death threats.
There is something truly bizarre that someone should become the focus of death threats and an international campaign of vilification for suggesting that an inoffensive cartoon was, well, inoffensive. Yet it is also in keeping with the zeitgeist of our age. The idea of being offended has been so woven into the social fabric, has become so much part of personal identity, that many find it shocking when someone does not take offence.
What has been particularly striking have been the actions of the media and of self-proclaimed liberals. The media has reported widely on the controversy. Broadcasters have organized debates between debates on the issue. But all have followed the BBC stance of refusing to show the cartoons. Some have even shown the cartoons but specifically blanked out Muhammad’s face (and only Muhammad’s face).
In the context of a debate about whether Nawaz had been right to tweet the cartoon in the first place, or whether his critics were right to hound him for ‘offending’ Muslims, the broadcasters were effectively taking sides – with the reactionaries against the liberals.
Twenty five years ago not even death threats, bombings and murders could not stop the publication of The Satanic Verses. Today, all it takes is for one person to shout 'offence' for liberals to haul out the metaphorical burqa to protect our sensitivities. Penguin’s pulping of Doniger’s book and British broadcaster’s refusal to show a Jesus and Mo cartoon reveals how deeply the fatwa has become internalized.
Against this background, today’s liberals need reminding of some basic points basic points about the meaning of liberalism and free speech. First, that there is a right to free speech, but no right not to be offended. People have the right to say what they wish, short of inciting violence, however offensive others may find it. Others have the right not to listen or watch. Nobody has the right to be listened to. And nobody has the right not to be offended.
Second, it is minority communities who most suffer from censorship. Many people argue that while free speech may be a good, it must necessarily be less free in a plural society. For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which helps give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic groups and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them.
As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’
In fact, it is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In such a society, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’.
But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, it is also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.
The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice. That is why it is so important to stand with Baal, to ‘To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.’