Opinion: 30 years of the “Satanic Verses” affair

Three decades after chaos ensued in Salman Rushdie’s life for daring to satirize Islam, this unfortunate (and on-going) atrocity begs to remain fresh within the minds of all of those who believe in the “untouchable” status of the fundamental principle that is “freedom of expression”.

George Santanaya once contributed to mankind’s profound wisdom about itself with the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. And as our last several years on this beautiful planet have proven, we are truly one forgetful species. If you were not alive to witness the atrocities of World War II with its extremism and spectacular bloodshed (and it’s safe to assume that most of our demographic wasn’t), you might have studied this infamous period in human history in one of those school books which some ever-imaginative conspiracy theorists will now tell you were fabricated with lies and deceit by your government (I’ve met this rather curious mutation of our kind before and a little more of my faith in humanity went down the gutter). Perhaps the greatest embodiment of fascism in the 21st century has been the rising “Alt-Right” and many people are understandably concerned about their growing ability to infiltrate into parties, senates and governments all around the world, along with their “hate thy neighbor equally lest HE’s white and is as much of a mongoloid as thee” mantra.

So many people who are disgusted by this tend to uphold values such as freedom of expression, social equality and liberalism as vital in a fair and balanced society. And many of those people consequently tend to drift closer and closer to the left side of the political spectrum, which these days claims to be the one true protection for the disenfranchised amidst an on-going shitstorm of group-blaming. If you are part of a minority in the western world, they’ve got your back. They will pat you on the back and offer their shoulders for you to cry on (as honestly as you might) whenever you need. And they will protect you against the hordes of racists, bigots, misogynistic pricks and islamophobics.


Ah yes, islamophobia. An irrational fear (that’s what “phobia” means) of Islam, though these days what it really seems to mean is “hatred” and “intolerance” towards Islam. It’s an interesting term, especially considering that I’ve never heard about something like “Catholiphobia”, and nowadays we all feel rather fine about making jokes about pregnant virgins, talking snakes and a jewish man “moonwalking across a lake” (as Bill Burr once put it), or shunning Catholicism for the witch hunts, the horrible treatment towards women and non-heterosexual people, the repeated and never-ending cases of pedophilia, the holy wars, the forced conversions, the crusades against condoms in AIDS-ridden areas, the inquisition, the meddling into the politics of entire empires, and the list goes on and on and on. We have no problem criticizing a religion which has continuously had no regards for human rights whatsoever and deserves all of this criticism. And yet, should you dare to point out terrorist attacks, the 34th verse of the “Surah”, honor killings, the burka, the Jihad, ISIS (yes, it stands for “ISLAMIC State of Iraq and the Levant”), the suicide bombers and their 72 virgins, 9/11 or arranged marriages, then you run the risk of having the label “islamophobic” branded upon yourself. And just a while ago we were all Charlie. Go figure.

Now, I could write you a long article about my deep problems with Islam, and a longer article about my deep problems with religion as a whole. But for the sake of your patience and my sanity, I won’t. Instead, I’d like to write about something that’s a bit closer to home, as I write more than articles and reviews, and the world of literature as always been a huge part of who I am. This year’s Valentine’s Day will mark the 30th anniversary of a fatwa issued against novelist Salman Rushdie for his controversial novel “The Satanic Verses”, and though this is not an anniversary worthy of celebrating with cake and candles, it is one that must be remembered as a disarming display of the dangers of fundamentalism.

After the success of Salman Rushdie’s first three novels (in particular “Midnight’s Children” and “Shame”), the author released upon the world the sardonic and satirizing “The Satanic Verses”, a novel which, though dealing mostly with the issues of immigration and identity, was partially inspired by the story of Muhammad. Throughout it, characters take on characteristics of religious figures of old (the devil included) and dream sequences pull no punches when it comes to joking about religion, but it was a disputed set of verses Muhammad was reportedly almost tricked into writing as true by the devil that seemed to be the most aggravating. In “The Satanic Verses”, the author writes that those verses came, in fact, from the mouth of the archangel Gabriel.

Although the Viking Press (Rushdie’s then publisher) was warned that the book could be controversial, that would not be a reason not to publish a work from such an esteemed writer. In fact, once out, the novel was critically acclaimed and won awards, but at the same time the outrage from the Islamic world did not take long to reach the surface and erupt as furiously as the Vesuvius. After some countries such as India and Sudan banned the book, demonstrations began taking place with the added bonus of book burnings, demonstrations which reached 10,000 participants (six of which were killed during an attack on the American Cultural Center in Islamabad).

And that’s when the shit hit the fan. On February the 14th, 1989, a few months after the book’s original publication, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s then spiritual leader, issued a Fatwa calling upon the death of Salman Rushdie and offering a bounty to those who brought about his demise. This was transmitted through radio waves and quickly picked up by the British, who immediately placed Rushdie under police protection. And for having satirized Islam, a self-identified “religion of peace”, Salman Rushdie had now good reason to fear for his life and for the lives of those who were close to him. And if you think these were but empty threats, I hate to inform you that that was, unfortunately, not the case: several of the novel’s translators were severely injured, and his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, did not survive an attack. And not even Rushdie’s public apology took root in the Ayatollah’s heart: massacres, riots and terrorist attacks soon followed (over the following years), with many civilians dying in the process, and hundreds being injured. According to Rushdie’s then wife, Marianne Higgins, him and his family had to move a total of 56 times to maintain their security, living in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Who would be able to sleep peacefully under such circumstances?

But this was all in the late 80s and early 90s, right? Why continue to whine about it? Well, as a matter of fact, since the Ayatollah Khomeini has since passed away and a fatwa can only be taken back by the person who issued it, the fatwa still stands. At the moment, the bounty for Rushdie’s death is somewhere between $3.4 million and $3.6 million, with $600,000 being raised as recently as 2016. So not only are religious fundamentalists perfectly willing to pay large sums of money for a man’s death, but this man will never have the relief of no longer being under a death theat. All for satirizing a “prophet” in a work of fiction.

Rushdie was, in the beginning of this horrid affair, accused of misusing freedom of speech. But what seems to me is that some people have a hard time grasping the concept in the first place: freedom of speech is the right to say whatever you wish and express yourself without having to fear for your well-being. And yes, that means that if you believe that entails your freedom to say that those who disagree with you should die and you firmly believe in it, then you are an asshole. Why? Let me put that in layman’s terms: if I tell you something you don’t like and yet I do not oppose to you doing the same to me, but what you have to tell me is that I do not have the right to run the risk of offending you by speaking my mind, then you and I are fundamentally different. I am using my freedom of speech to express myself, while you are using yours only to attempt to forcibly shut me up, thus disgracing the principle at once.

And the sad thing is that, 30 years later, fundamentalism continues going strong. In fact, in the west, it might be the strongest it has ever been in decades. It matters not which side of the barricade it comes from: if you speak your mind and someone attempts to stifle such a basic and fundamental human right, then you’ve spotted the real enemy. Not because you happen to have diverging opinions, but because theirs is that you should never have the right to voice your own. Those are people who are incapable of remembering the past, and are thus condemned to repeat it. But as long as the worst that happens in an argument is that you and the other party respectfully “agree to disagree”, then you may not count yourself amongst the damned.

Words: Bruno Costa // Photo credit: Randall Slavin
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