Twenty years on: internalising the fatwa

When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, it had been expected to set the world alight, though not quite in the way that it did. Salman Rushdie was then perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. His reputation had been established by Midnight’s Children, his sprawling, humorous mock-epic of post-independence India, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, and went on to win the Booker of Bookers, as the greatest of all Booker Prize winners.

Two years after Midnight’s Children came Shame, which retold the history of Pakistan as a satirical fairytale. And then came The Satanic Verses. Almost five years in the making, and supported by a then almost unheard of $850,000 advance from Penguin, there was something mythical about the novel even before it had been published. But the real myths about it have grown up since its publication.

Within a month The Satanic Verses had been banned in Rushdie’s native India. By the end of the year, protesters had burnt a copy of the novel on the streets of Bolton, England. And then on 14 February 1989 came the event that transformed the affair – the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. The fatwa transformed the Rushdie affair from a dispute largely confined to Britain and the subcontinent into a global conflict with historic repercussions, from a quarrel about blasphemy and free speech into a matter of terror and geopolitics.

For many, the controversy seemed to come out of the blue. For many, too, especially in the West, the image of the burning book and the fatwa seemed to be portents of a new kind of conflict and a new kind of world. From the Notting Hill riots of the 1950s to the Grunwick dispute in 1977 to the inner-city disturbances of the 1980s, blacks and Asians had often been involved in bitter conflicts with British authorities. But these were also, in the main, political conflicts, or issues of law and order. Confrontations over unionisation or discrimination or police harassment were of a kind that was familiar even prior to mass immigration.
Read more

Comments are closed.