From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy

    A demonstration in Tehran, 1989. (Photo: Kaveh Kazemi / Corbis)

    Excerpt from Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, by Kenan Malik (Atlantic Books, 2009). Reprinted with permission from the author.

    From Chapter 6. Monsters and myths

    What he was rejecting was the portrait of himself and Gibreel as monstrous. Monstrous indeed: the most absurd of ideas.
    — Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, p. 537


    It was probably just an eerie coincidence. On the night of 26 September 2008, the London offices of the publishers Gibson Square were firebombed. It was twenty years to the day since the publication of The Satanic Verses.

    The police arrested four men almost immediately. Whether the alleged perpetrators of the attack knew the significance of the date, I do not know. What seems certain is that Gibson Square was attacked because it was about to publish The Jewel of Medina, a romantic tale about Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife. Written by an American journalist, Sherry Jones, it had originally been bought by Random House for a $100,000 advance. But in July 2008 the publishers pulled out of the deal for fear of sparking another Rushdie affair. It was not an Islamist, but an American academic, who raised the alarm.

    Five months earlier, Random House had sent galley proofs to writers and scholars, hoping to cover endorsements. One of those on the list was Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas. Jones had used Spellberg’s book Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past, a study of Aisha’s legacy, as a source for her novel. Spellberg, however, was not impressed, condemning The Jewel of Medina as ‘offensive’ and as an ‘ugly piece of work’ which amounted to ‘softcore porn’. She phoned an editor at Random House, Jane Garrett, to tell her that Jones’s novel was ‘a declaration of war’ and ‘a national security issue’. Garrett immediately dispatched an email to Random House executives. ‘She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence,’ Garrett wrote. ‘Denise says … it will be far more controversial that The Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons.’ According to Garrett, Spellberg thought that ‘the book should be withdrawn ASAP’. It was. Random House immediately pulled the novel.

    On the day that the firebombers attacked Gibson Square, Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog, ruminating on the twenty years since the publication of The Satanic Verses. After acknowledging that he had been ‘utterly wrong’ in calling for Rushdie’s novel ‘to be banned or pulped’, he suggested that he was not alone in having changed his mind. ‘Many Muslims who had once supported the banning/pulping of the book’, he claimed, ‘have since revised their views and recognized that such actions were quite wrong and completely counterproductive.’ He trusted that ‘appropriate lessons’ had been ‘learned from the Satanic Verses affair’ and that British Muslims would not ‘take the bait’ proffered by The Jewel of Medina.

    ‘Oh boy, what great timing,’ Bunglawala ruefully observed about his remarks three days later, following the firebombing. Nevertheless, he maintained, in direct response to my comment that the actions of the firebombers had been given a ‘spurious legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it morally unacceptable to give offence’, that ‘If anyone has given ground in this debate, it is surely those who once believed in banning books because the regarded them as being “offensive”.’

    Bunglawala himself has certainly given ground. But his personal change of heart should not blind us to the fact that much of the rest of the world has been marching in the opposite direction. In the twenty years since the Rushdie affair, as we saw in the last chapter, the fatwa has become internalized. And nothing could have revealed this better than the differing responses to The Satanic Verses and The Jewel of Medina.

    The books are studies of contrast. One is a complex postmodern account of migration, religion and identity, the other a racy, almost Mills and Boon-ish, historical romance. ‘The pain of consummation soon melted away,’ Aisha recalls of her wedding night. ‘Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.’

    The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has written, ‘is in part a secular man’s reckoning with the religious spirit’. It is ‘a work of radical dissent and questioning and reimagining’, a novel that ‘celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs’. For Sherry Jones, on the other hand, The Jewel of Medina was a means of ‘honouring Aisha and all the wives of Muhammad by giving voice to them. They are remarkable women but their roles in the shaping of Islam have so often been ignored by historians. It’s a book about being a woman and about women’s empowerment. And it’s a way of bringing the story of Islam to more people by telling it through the eyes of a young woman.’

    The respective publishers’ responses to the two books were as distinct as the novels themselves. 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. Yet, apart from its wobble over the paperback edition, Penguin never wavered in its commitment to Rushdie’s novel. Nor did many of the other threatened publishers. ‘Journalists were constantly asking me, ‘Will you stop publishing The Satanic Verses?”’ recalls William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher shot three times and left for dead outside his Oslo home in 1993. ‘I said, “Absolutely not.” It was morally important for me as a publisher not to give in. I had to prove that freedom of expression is a basic freedom that could not be stopped by terrorism. Freedom of expression is basic to being a free human being. Without freedom of expression, there can be no dissent, no debate, no democracy.’

    Random House was threatened with little more than emails and phone calls from an outraged academic before deciding, in its own words, ‘to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in the distribution and sale of the novel’. According to a statement from the publishers, the company had received ‘from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment’.

    In fact, what happened was this. Spellberg told Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer on one of her courses and editor-in-chief of the popular website, about The Jewel of Medina, claiming that it ‘made fun of Muslims and their history’. Amanullah in turn sent an email to an online forum for graduate students in Islamic studies to say that he had ‘just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advanced copy of the forthcoming novel Jewel of Medina – she said she found it incredible offensive’, and asking if anyone knew any more about the book. Amanullah’s email was reposted on Husaini Youths, a website for young Shias. Almost immediately a respondent called Ali Hemami suggested a ‘seven-point strategy’ for getting an ‘apology from … the author of the BOOK for writing such stuff.’ The strategy involved nothing more sinister than getting ‘one volunteer to draft a mail and send to people including us – so that all of us can fwd that mail to as many muslims as possible’, another ‘volunteer … to retreive [sic] the copy of this book and read it ASAP and share the details with the group’, and finding a ‘Couple of volunteers who would read as much material as possible about Holy Prophet’s wife Aisha and share the info with the group’. According to Amanullah, Random House executives noticed the post, took fright and moved to spike the book. An email from an outraged academic and a critical post on an online forum – that, it seems, was all it took for Random House to panic.

    ‘If Random House had simply published my book,’ Sherry Jones told me, ‘I don’t think there would have been any trouble. The real problem is not that Muslims are offended, but that people think they will be. It is a veiled form of racism to assume that all Muslims would be offended and that an offended Muslim would be a violent Muslim.’

    The firebombing of Gibson Square’s offices in London might suggest that at least some offended Muslims are violent Muslims. Yet it is not possible to know whether such an attack would have happened had Random House gone ahead with publication without any fuss. Once Random House had made an issue of the book’s offensiveness, then it was inevitable that some Muslims at least would feel offended. There will always be extremists who respond as the Gibson Square firebombers did. There is little that we can do about them. What we can do something about is the broader culture within which such people operate. A culture that robustly defends freedom of expression would provide few resources upon which such extremists could draw. A culture that proclaims it unacceptable to give offence, and in which politicians and intellectuals are terrified at the thought of doing so, provides the firebombers with a spurious moral legitimacy for their actions. Internalizing the fatwa has not just created a new culture of self-censorship, it has also helped generate the same problems to which self-censorship was supposedly a response. The fear of giving offence has simply made it easier to take offence.

    Amanullah himself has insisted that The Jewel of Medina should not be withdrawn and has pointed out that ‘no one has the absolute right not to be offended, nor does anyone have the right to live without the uncomfortable opinions of others’. We all need to develop thicker skins, more open minds, and a common understanding of the principles of free speech,’ he suggested. By then, however, the damage had already been done.


    Random House is Salman Rushdie’s publisher. ‘I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have cancelled another author’s novel because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals,’ he wrote. ‘This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.’

    Nonsense, responded the American academic Stanley Fish, who, in the title of his famous 1993 book, proclaimed that There Is No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too. Dismissing Rushdie as ‘a self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment’, Fish rejected the charge that the Random House decision amounted to censorship. It is only censorship, he suggested, when ‘it is the government that is criminalizing expression’ and when ‘the restrictions are blanket ones’. Random House was simply making a ‘judgment call’.

    There is indeed a difference between a government silencing a writer with the threat of imprisonment and a publisher pulling out of a book deal. It is also true that other publishers picked up Jones’s novel, including Beaufort in America and Gibson Square in Britain. But Fish missed the point about the changing character of censorship. The Random House decision was not a classic example of state censorship. It was, however, an example of the way that free speech has become more restricted without the need for such overt censorship. The directors of Random House had every right to take the decision they did. But the fact that they took that decision, and their reasons for doing so, say much about how attitudes to free speech have changed over the past twenty years – and about the internalization of the fatwa.

    ‘The way that Random House dropped The Jewel of Medina would have been unthinkable in the pre-Rushdie era,’ Monica Ali believes. ‘And yet the press barely paid attention to it. It is as if everyone is thinking: “It’s what you expect.” “That’s the way it is.” “It’s fate.” People have become resigned to such censorship.’

    For Ali, ‘What is really dangerous is when you don’t know that you’ve censored yourself.’ Does she feel, I wondered, that she censors herself? ‘When I write, I try to make sure that the door is closed,’ she said. ‘I try to keep those pressures out. But it is difficult to know to what extent you’ve been infected by the debate about offence. It is genuinely difficult to know, because the process of writing is not conscious. Consciously you make sure you don’t censor yourself. But unconsciously?’ Her voice trailed of.

    Excerpted from Fatwa to Jihad by Kenan Malik. Copyright © 2009 by Kenan Malik. All rights reserved.

    Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. He is a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Department of Political, International and Policy Studies at the University of Surrey. He is a presenter of Analysis on Radio 4 and a panellist on The Moral Maze. His books include The Meaning of Race (1996), Man, Beast and Zombie (2000) and Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (2008).

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