The ayatollah, the novelist and the fatwa
On 14 February 1989, Salman Rushdie may or may not have received a Valentine's card from a secret admirer.
If he did, I imagine he quickly forgot about it when Ruhollah Khomeini, the self-appointed Supreme Leader of the self-described Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to execute the British-Kashmiri novelist for alleged offences to Islam in his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses (for in-depth insight into the Rushdie controversy, listen to the informative new BBC Radio 4 series Fatwa).
Although fatwas are technically non-binding theological opinions, Khomeini's edict had the force of law in the eyes of fanatical conservative Muslims - at the time, even Sunni fundamentalists who dreamed of creating a modern "Islamic state" or reviving the "caliphate" admired this revolutionary Shia cleric.
By turning what had been isolated local protests into global fury, the licence to kill issued by Khomeini had the immediate and terrifying effect of turning Salman Rushdie's life upside-down, forcing the writer to vanish into the thin air of police protection, only to suddenly reappear, like a genie from a police van, for snatched visits to family and friends - like that of fellow writer and friend Hanif Kureishi - or rocking up on the stage of U2 concerts, as though Rushdie had become a character in one of his own books of magical realism.
Despite the self-righteous outrage of Muslim conservatives, Salman Rushdie actually made a very unlikely target for their ire, especially the allegations that he was a Western stooge and an agent of imperialism. He had been, after all, not only a harsh critic of the shah in Iran and but had also recently published a book condemning US involvement in Nicaragua. A Persian translation of Rushdie's book Shame was available as was, initially, The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie's previous works, such as the sublime Midnight’s Children, were a sympathetic but critical reading of post-colonial reality, exploring issues of migration, identity and the tensions between and within "East" and "West".
Even The Satanic Verses, despite its allegorical irreverence, was not actually disrespectful of Muhammad, whom it portrayed quite sympathetically, I found, just sceptical about religion. The novel was not even about Islam, Rushdie insisted, but about "migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay", not to mention "a castigation of western materialism".
|Some young British Muslims at the time had no idea what a fatwa even was, with one mistakenly thinking that Khomeini had called Rushdie a 'fat twit'
The credibility and admiration Rushdie had previously enjoyed in British Asian circles did not shield him from the indignation of Muslim conservatives and the impressionable, marginalised youth they managed to brainwash on the back of this manufactured controversy, which took Rushdie, his publishers and friends by complete surprise. Some young British Muslims at the time had no idea what a fatwa even was, with one mistakenly thinking that Khomeini had called Rushdie a "fat twit".
"I found it odd that people were reading aubergines and burning books," confessed Hanif Kureishi, referring to the absurdity of fundamentalists intimating Quranic verses in the humble vegetable, which is delicious when roasted, while setting light to Rushdie's novel, which is not.
But as has been the case throughout history, book burnings rarely have anything to do with the book being burnt, which the burners had not read, and is often a deflection of other grievances and/or a proxy for other conflicts.
Although The Satanic Verses controversy seems almost inevitable in hindsight, it only came to pass due to political expediency and opportunism. Author, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik outlines how it took months of incitement by Muslim religious radicals, first in India, then in Britain, before any semblance of an outraged reaction emerged. At the time, my teenage self had just moved back from the UK to Egypt, and I do not recall much interest in or anger towards Rushdie.
It even reportedly took two fanatical British Muslims to sway the Iranian regime to issue the fatwa, which appears to have been motivated far more by political expediency than religious fervour. It not only fed into the long-standing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also helped Khomeini to shore up support and silence dissent following the disastrous, devastating and costly war with neighbouring Iraq, and the Supreme Leader's unstable mental state.
This was reflected in another, less famous 1988 Khomeini fatwa which led to the execution by "Death Committees" of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran.
The Rushdie affair also enabled a false narrative to emerge among Western and Islamic bigots that there was a cultural war of values between "Islam" and "the West" - or "Christendom".
In reality, the true conflict is between the forces of secularism versus religion, the forces of intolerance versus tolerance, the forces of pluralism versus mono-culturalism, the forces of rationality versus irrationality, the forces of supremacy versus egalitarianism, and the forces of modernity versus perceived tradition.
In fact, as I have endeavoured to show in my journalism and in my latest book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, Islamic societies have a centuries-old tradition of scepticism and outright unbelief, something which I discovered during my own journey towards atheism.
In fact, more irreverent and sacrilegious works of literature have been published in Arabic than The Satanic Verses. For example, the Iraqi poet, reformer and atheist Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936) published, in 1931, Revolution in Hell, more than half a century before Rushdie's novel.
In this epic poem, which was inspired by a significant medieval work of scepticism, The Epistle of Forgiveness, humanity's most daring and original thinkers have been condemned to eternal damnation as punishment for their courage, while the obedient and pro-establishment are rewarded with everlasting paradise, in a clear allegory of how Arab patriarchal dictatorships operate. The subversive inhabitants of hell storm heaven and claim it as their rightful abode.
Despite the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism in recent decades, the non-believers and atheists of the Muslim world have been regrouping and have found a new level of assertiveness, often at great personal risk to their freedom and even lives. In secular Muslim countries, such as Albania and Tunisia, this is legal and tolerated. Even in Muslim countries where "apostasy" and "blasphemy" are outlawed, such as in the Gulf region, there are vibrant, albeit clandestine, groups of non-believers and sceptics.
Regardless of this relative progress, we still live in dangerous times for atheists and sceptics in many Muslim societies and even for those who have a different interpretation of Islam, both from conservative governments and from vigilantes and terrorists.
It is high time for conservative Muslim societies and fanatical Muslims to respect the freedom of belief, conscience and expression of others, both legally and socially, and to abandon their delusional self-appointed role as "defenders of the faith". Not only is the insinuation that their religion needs their protection an insult to the almighty God they believe in, faith is an immensely personal and private matter that cannot and must not be imposed by force and fear.
Follow him on Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.