By Gareth Jenkins
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The tragedy of Salman Rushdie

This article is over 11 years, 1 months old
The controversy about Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses in 1989 revealed the hypocrisy of the ruling class and stoked Islamophobia. But, argues Gareth Jenkins, Rushdie's new memoir reveals someone who has travelled a long way from his former identification with the oppressed
Issue 374

On 14 February 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran, issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for having written a book “blasphemous against Islam”. That book, The Satanic Verses, published the previous September, had already stirred up controversy – spectacularly, when it was burnt on the streets of Bradford – with calls for it to be banned in Britain (many other countries had already banned it).

Within days Rushdie had gone into hiding. This memoir of “Joseph Anton” (the pseudonym invented on police orders from the first names of two of Rushdie’s favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov) records his decade-long moving from one safe house to another. It details what it was like to live at close quarters with his police protection team, his struggle to persuade the British and US governments to act and his battles with publishers (for a long time there was no paperback version of the novel). He also details the effect on his creative life – his determination to keep writing – and its effect on his emotional life, principally the disintegration of his second and third marriages.

Unusually for a memoir, Rushdie writes of himself in the third person throughout – as if to give distance to a flawed character (for example, the way he sometimes treated the women in his life and the shame he felt when he compromised with his opponents by affirming his adherence to Islam). But the third person also suggests something else. It’s as if his personal experience stands for some larger universal struggle of the creative writer against the forces of obscurantism and fanaticism.

Rushdie was forced to live in a “bubble”. This terrible narrowing of contact with the wider world also, one senses, led to a narrowing of perspective. The Rushdie of the pre-imprisonment years is sympathetic to the complexities of religious faith, to the way it gives meaning to oppressed people, and to the way cultures shift and blend through the lived experience of migration; the Rushdie of the memoir is much more prone to an abstract counterposing of faith to reason.

“How should one react”, he asks early on in the memoir, “when the masses were being irrational? Could ‘the people’ ever be, quite simply, wrong?” This, he says, was unpalatable to many on the left. So, “while liberal opinion dithered and equivocated, the movement of mass popular irrationalism grew daily in its irrationality, and in its popularity, too.” Later he turns the term Islamophobia into its opposite. Far from being anti-Muslim prejudice it’s a cover for tolerating intolerance: “To criticise the militant stridency of his religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot… One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be foaming at the mouth…It was Islam that had changed; not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviours and things.”

Yet this narrative of mass irrationalism versus an Enlightenment rationalism won’t do. Set the book burning in context and the picture is much more complex. Muslims had been on the sharp end of racism for some time, suffering the worst housing and access to jobs. In addition, there had been a racist campaign to remove white children from mainly Asian schools in West Yorkshire. In 1984 Ray Honeyford, headteacher at one such Bradford school, had claimed that Asians were responsible for their “ghettoes” because they wanted to preserve the values of the Indian subcontinent “as intact as possible”.

It is no accident, then, that the book burning took place in Bradford, where discrimination against Muslims was particularly acute. But the end of the 1980s was also the period when working class self-confidence was low in the wake of the defeat of the miners. In these circumstances conservative community leaders could take the lead in expressing the hurt felt by Muslims. The “blasphemy” of The Satanic Verses became the last straw for an oppressed minority whose only bulwark against a hostile, racist society seemed to be religious identity, betrayed, it seemed, by one of their own.

In this context the “popularity” of the protest was not a sign of mass irrationalism. Rather it was a horribly deflected response to racism that targeted a conveniently high-profile scapegoat and not the real causes or perpetrators. The mainstream press and political establishment closed their eyes to this. For them the demands to ban the book and kill Rushdie were “proof” that Muslims were ignorant, reactionary fanatics, unable to accept British “values” of tolerance and free speech.

Matters became confused, in this respect, by the reaction of some Labour MPs who under cover of anti-racism, echoed the demands of the protesters’ leaders. Keith Vaz, for example, having telephoned Rushdie to offer his sympathies, then led a march of thousands of Muslims in Leicester against The Satanic Verses, an event described by Vaz as “one of the great days in the history of Islam and Great Britain”. And the leftwing Labour MP for Bradford West, Max Madden, asked in Tribune, “Why is the Labour Party so hooked on Rushdie’s freedom of speech to insult Muslims but so uncaring of Muslim distress?” and called for a halt on new (paperback) editions of the book.

Against censorship, against racism
No doubt electoral opportunism came into play (Labour MPs, including the egregious Jack Straw, were clearly worried about alienating Muslim voters). The response should have been “No to Censorship, No to Racism” (in the words of the Socialist Worker headline on 25 February 1989). Only in siding with Muslims against the revoltingly hypocritical racism directed at them by the Tories and the press could those opposing any ban on The Satanic Verses hope to get a hearing: to oppose the ban in the name of Western values cut no ice and to go along with the demands for a ban in the name of anti-racism was to strengthen the hold of reactionary ideas among the oppressed.

At the same time, the establishment couldn’t resist settling scores with Rushdie himself. Many clearly thought, though they didn’t dare say so openly, that an uppity Indian who had outclassed many writers of Anglo-Saxon stock (he had, after all, won the Booker prize in 1981 for Midnight’s Children) should be slapped down for his mockery of imperial pretention and of Tory values, and for the anti-racism that was so central to The Satanic Verses. Right wing historian Hugh Trevor Roper, said, “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.”

Thatcher’s hatchet man, Norman Tebbitt, asserted that Rushdie’s life was “a record of despicable acts of betrayal to his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality” and foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, who had clearly not read the book, claimed that “it compares Britain with Hitler’s Germany” (it didn’t). But this vicious attack had a purpose. It allowed the Tory government to pose as the protector of a principle (free speech) despite the fact that neither the beneficiary nor his works deserved it. (This same government, incidentally, had desperately tried to prevent the publication of Spycatcher, an exposé, among other things, of British secret service attempts to assassinate the Egyptian president, Nasser. So much for the principle, then, to say nothing of the hypocritical outrage at calls for Rushdie’s death.)

Rushdie, therefore, was not only under extreme pressure from assassins (this was no idle threat: many associated with him internationally as publishers or translators were physically attacked, some fatally). The effect of the attack on him by press and politicians was to isolate him and make him entirely dependent on the forces of the British state. Could it have been any different? Rumour has it that the Indian Workers Association offered him round the clock protection, which he turned down, preferring the superior fire power of the police. But that protection came at a political price. The British state cynically used him as a pawn in a complex diplomatic game, its support conditional on Rushdie behaving as it saw fit even when, as the memoir shows, the threat had palpably lessened and he insisted on doing what he wanted. But the political price was more than Rushdie’s being made a pawn. He was also deprived of the opportunity to mobilise more broadly among ordinary people and forced to rely on narrow campaigning attempts to influence the great and the good (Clinton and Blair, for example).

Personal tragedy
Rushdie’s tragedy was a personal one. He lost a decade of his life and the toll on him physically and psychologically was immense. But it was tragic in another way. The last interview he gave while he could still circulate relatively freely was to Socialist Worker. We felt proud to interview a novelist whose works were imbued with anti-racism and mockery of imperialism and class prejudice. The “offence” caused by The Satanic Verses was nothing akin to the gratuitous racist “offence” caused two decades later by the anti-Mohammed cartoons in the Danish or French press. If the elders were shocked by Rushdie’s irreverence the young could have been won to an understanding that the novel was a weapon directed against the powerful, ever ready to imprison people in religious stereotypes, not a weapon used by them. “It’s no pleasure” he told us, “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 [the book burning] have legitimised the existing racist rhetoric.”

The Rushdie who sided with the oppressed in 1989 does not appear in the Rushdie of the memoir. And that is a tragedy for all of us.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie is published by Jonathan Cape, £25

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