Sixteen Years Ago: The Fatwa Against Rushdie

From the Guardian‘s archives, a 1989 article announcing that Salman Rushdie went into hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring the book to be “against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran” and urging all Muslims to execute the author.

The threat to Mr Rushdie’s life is the latest twist in a saga of increasingly violent opposition to his book by Muslims who insist it is blasphemous about the prophet Mohammed. It has been banned in India, where Mr Rushdie was born a Muslim in 1947, and in South Africa. Last month, copies were burned in Bradford, Yorkshire, and last weekend five protesters were shot dead by police during demonstrations in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine any book today getting the kind of attention that The Satanic Verses did. I remember clearly the discussions the book triggered in my family. Some were quite uncomfortable with a book in which prostitutes were named after the Prophet’s wives, but others (like my atheist cousin) saw nothing of interest. No one, though, felt Rushdie should be censored, much less condemned to death. Of course, in times of controversy, one only hears the voices that rise above the din. And, as is often the case, the protests and the threats came mostly from people who hadn’t read the book.

There is a brilliant passage in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, in which young Millat and his friends talk about joining a protest in Bradford.

‘It’s a fucking insult!’ said Millat, spitting some gum against the window. ‘We’ve taken it too long in this country. And now we’re getting it from our own, man. Rhas clut! He’s a fucking bador, white man’s puppet.’

‘My uncle says he can’t even spell,’ said a furious Hifan, the most honestly religious of the, lot. ‘And he dares to talk about Allah!’

‘Allah’ll fuck him up, yeah?’ cried Rajik, the least intelligent, who thought of God as some kind of cross between Monkey-Magic and Bruce Willis. ‘He’ll kick him in the balls. Dirty book.’

‘You read it?’ asked Ranil, as they whizzed past Finsbury Park.

There was a general pause.

Millat said, ‘I haven’t exackly read it exackly-but I know all about that shit, yeah?’

To be more precise, Millat hadn’t read it. Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book, could not identify the book if it lay in a pile of other books; could not pick out the writer in a line-up of other writers (irresistible, this line-up of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb). But he knew other things. He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people’s jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a film-maker; that he should go back to his own country, or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshipped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered. In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands.

That Smith could capture the ignorance and the anger of these goons so brilliantly in just a couple of paragraphs has always impressed me. Sorry for the tangent. Anyway, pick up a book, any book, today and celebrate the freedom to read.