This year is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, which led to one of the most famous free speech controversies of modern times. Deemed offensive to Muslims because of its portrayal of the prophet Mohammed, the book provoked large demonstrations by British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, some of who publicly burned copies of the book. The book was banned in India, and in February 1989 the Ayatollah of Iran issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's head. As a result, The Satanic Verses became a totem of the battle for free expression across the world.
Today, the controversy continues to illuminate not so much a clash of civilisations as fault lines within the West itself. The response to the fatwa first revealed many anxieties familiar in contemporary debates about identity and 'social cohesion'. In particular, the spectre of multiculturalism has haunted the book’s wider reception. Many believe that home-grown terrorism is proof that policies designed to quell discontent and minimise social atomisation, have achieved the opposite effects.
The journey from the Ayatollah's fatwa to self-directed jihad waged by a small sect of British Muslims is complex. What does the Rushdie affair really tell us about the origins of radical Islam? And does the West still have an appetite for intellectual freedom?- Institute of Ideas
Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political, International and Policy Studies at the University of Surrey. His main areas of interest are the history of ideas; the history and philosophy of science; philosophy of the mind; theories of human nature; bioethics; political philosophy; and the politics of race, religion and identity.
He is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books including The Meaning of Race (1996), Man, Beast and Zombie (2000) and the newly-published Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (2008). His next book, From Fatwa to Jihad, an account of the Rushdie affair and its legacy, will be published in February 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa.
Kenan is a presenter of Analysis on BBC Radio 4, a panelist on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, and has written and presented a number of radio and TV documentaries, including Disunited Kingdom, Are Muslims Hated? (which was shortlisted for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award), Let ‘em all in and Britain’s Tribal Tensions.
He writes a column for the Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende and has written for a wide range of other publications including The Times, Guardian, Financial Times, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, Handelsblatt, Aftenposten, The Australian, New Statesman, Prospect, TLS, THES, Nature and The Philosophers’ Magazine.
Amol Rajan is a reporter at The Independent and former Editor of Varsity, the Cambridge University student newspaper. He studied English at Cambridge after spending a gap year at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, during which he became unofficially the youngest diplomat ever to represent the UK at a political conference abroad.
After graduating, Amol worked at The Wright Stuff, Channel 5â€™s flagship show, where he was on-screen mic boy and assistant producer. He has appeared on Channel 5â€™s Talk to the Prime Minister, BBC News 24, 18 Doughty Street, and Fox News Live in America. Amol has also written for The Times, Evening Standard, spiked, Culture Wars, and Isis (the Oxford University student paper). He is a regular contributor to The Salisbury Review and The Literary Review, sits on the advisory board for Catch 22, a social enterprise that helps young people get into journalism, and is a volunteer worker at Prospex, a charity for young people based in Islington. His interests include reggae from the 1960s, the history of cricket, watching repeats of English sitcoms on UKTV Gold, and avoiding lifts.
Author Kenan Malik argues that free speech regarding race and religion has undergone a sea change since the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
He explains that at the time the book was published, not even death threats could keep it out of print. Whereas now, because of the violence that ensued, publishers balk at the first signs of controversy.
"Why in the world would the Hebrew scribes and later the Christian monks take such great care in accurately copying the scriptures, making sure that every "jot and tittle" were transcribed, if the literal content of the scriptures was not treasured and revered from the beginning?"
The literalism of, for instance, modern Evangelical Christianity is different from the kind of "literalism" of the Christian monks and Hebrew scribes. (Or, for that matter, Muslim clerics and scholars.) One need only go to the writings of those monks to see that, although the words were preserved and respected, there were myriad interpretations that were respected. (And many, of course, that were decried as heretical.)
For instance, the modern interpretation of Genesis which goes by the term "Six Day Creationism" was around 4th century. We know this because Augustine--a Saint in the Catholic Church and a major influence on Calvin and Luther--complained about their lack of learning and scholarship. Through science it was obvious even in his day that the earth was older than the Six Day Creationists claimed.
If you don't think that interpretation was valued among the Jews even prior to the rise of Christianity, read Philo.
I agree that it is not mere disconnection from a religious community that results in literalism; it must be something else. More likely, I think it's an inappropriate (and probably unconscious) adoption of scientific idioms and modes of speaking in Biblical interpretation.
Rejection by Protestants of an organization like the Church which has the authority to regulate doctrine may also play a role; the notion that if a single fact in the Bible is shown to be wrong, the entire faith collapses, is alien to the Catholic way of thinking, because the Bible is NOT the entire basis for the faith, but Tradition is. Strictly speaking, I think this is the case for Protestants as well, though they usually don't realize it. Protestants rely on Tradition, for instance, when proclaiming God to be Triune or when excluding certain books from the Biblical canon.
You know people like this that have such a little regard for technical scholarship really tick me off. I can only address this issue of literalism from the Christian perspective, and in doing so must ask a question of Mr. Malik.
Why in the world would the Hebrew scribes and later the Christian monks take such great care in accurately copying the scriptures, making sure that every "jot and tittle" were transcribed, if the literal content of the scriptures was not treasured and revered from the beginning?
Faith and belief, based on understanding the scriptures from a literalistic viewpoint, is what has sustained the Church over the centuries. If some of the bible is open to interpretation or revisionism then it all is, and our faith is built upon nothing more substantial than a pyramid of playing cards, waiting for the next gust of wind to destroy it.
There are parts of the truth revealed in scripture that make me uncomfortable and that I struggle to incorporate in my life. That doesn't make the Bible wrong; it makes me needy of its corrective wisdom.