It is 30 years since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, and 40 since the triumph of the Iranian Revolution. The two are related, since the Ayatollah Khomeini, driven to rage by illness and military failure, wanted to mark the tenth anniversary of his glory days by doing something nasty. I have reminded myself of how The Spectator covered the Rushdie story at the time. We captured two contradictory feelings. One was straightforward disgust that a foreign power could order the death of one of our citizens on our soil and try to get his book banned. The other was the dark farce of the situation — Rushdie, the salon leftie, used to attacking whitey with impunity, suddenly seeking whitey’s help.
Auberon Waugh quoted in these pages Rushdie’s denunciation of ‘the Augean filth of imperialism… breeding lice and vermin… For the citizens of the new, imported Empire, for the colonised Asians and blacks of Britain, the police force represents the colonising army.’ After the fatwa, Mrs Thatcher ensured that Rushdie had full-time, taxpayer-funded police protection. Waugh commented, ‘Perhaps the real debate is not so much whether Rushdie should be executed for having insulted the prophet Mahomed, but just how much we should exert ourselves, as deeply stained white imperialists, to protect him from his own people.’
What we did not see was how the concept of blasphemy would be manipulated by extreme Muslims into the concept of offence against believers, and thus into claims of racism and the invention of the word ‘Islamophobia’. Since then, the attack on free speech has been unrelenting. Sayeeda Warsi’s all-party parliamentary group’s current attempt to get Islamophobia defined in legal terms is only the latest in the line of descent from that ghastly old tyrant’s fatwa.
This article is an extract from Charles Moore’s Spectator notes, available in this week’s magazine.