This interview with Salman Rushdie was published in February 1989.
It was the last interview he gave before he went into hiding. Debates have moved on in the last three decades and there are formulations here that perhaps Rushdie would no longer stand by.
But we re-publish it as an important document from the time.
Defending Satanic Verses
Ayatollah Khomeini has declared that Salman Rushdie is “sentenced to death” for writing his novel Satanic Verses.
Rushdie has asked for police protection and bodyguards are being provided by his publishers.
This death threat follows a week in which five people were killed in protests against the novel in Pakistan and another in India.
In Britain Islamic Fundamentalists have burnt the book in the streets.
Here Rushdie talks to Rahul Patel and Gareth Jenkins talk about his book.
Why have there been such massive protests against your novel Satanic Verses?
I’m surprised by the world wide effect it’s had. People would have expected a novel to stir things up in the days when it was the central form through which society discussed itself.
For a while now TV, cinema and even the theatre have been that, but no longer the novel. Therefore, when you’re writing a novel you resist thinking the work is going to make a lot of international noise.
There have been novels before that have attempted to deal with issues in Islamic culture and to dramatise them in ways that are unorthodox in the theological sense. A lot of these novels have come in for trouble from the guardians of orthodoxy.
It probably hasn’t happened before in English and that’s what gives it the international stage.
A lot of the things I studied would not be available to writers in the Muslim world because many studies of Islam by non-Islamic scholars (by which I don’t mean anti-Islamic) are banned.
I knew the mullahs wouldn’t like it but then I’m not particularly fond of what the mullahs have been doing in the Muslim world.
My family lived in Pakistan during the Zia period and what has been going on there in the name of Islamicisation is absolutely appalling.
It’s quite clear to me that the kind of Islam that developed historically in the Indian subcontinent is very unlike the kind of Islam being pushed out from the Arab states and Iran.
The dominant strain of Islam in India was most closely connected to Buddhism and Hinduism. It was Sufistic and as a result was very tolerant and broad minded.
It was certainly the very reverse of doctrinaire hardline ideology. It’s interesting that when Zia was pushing Islamicisation in Pakistan he closed down a lot of the old Sufi shrines because that strain of Islam was not the one he wanted to support.
In the same way the groups inside the Mojahedin that Zia was supporting were the most zealot Muslim groups of all. The mullahs, generals and politicians who supported them have been a terrible force for evil throughout the Muslim world in my view.
Is there a sense in which you would expect the political opposition to have more impact now?
In each country where this furore has arisen it’s acquired a particular local character – so what’s happened in England is very different to what happened in, for example, India or South Africa.
In England, the most reactionary elements within the Asian community have fed stereotypes present in the most reactionary elements within white society.
So it’s no pleasure to me to be supported by the Sun when it’s referring to Asians as rats. I’m not on the Sun’s side in that. I’d sooner be with the rats.
The organisers of this protest have legitimised the existing racist rhetoric and have given it a way of getting headlines again.
That has been created not by my book but by the response to it. And that is very sad.
Do you think the ban in India is also a result of what’s been happening in Indian politics? And do you think it would have occurred during Indira Gandhi’s time?
Probably not. The ban is obviously an aspect of various political negotiations going on between the government and various Muslim political groupings.
For example, people in Tamil Nadu are discussing political coalition with Muslim political parties and the banning of Satanic Verses may have been an element of the agreement between the parties.
For example, in the north opponents of my book were organising a march on the Babri-Masjid Janmabhoomi shrine. One week after the government announced the banning of my book the organisers cancelled the march.
In India the issue wasn’t the book at all, it was simply a political tool through which certain Muslim politicians flexed their muscles. That’s why I hope that of all the countries where the book has been banned it will be lifted in India.
This may not be soon, but I do believe that in India the ban will not be permanent in the way that it will for example in Saudi Arabia.
Why are you so optimistic about India and not about the Middle Eastern countries?
India is not a specifically Muslim country.
It has a secular tradition which may be in retreat at the moment but is nevertheless there.
Also there has been a public outcry in India about the banning of the book.
You were invited to South Africa recently. Which organisation invited you?
I was invited by the Weekly Mail newspaper before any of the fuss began. The invitation was in collaboration with the Congress of South African Writers who wanted me to speak on censorship.
Then I was told not to go as there were to be massive protests about my book and that this was exactly what the government wanted. I was told my visit would be used as a way to divide the opposition to apartheid.
After people changed their minds and I was told to come again, certain Muslims managed to persuade the government to ban the book. It became 300 percent more important for me to go.
The level of menaces then became higher and higher. Some kind of pressure was put on the Indian writers and a split developed in the South African Writers Congress. As a result the congress decided it could no longer support my invitation. So the Weekly Mail was obliged to withdraw the invitation.
It was a victory for them and a defeat for us.
Some people in South Africa have since said to me that it showed them the sorts of conflicts there will be in South Africa after the revolution.
Were you disappointed at the response from the British left to the ban?
I can understand there are MPs with large numbers of Muslim votes to protect who find it necessary to speak on behalf of those votes.
I think people like Max Madden may one day feel ashamed of themselves, but they probably won’t.
A number of Labour MPs on the left initially allied themselves with the opposition but are now trying to pretend they didn’t. That’s good. One should allow people a way of retreating.
I think on the left there has been a considerable level of support. For example, on the night the WH Smith ban was announced many people, including Tony Benn, signed a petition against the banning.
Has there been any response from Roy Hattersley or Neil Kinnock?
There’s been good support from Mark Fisher, the Shadow Arts Minister, and from Michael Foot.
I’ve heard that Hattersley has been in opposition to the censorship call. I haven’t seen it myself – I’ve just heard it. Kinnock hasn’t said a word.
Yet even Tories have spoken out against it. Kenneth Baker has even written an article on it. If the Tories are doing that it seems very sad that the Labour leadership is staying so silent.
What’s worst about it is that the Tories have been able to look like the more liberal of the two parties.
Do you think that Labour MPs have joined the protests because they believe that if you attack the culture of the oppressed you join forces with the oppressor?
That’s certainly part of the argument. It is almost a racist argument because it’s based on the assumption that you take the most backward aspect of a culture and say that’s the culture.
Anything that is progressive is regarded as Westernised and dismissed. In every Muslim country there is a battle by some sections against the veil, arranged marriages, etc. Why do we have to accept this in London?
If people like Max Madden were to find out a bit more about it before he pronounced on it, he would find that there are radical and conservative forces in black culture, Asian culture and Muslim culture.
There’s a kind of rhetoric among anti-racists that says black people can’t be racists. If you come from India or Pakistan that’s an absurd remark. There is communal hatred, colour prejudice and politics that you can only describe as racist.
Would you classify yourself as an atheist or anti-religious?
Yes, broadly speaking I am an atheist. As a writer I have a problem about that. The world that is my subject to write about is religious.
If you are to do justice to the world and the people that inhabit it you can’t do it from a straight forwardly atheist position.
If you are writing about a world in which people believe in god then you have to give that view some status.
Your novel portrays young Asians in this country in a sympathetic and realistic light. And a strand of optimism runs through it. Why?
I’ve always been accused of writing pessimistic novels.
The possibilities of renewal and change in society are at least as great as the dangers of racism and the damage that can happen as a result of migration.
I wanted to write about both. I didn’t want to write some absurd thing about how great it was to come here to a better life. But I thought it would also be false to write an entirely bleak novel about migration.
It’s important to say in a work of art that it’s also possible for things to improve.