It’s 25 years since the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued history’s worst Valentine’s Day message to author Salman Rushdie, during that momentous spring when communism began to topple in Poland and Hungary, the world wide web was invented, and the Iranian leader issued in a new age of religious tension.
The background is full of paradoxes and ironies, such as the fact that the book had been on sale in Tehran for months before and no one seemed to care, and the whole thing was rather cooked up as part of Iran’s struggle with the Saudis; for anyone interested in the background I can’t recommend Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad highly enough.
But what really matters is the answer to the question: have things got better or worse? Are we more cowed now than we were then? I would say, overall, that they’ve got worse, but then I would say that.
It’s striking when you read about people involved in the novel how naïve their attitudes seem in retrospect; today such a book proposal, even from someone as great as Rushdie, would be destroyed in the first trimester. No one would touch it.
Unfortunately that’s because British society rather set the tone in 1989, including a great deal of conservatives who did not back Rushdie to the hilt, a grave error of principle and self-interest (easy to say now, I’m sure I would have done the same).
Liberals were more split, between supporters of freedom and supporters of equality, and still are to some extent; the cultural relativism line has worn thin, but as with the recent question of the segregation of the sexes you still find people using tortured logic to defend such practices and calling it a Right-wing plot to discredit Islam.
That’s because, like Rushdie’s tormentors, the religious reactionaries of 2014 have been given protection by the politics of race; another, less discussed factor, is the culture of censorship established by the campus thought police of the 1970s and 1980s.
Later, much damage was done by the overuse of the rather dubious term ‘Islamophobia’. This came to the fore during the 2005 Danish cartoon crisis, when newspaper columnists threw around the I-word even as their own papers were scared – literally Islamophobic – of printing some stupid cartoons.
Nineteen-eighty-nine seems like an alien place to us, now; can you imagine explaining to someone from that year that 25 years later people from Sussex would be traveling to Syria to blow themselves up in the name of Islam? Go further back and explain that to someone another 25 years away, in 1964, when Beatlemania was at its height and Larkin, Lady Chatterley and the pill had all happened. Part of this is just sheer demographic change; when the pill was introduced Britain’s Muslim population was 50,000 – one in a thousand – and when Rushdie’s book was released it was under 2 per cent. It’s now 5 per cent and among my children’s generation double that. Does that suggest to anyone that a new Satanic Verses will be permitted this century?
There are optimistic signs among those who value liberty; although only a tiny proportion of British-Pakistanis identify as atheists, there is a small but growing population of liberal and ex-Muslims prepared to make the criticism and ridicule that all religions must be met with if they are not to oppress those around them (the same pressures that affected Christianity, and rightly so). The recent attempts by self-appointed ‘community leaders’ to whip up outrage over the Jesus and Mo cartoons were met with an impressive unity by London society.
As long as that continues a better future awaits everyone, not the least western Muslims, none of whom are helped by secular people ‘respecting’ their religion by being too scared to criticise it.
After the cartoon saga lots of weasel-worded western politicians chided the poor Danes for not ‘respecting’ Islam, as if people firebombing churches over a cartoon they’d never seen were worthy of respect rather than contempt; but respect in one sense simply means fear, and that’s exactly what people have felt these last 25 years.
As Nick Cohen has pointed out before, it is because we are scared to admit that we are afraid that religious reactionaries are still able to use the cloak of victimhood to use western liberal arguments to attack liberalism. Once we all admit this depressing truth, we’re halfway there. So let’s all just say it – I’m afraid!