Freedom of Expression and Religion: Salman Rushdie’s Critics

Excerpt from The Fall and Rise of Blasphemy Law, edited by Paul Cliteur and Tom Herrenberg (Leiden University Press, 2016). The book will be available from Leiden University Press in January and in the US it will be distributed by Chicago University Press. But only around the summer 2017.

From Chapter 6: Rushdie’s Critics

Paul Cliteur and Tom Herrenberg


On 14 February 1989, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini (1902–1989), issued a declaration that called for the death of British novelist Salman Rushdie (b. 1947). It reads as follows:

I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses—which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran—and all those involved in the publication who were aware of its contents are sentenced to death.

I call upon all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.

In addition, anyone who has access to the author of this book but does not possess the power to execute him should report him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions.[1]

The aim of this chapter is to analyse some of the criticism that has been levelled against Salman Rushdie for having published his novel The Satanic Verses (1988). Since Khomeini’s “fatwa,” clashes between free speech and religious extremism have not dwindled, but have instead grown in significance. It is not only novels that have proved to give rise to controversy, but also cartoons and video clips. The latest of these controversies, the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris on 7 January 2015 underscores a deep division between a culture of civil liberties and theocratic extremism. Although Rushdie received considerable support from many sides,[2] he also faced strong criticism for writing his novel. Indeed, Rushdie was targeted not only by terrorists who wanted to punish him for his blasphemous novel, but also by public intellectuals who considered his stance too provocative, if not downright insulting, to the religious views of many people. In this chapter we will discuss positions taken by some of Rushdie’s critics and look at their significance in the light of the killings of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists.


An early reaction to the Rushdie affair came from the famous historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914–2003), who stated:

I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude. Not too comfortably I hope… I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.[3]

Perhaps this is—apart from Khomeini’s fatwa itself—one of the most extreme reactions to the publication of the novel. What makes this reaction interesting is that Trevor-Roper so openly shows understanding for the threat of physical violence—if not advocating it—against the writer of the controversial novel. The reaction was also stunning since it came from an academic who, due to the nature of his own profession, can only work under conditions of academic freedom—conditions that are more or less naturally opposed to “controlling the pen.”

Furthermore, Trevor-Roper is a historian. He is the author of an extensive oeuvre, including books such as The Last Days of Hitler (1947),[4] The Invention of Scotland (1994),[5] History and the Enlightenment (2010),[6] and many other works. He certainly must have been aware of the history of censorship, intimidation and violence against writers and scholars in the past.[7]

The vehemence of Trevor-Roper’s reaction was perhaps partly because he felt Rushdie had to have known in advance what type of reaction his novel would unleash. Trevor-Roper argued that Rushdie was “well versed in Islamic ideas” and that he “knew what he was doing and could foresee the consequences.”[8] This point was also made by former United States President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924). Carter referred to something that came up time and again in the discussion on Rushdie’s book, namely that as a Muslim, former Muslim, or at least someone cognizant of the mores in the Muslim world, Rushdie should have known better. Carter wrote: “The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world.”[9]

Just like Trevor-Roper, Carter also took Rushdie to task for knowing what he, Rushdie, was doing. This was also explicitly voiced by Rushdie’s fellow writer Roald Dahl (1916–1990). “[Rushdie] must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise,” Dahl argued.[10] To this accusation Rushdie once humorously responded by saying that “It would be really strange … to spend five years writing a novel and not know what you are doing.”[11]


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

What clearly appeared from Carter’s reaction was that criticising religion was not very welcome. This opinion was shared by many, but not always for explicitly religious reasons. Sometimes there was also an element of resignation in the commentary of some participants. Religious criticism is not wise, because we cannot control the turmoil that follows it. In an interview on the Rushdie affair in May 1989, Novelist John le Carré (b. 1931) commented in the same vein when—while stating that it was “outrageous that … Salman Rushdie had been condemned to death by the Iranian Government”—he said: “I don’t think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity.”[12]

This reference to “impunity” seems to be an allusion to what was made much more explicit by Trevor-Roper: you cannot complain when violence is exerted against you as a result of your criticism of religion. So the word “impunity” has a sinister undertone.

Another point was made by another famous detractor of Rushdie, the art critic John Berger (b. 1926). Berger’s point was that it would simply not be possible to control the violence. In The Guardian he wrote in February 1989:

I suspect Salman Rushdie, if he is not caught in a chain of events of which he has completely lost control, might by now be ready to consider asking his world publishers to stop producing more or new editions of The Satanic Verses. Not because of the threat to his own life, but because of the threat to the lives of those who are innocent of either writing or reading the book. This achieved, Islamic leaders and statesmen across the world might well be ready to condemn the practice of the Ayatollah issuing terrorist death warrants. Otherwise a unique twentieth century Holy War, with its terrifying righteousness on both sides, may be on the point of breaking out sporadically but repeatedly—in airports, shopping streets, suburbs, city centers, wherever the unprotected live.[13]

Berger introduces the notion of “innocence” with regard to not only writing, but also reading a book. It seems he is suggesting that when you read a book that theoterrorists object to[14] you run the risk of forfeiting your “innocence.” Berger sought the solution to the turmoil over the novel in halting the production and distribution of The Satanic Verses. Roald Dahl, too, was of the opinion that, given the outrage over the book, the best thing to do was to halt its distribution: “If the lives of the author and the senior editor in New York are at stake, then it is better to give in on a moral question when you are dealing with fanatics. If I were Rushdie, then for the sake of everybody threatened I would agree to throw the bloody thing away. It would save lives.”[15] Here, Dahl and Berger shared common ground with Iran’s parliament speaker at the time, Hashemi Rafsanjani (b. 1934), who “said the solution to the strangest and rarest crisis in history is to issue a strict order to seize all copies in the entire world and burn them.”[16]


On 15 February 1989, Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe (1926–2015), gave a rather tame reaction to the death sentence, telling the BBC that Khomeini’s declaration was something of “very grave concern” and that the British government was “looking into the background of it very carefully.”[17] He also argued that Iran’s actions illustrated “the extreme difficulty of establishing the right kind of relationship with a manifestly revolutionary regime with ideas that are very much its own.”[18] A day later Howe’s attitude was more forthright, and he declared that “Nobody has the right to incite people to violence on British soil or against British citizens. Ayatollah Khomeini’s statement is totally unacceptable.”[19] On the same day the British government put out a statement that read: “The British Government’s view is that it would not be possible to establish a normal relationship with Iran while the Iranian Government failed to respect fully international standards of behaviour.”[20] In late February Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013) stated that freedom of speech “is subject only to the laws of this land … and will remain subject to the rule of law. It is absolutely fundamental to everything in which we believe and cannot be interfered with by any outside force.”[21]

Both Howe’s second statement and Thatcher’s comment seem to address the central issue, namely the fact that Khomeini has appropriated the right to exercise control over an individual not belonging to his jurisdiction. This point was aptly made by novelist Anthony Burgess (1917–1993). Burgess, commenting on the fatwa, argued:

The Ayatollah Khomeini is probably within his self-elected rights in calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, or anyone else for that matter, on his own holy ground. To order outraged sons of the prophet to kill him and the directors of Penguin Books on British soil is tantamount to a jihad. It is a declaration of war on citizens of a free country and as such it is a political act. It has to be countered by an equally forthright, if less murderous, declaration of defiance.[22]

Burgess’ reaction proved prescient because, amid all the confusion, he highlights the really relevant issues here: assassination, national sovereignty, jihad and the need to resist. Burgess also rightly stresses that there is a conflict of visions. Khomeini is indeed right within his own religious paradigm. It is also remarkable that Burgess does not shy away from calling this “jihad,” meaning a “declaration of war” on citizens of another country. Burgess further stresses the element of territoriality (“British soil”).

British Muslims in Birmingham display a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini at a demonstration against The Satanic Verses. (Photo: Abbas / Magnum)

While the British government unequivocally condemned Khomeini’s threat in the first days and weeks after 14 February 1989, attention shifted to the content of The Satanic Verses when Sir Geoffrey Howe gave an interview to the BBC in early March. In this interview—which was “relayed by the Persian service … in Iran”[23]—Howe was quite critical of the book, saying that:

[There is] a huge distance between ourselves and the book. The British government, the British people, do not have any affection for the book. The book is extremely critical, rude about us. It compares Britain with Hitler’s Germany. We do not like that any more than the people of the Muslim faith like the attacks on their faith contained in the book. So we are not sponsoring the book. What we are sponsoring is the right of people to speak freely, to publish freely.[24]

The Times noted that Howe’s remark about the “huge distance between ourselves and the book” was “apparently aimed at appeasing Muslim outrage and making the first tentative move towards a settlement with Iran.”[25] The paper opined that the comments of Howe—who was also put on the death list of a pro-Iranian terrorist group—went “some way towards fulfilling an Iranian demand earlier this week for Britain not to adopt improper gestures towards the Islamic world.”[26] At the same time, Margaret Thatcher had seemingly also developed an understanding of the offence the book had caused. Relating to her own religious beliefs, she said that “We’ve known in our own religion people doing things which are deeply offensive to some of us, deeply offensive, and we felt it very much. And that is what has happened in Islam. I think that these great religions are strong enough and deep enough to withstand these kind of events.”[27]

These comments were much to Rushdie’s dismay. As reported by the Washington Post, Rushdie felt that “the government is beginning to play both sides in the middle in its efforts to defend the rights of free expression and avoid a threatened break in formal diplomatic relations with Iran.”[28] Rushdie “feared the Government was weakening in its support for him as part of an attempt to resolve the UK-Iran crisis.”[29]

Howe was also criticised in the newspapers. The Guardian wrote in a commentary on Howe’s interview:

It was presumably someone else at the Foreign Office who went through The Satanic Verses, picking out the naughty bits which led Sir Geoffrey Howe to conclude on Thursday that the book was “extremely rude” about Britain. The result was not a great success, either as an exercise in literary criticism or as a covert signal to the moderates in Iran.

Aren’t we supposed to be against governments saying that they disapprove of books—let alone making up other people’s minds for them? It was also a somewhat philistine judgment. Not only was the book “rude” but, said Sir Geoffrey, it “compares Britain with Hitler’s Germany.” It does nothing of the kind. It does portray, as our reviewer Angela Carter wrote before the great row began, “the mean streets of a marvellously evoked eighties London.”[30]

The newspaper concluded by stating that Rushdie “seems to have broken his silence … to express concern about Sir Geoffrey’s statement; and, regrettably, one can see why.”[31]

In the Financial Times, Ian Davidson wrote a commentary on Howe’s interview. Davidson touched on a number of interesting points:

Mealy-mouthed expressions of distaste for The Satanic Verses merely served to make the Government look obsequious and cringing. When Sir Geoffrey Howe said on the radio: “We understand that the book itself has been found deeply offensive by people of the Moslem faith,” he was making an observation which was entirely otiose. He
made matters much worse when he went on to say: “The British Government, the British people, don’t have any affection for the book, which is extremely critical, rude about us. It compares Britain with Hitler’s Germany. We don’t like that any more than people of the Moslem faith like the attacks on their faith contained in the book.”

The implications of these words are unmistakable and alarming: in the hope of avoiding a break in diplomatic relations, the British Government was fully prepared to adopt the posture of an equally injured party, even if it meant endorsing (in modifed terms) the Ayatollah’s attack on The Satanic Verses. If Mr Rushdie felt he was in danger of being dumped by the British Government, he may have had good reason.[32]

Davidson also made some interesting points about the expertise and competence of the government to comment on matters of literary interpretation.

Whether Sir Geoffrey or Mrs. Thatcher thinks The Satanic Verses is a nice book or a nasty book, whether they believe it is offensive to Moslems, or whether they consider it unfair to the British people, are entirely irrelevant questions. In any case, they are wholly unqualified, in their capacity as elected politicians, to have a useful opinion on any of these subordinate issues.[33]

Davidson also spelled out what were to him the relevant questions in this case: “Under the Iranian gun, the only questions which are immediately relevant are whether Mr. Rushdie was legally entitled under British law to write and publish his book, and whether Ayatollah Khomeini is entitled to incite the murder of Mr. Rushdie.”[34]

Davidson did something only few people commenting on the Rushdie affair did. He first asked us: what are the relevant questions in this controversy?

You can, of course, comment on everything: on whether you liked the book, on whether Rushdie could have foreseen the consequences, on whether you like religious criticism in general, or on whether you have an understanding for offended feelings of religious believers. But what Davidson drew our attention to was the relevance of those questions. What should, for instance, a politician or “the state” ask when judging the situation? And Davidson claims only two questions are relevant: was Rushdie legally entitled to write the book, and was Khomeini entitled to incite murder?

These two questions are, indeed, the relevant questions for a politician to ask. But, as we saw, not all politicians focused on those questions—some took on the role of literary critic and commented on the matter as if they were ordinary citizens. Not to their credit, because what the state has to do is protect its citizens against the internal and external enemies of the peace. And in the light of that question, Davidson’s two perspectives should be guiding.


Other European government representatives backed the British in the struggle with religious terrorism. One of the first diplomatic responses came from the Netherlands. Shortly after Khomeini threatened Rushdie, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans van den Broek (b. 1936), cancelled a trip to Teheran. He gave the reason for his decision by saying about the death threat that “This is totally unacceptable, a call for international terrorism.”[35] German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (b. 1930) “called on the ‘entire civilised world’ to take action against Iran’s threat to kill Rushdie.”[36] President Mitterrand (1916–1996) of France said: “All dogmatism which through violence undermines freedom of thought and the right to free expression is, in my view, absolute evil. The moral and spiritual progress of humanity is linked to the recoil of all fanaticisms.”[37] Mitterrand was certainly right on this. The freedom to criticise freely is a fundamental institution of liberal democracies. That freedom is not absolute though, and there are good reasons to accept limits to the freedom of speech, for example in case of incitement to violence. Khomeini’s fatwa itself, for instance, can never find protection under a liberal principle of freedom of speech.[38] The problem is, though, that accepting limits to freedom of speech does not imply that we can leave this task of establishing the nature of these limits to world religions, clerical leaders and religious zealots.

French Prime Minister Michel Rocard (b. 1930) stated that “any demonstrations urging violence against Rushdie would result in criminal charges.”[39] The mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac (b. 1932), commented along the same lines:

I am not confusing Muslims with fanatics, but I cannot imagine that in Paris we will accept desperadoes who call for murder. If they are French they need to be pursued; if they are foreigners, they should be expelled. Foreigners, once they are on our soil, must respect our laws, and we cannot tolerate calls for murder in the capital of human rights.[40]

A week after Khomeini’s edict, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the 12 member states of the European Community issued a statement that condemned “this incitement to murder as an unacceptable violation of the most elementary principles and obligations that govern relations among sovereign states.” The ministers also expressed “their continuing interest in developing normal constructive relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran” but added that “if Iran shares this desire, it has to declare its respect for international obligations and renounce the use or threatened use of violence.”[41]

Excerpted from The Fall and Rise of Blasphemy Law, edited by Paul Cliteur and Tom Herrenberg. Copyright © Paul Cliteur and Tom Herrenberg / Leiden University Press, 2016. All rights reserved.

Paul Cliteur is Professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University. His areas of expertise include freedom of expression, secularism, and political theory.
Tom Herrenberg is a PhD candidate at Leiden University and a visiting researcher at the University of Oxford in 2016.

[1] Quoted in Daniel Pipes, “Two Decades of the Rushdie Rules: How an edict that once outraged the world became the new normal,” in Commentary Magazine, October 2010, 31.

[2] See, e.g., “Writers rally to Rushdie as publishers rethink,” in The Guardian, 16 February 1989; “Writers Defend Rushdie,” in the New York Times, 21 February 1989.

[3] Quoted in: Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012), 260; Paul Weller, A Mirror for our Times: “The Rushdie Affair” and the Future of Multiculturalism (London/New York: Continuum, 2009), 21.

[4] Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (London: Pan, 2012 (1947)).

[5] Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994).

[6] Hugh Trevor-Roper, History and the Enlightenment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

[7] See, e.g., Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation & Social Change (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1967).

[8] Paul Weller, A Mirror for our Times: “The Rushdie Affair” and the Future of Multiculturalism (London/New York: Continuum, 2009), 21.

[9] Jimmy Carter, “Rushdie’s book is an insult,” in the New York Times, 5 March 1989, also in Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland (eds), The Rushdie File (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 236–237.

[10] Quoted in: Ibn Warraq, Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy (London: Encounter Books, 2010), 32.

[11] During an interview with Christopher Hitchens at The Fifth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture (2010).

[12] “Russians Warm to le Carré,” in the New York Times, 22 May 1989.

[13] Quoted in William J. Weatherby, Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death (New York: Carrol & Graf, 1990), 168.

[14] The word “theoterrorists” is used here for those who exert violence on the basis of a conception of God’s wishes. Needless to say, whether they give the right interpretation to God’s wishes is irrelevant from a social science perspective.

[15] “Pulp book to save lives, says Dahl,” in The Times, 17 February 1989.

[16] “Iranian Says All Copies Must Be Burned,” in The Associated Press, 10 March 1989.

[17] “Iranians Protest over Banned Book,” in the New York Times, 16 February 1989.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Britain Protests Khomeini’s ‘Death Sentence’ Against Author Rushdie,” in Schenectady Gazette, 17 February 1989.

[20] “Britain puts ties with Iran on hold,” in the New York Times, 17 February 1989.

[21] “Iran Tells Britain to Condemn Book,” in Washington Post, 1 March 1989.

[22] “The sins of a holy terror. Once it would do intellectual battle but Islam now prefers to draw blood,” in The Globe and Mail, 17 February 1989.

[23] “Terrorists add Hurd, Howe to book death list,” in The Times, 3 March 1989.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Rushdie fears backdown by Government,” in The Times, 4 March 1989.

[28] “Statement Worries Rushdie,” in Washington Post, 4 March 1989.

[29] “Rushdie fears backdown by Government,” in The Times, 4 March 1989.

[30] “Rude, as in rudimentary,” in The Guardian, 4 March 1989.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Why British Diplomacy Cuts A Poor Figure In Iran’s Holy War: It is Britain which should have severed diplomatic relations rather than attempt conciliation,” in Financial Times, 9 March 1989.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Britain puts ties with Iran on hold,” in the New York Times, 16 February 1989.

[36] “Bonn and Paris back stand against Iran,” in The Guardian, 23 February 1989.

[37] Ibid.

[38] That incitement to physical violence should be accepted as a limit to free speech was also proclaimed—although not literally—by John Stuart Mill in his important essay On Liberty (1859). See also David M. Rabban, “Clear and Present Danger Test,” in Kermit L. Hall (ed.), The Oxford Companion to The Supreme Court of the United States (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 183–184. And in general see Mick Hume, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? (London: Willam Collins, 2015).

[39] “Bomb Kills One, Wounds Seven in Kashmir Protest,” in The Associated Press, 27 February 1989.

[40] Quoted in Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland (eds), The Rushdie File (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 133.

[41] “Text of European Statement,” in the New York Times, 21 February 1989.

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

Salman Rushdie: Violent Mutations of Islam Are Still Islam

A Conversation with Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie: Freedom to Write Lecture (2010)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now”

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  1. It's one thing to suggest that Sir Salman Rushdie would suspect a certain inflammatory reaction to THE SATANIC VERSES among the world's disparate Muslim communities. It's quite another, frankly ridiculous assumption, to believe that he could accurately have foreseen how the dying Ayatollah Khomeini and his son would use the book's word-of-mouth impact to try re-igniting zealotry among Muslims. Sir Salman's memoir JOSEPH ANTON is as good a documentation of his private reaction to the whole horrendous business as we're ever likely to see..