The Debatable Land #21: Rushdie Redux?
A new controversy over a "blasphemous" film about Islam recalls the Rushdie scandal
Hello! Here’s the 21st edition of my newsletter. As always, thanks for reading - and for sharing The Debatable Land with other people.
Christopher Hitchens used to argue that the modern world - or at least one aspect of it - began on Valentine’s Day in 1989. For it was on that date that Ayatollah Khomenei issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, enjoining all good muslims everywhere to do what they could to kill the author. Rushdie was guilty of hurting feelings; his novel The Satanic Verses was deemed blasphemous and he, and all those associated with its publication, should fear for their lives.
This was not, as it happened, an idle threat. While Rushdie was given police protection, not everyone was so fortunate. In 1991, the novel’s Japanese translator was assassinated and its Italian one severely wounded; two years later an attempted assassination left the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses badly injured. The threat, then, was serious.
Many people, including at least some who should have known better, disgraced themselves during the Rushdie scandal. Labour and Conservative politicians alike intimated that Rushdie had both brought this upon himself and ought to be more generous towards the country spending significant sums on his protection (the implication, too, was that as an Indian-born immigrant the author should somehow know his place and be damn grateful for it). Jimmy Carter, the pious cabbage-brained former president of the United States, went still further. Rushdie had vilified the prophet Muhammad and defamed the Koran and should have anticipated the reaction to the novel: "We have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah's irresponsibility."
A number of authors similarly embarrassed themselves. Writing to The Times, Roald Dahl damned Rushdie as a “dangerous opportunist” who “knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise” while John Le Carré sonorously declared: “I don't think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity,” and suggested Rushdie should do the decent thing and withdraw the novel.
Rushdie, in fact, made repeated attempts at placating his accusers, apologising for any distress caused by the novel and reiterating that such offence was wholly unintentional. Predictably, these statements achieved nothing because the point of deranged criticism is that it is impervious to reason.
There was a subsequent flurry of Rushdieism when the author was knighted in 2007. Protests erupted - or were manufactured - in Pakistan and other muslim countries and, once again, Rushdie was seen as some kind of uppity and intolerable provocateur. Jack Straw sympathised with what he termed the muslim community’s “concerns” but even Straw did not go so far as the ghastly Shirley Williams. During a memorable episode of Question Time (see below), Williams observed that “This is a man who has deeply offended muslims in a very powerful way, who has been protected by the police against threats […] for years and years, at great expense to the taxpayer, and frankly I think it was not wise and not very clever to give him a knighthood”.
Here again, Rushdie was deemed responsible for the blood-crazed madness of his critics. The extremity, and insanity, of their reaction was to be taken for granted and, indeed, considered so normal and so routine it could pass without significant comment. (That doing so not only made something monolithic out of islam and treated muslims as people who could not reasonably be held to the same standards as those expected of non-muslims was something both beyond the comprehension of someone such as Shirley Williams and a reminder that throughout the scandal Rushdie’s defenders were consistently the only people prepared to insist upon the broad commonality of man and treat muslims no differently from anyone else.)
The Rushdie affair should have been a simple one; a rare example of a black and white issue unclouded by any shade of grey. That so many ostensibly intelligent people failed it was depressing but, I suppose, unsurprising. It now seems a symbolic moment, however, and a warning of what would come next in the Age of Hurt Feelings.
I confess that I think we must be strong on these issues and that liberalism and liberty are more important than tender feelings. The great Baltimore Sun journalist HL Mencken once suggested that “We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart” and this still seems about the right balance to me. You are welcome to believe what you wish but you cannot insist other people afford those beliefs the deference you show them yourself.
But, still, knowing what we know now it is gloomy to think that very few, if any, companies would dare to publish The Satanic Verses if they were given the opportunity to do so today. And one can understand why: the safety of their staff might preclude such an enterprise and, with sadness and regret, they would hand the opportunity to some other, more reckless, firm. Too much trouble, too much controversy, too much damned hassle to go through with it.
As it happens, there is another, albeit smaller, Rushdie-like affair happening right now. This week Cineworld, one of the country’s largest cinema chains announced it was cancelling all screenings of a new movie, “The Lady of Heaven” following protests against it and out of concerns for, of course, “the safety of our staff and customers”. Since the movie - which may or may not be very good, though that is neither here nor there - concerns the daughter of the prophet Muhammad it is hardly a surprise that it has occasioned some controversy. Some muslim community leaders have deemed it “blasphemous”, encouraging the picketing of screenings in places such as Birmingham and Bolton. It is reported that around 120,000 people have signed a petition demanding the movie be suppressed.
Well, protest is a right too and there is no suggestion - or none of which I am aware - that the protests against this movie have been accompanied by the threat of violence. If that may count as progress, it is gloomy to consider that the threat of violence is no longer required to remove a movie from public view. The reality of hurt feelings and the promise, lurking unsaid in the background, that violence could arise is sufficient.
And one can see Cineworld’s point. What is to be gained from persisting with showing a movie unlikely to even offer the prospect of significant financial return? Better, and certainly easier, to cancel it. Because better to be safe than sorry and, well, you know…
Yet this still feels dispiriting and akin to some kind of defeat. A more minor one than some, perhaps, but still a loss. It is one of the ironies of the age that the boundaries of speech are now policed more rigorously than was the case a generation ago at a time when there is, thanks to social media, more speech than ever before. I suspect these things may in fact be connected; it is precisely because we are swamped with speech that it must be trimmed and tidied and kept quietly neat. Liberty begets enforcement and enclosures, after all.
In parallel to this, of course, is the rise of identity as alpha and omega. You are what - or who - you say you are and who - or what - you are defines you. Everyone is part of a “community” now and people are rarely only people for they must instead be considered particular types of folk. The tribe is what counts.
From which it is only a short hop to assuming that individuals lack agency themselves. Sometimes, indeed, that agency is suspect: the black or white or gay or straight or trans or muslim or hindu person who does not conform to the expected patterns of behaviour and thought imposed upon, or expected of, their tribe is liable to be considered suspect. This is no place or time for heresy. Stay in your lane, folks, for that is where you belong.
Now it may be that “The Lady of Heaven” is - as one critical review suggests - a “sectarian” movie of “unadulterated filth” which could “inflame” Shia-Sunni tensions in this country and I have little doubt that some of the outrage and upset it has generated is keenly felt and genuine. To which the obvious answer is: so what?
Such is life. A plural society must have space for such disagreements and either we take that pluralism seriously or we do not. That in turn requires accepting things we do not in fact like ourselves.
Which, in fact, is what mostly does happen. British muslims are no more orthodox than any other community and most, in fact, lead perfectly ordinary British lives. There are many things in modern Britain which may offend strict - and sometimes liberal - interpretations of islam but, in the vast majority of cases, these are also wholly compatible with living as a British muslim. Of course there are tensions - one reason why British-muslim writing is thriving, both intellectually and artistically - but the Big Picture is one of broadly successful harmony and opportunity. Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities are changing Britain (and especially England) but Britain (and England) changes these blood-and-book-based identities too.
One of the problems with Cineworld’s decision - however prudent you may think it - to pull this movie, then, is that it implicitly denies the reality enjoyed by the great majority of British muslims; it reinforces a vague appreciation that muslims belong in a different category with different needs, sensitivities, and rules. That is to say, it both privileges and curses British islam and it does so in ways that work against the liberalism upon which muslims and non-muslims alike depend.
Still, let us not be entirely disheartened. For there are still glimpses of good news. Why, in the Queen’s birthday honours Sir Salman Rushdie was made a Companion of Honour and, to the best of my knowledge, this occasioned no controversy whatsoever.
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Bunga Boris Bunga
Here is a clip from that edition of Question Time during which Christopher Hitchens went to war against Shirley Williams. But note too the contribution made by a certain Boris Johnson:
Classic Boris, you may agree. Look: why is everyone getting to het up about this? Sure, you might think it a serious subject but it doesn’t really matter. So he only objects to Rushdie’s knighthood on literary grounds; better to give such a bauble to Dick Francis. And it works: the audience laughs because the audience is pleased it doesn’t have to think about weightier matters. There is no situation so grave it cannot be alleviated by a spot of humour; the more absurd the better. This is, in its way, very reassuring. It is certainly very British; perhaps very English too. Lighten up, people.
There is a place for this sort of thing even if you think it better confined to, say, the News Quiz than allowed the opportunity to let it rip in Downing Street.
Still, no-one can ever complain they were sold Johnson under false pretences. He has always been there and always been Boris. WYSIWYG.
Consider, for instance, this Spectator piece published on September 6th 2003. Boris is holidaying in Sardinia and he has been granted an audience with Silvio Berlusconi. He sets out to discover whether, as he puts it, old Silvio is “a good thing”. The rubrics by which this may be measured are themselves revealing.
To begin with, Berlusconi has the right enemies: “the Italian political establishment” “the European liberal elite”, “civilised western opinion”, “The Economist”. So, “You may find, like me, that at the sight of Berlusconi being monstered” by these dreary professionals, “your sword instinctively flies from its scabbard in his defence”. For Berlusconi is, in any case, “the fizziest old dog you have ever seen” and he stands for “optimism and confidence and an ability to get things done”.
The murky details of Berlusconi’s business affairs are too murky - and more importantly, too complex - to be worth Johnson’s time or attention. He may be guilty but, in the end, so what? Better a corrupt entertainer than a plodding bore. As Johnson concludes:
Suddenly, after decades in which Italian politics was in thrall to a procession of gloomy, portentous, jargon-laden partitocrats, there appeared this influorescence of American gung-hoery. Yes, he may have been involved in questionable business practices; he may even yet be found Out and pay the price. For the time being, though, it seems reasonable to let him get on with his programme. He may fail. But then, of course — and this is the point that someone should write in block capitals, fold up and stuff in the mouth of Anna Lindh, Swedish foreign minister — he can be rejected by the Italian people.
She may not like it but he was democratically elected and can be removed by the very people Anna Lindh insults. If we are obliged to compare Silvio Berlusconi with Anna Lindh, and other bossy, high-taxing European politicians, I agree with Farrell: as the narrator says of Jay Gatsby, a man Berlusconi to some extent resembles, he is 'better than the whole damn lot of them'.
Well! You could call it projection or identification or whatever you will but you should also note that Johnson correctly identifies at least some of the reasons why Italians were prepared to put up with - or even embrace - Berlusconi and you should note that a politics based on snook-cocking and posing and the knowing wink of the pantomime is not one without appeal. And this is so even if you also conclude, quite reasonably, that it is not enough.
And, really, who would want Wagner when you can have opera buffa? This has always been the Johnson way and he has never hidden any of it.
The limitations of this approach have, I think, been apparent for some time but that is both a different matter and another reason to think that the Conservative party will one day regret not binning Boris this week.
(I wrote about this in The Spectator and you can find that piece here. Boris is who he always promised to be so, please, spare us your shock or surprise at discovering the full import of what that means.)
Department of I Did Not Know That
The quibble here is that being first cousins once removed is to be quite closely related, not “distantly”. Still, it feels both oddly vexing that I did not know of this relationship until now and strangely satisfying that now I do. As do you.
Imagine what Evelyn Waugh would do with material as ripe as the next House of Lords by-election? The concept of hereditary peers being the only (even mildly) elected members of the Other Place is entertaining enough to begin with but the next such contest might be the best one yet. For, as Sam Leith explains, Matilda Simon has applied to contest the by-election on the grounds she is also Baron Simon of Wythenshawe:
Matilda began life as Matthew Simon – becoming on the death of her (then his) father the second Baron Simon of Wythenshawe. But she has since transitioned and become Matilda Simon. And the Lord Chancellor last week approved her claim to the peerage and therefore gave her permission to stand the next time a seat becomes vacant among the hereditaries in the Lords.
So, if I have this right, Matilda Simon is a woman (like any other) who seeks to take her place in the House of Lords on the grounds she is entitled to do so because she also possesses a hereditary peerage of a type only available to men.
And here’s the kicker: Matilda Simon has an elder sister, Margaret, who is also a woman but is unable to inherit the title Matilda has claimed because she, Margaret, is the kind of woman who had the misfortune to be born female.
Someone should write this novel.
Jonathan Meades on Tina Brown’s new book about the Royal Family. Really, though, it is Meades being Meades and that’s enough of a recommendation. [LRB]
“These chalk streams around the famous river Test in Hampshire are dangerous territory for a writer, an Arcadia that has long tempted men to imprudent poetics. The feathered feet of Evelyn Waugh’s questing vole are never far away.” Ruaridh Nicoll takes his rod and (dry) flies to one of England’s grandest chalk streams. Lovely. [FT]
“Black people in Britain are essentially immigrant communities — the average black American, by contrast, can trace his ancestry further back than the average white American.” Excellent Tomiwa Owolade piece on the differences between being black in America and black in Britain and why it is vital to keep these differences in mind. [Unherd]
“The man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India’s independence movement and the country’s most revered figure, is celebrated today—by some, at least—as a national hero.” I think we should probably be paying more attention to Hindu nationalism. This Yasmeen Serhan piece helps show why. [The Atlantic]
“Could 12 strangers agree on justice in Baltimore, a city riddled with killings and distrust of the police, in a shooting case where the victim was an actor on the legendary drama “The Wire”?” Remarkable Alec MacGillis account of his jury service in a recent Baltimore trial. [Pro Publica]
Duncan Robinson brings some truth: “That the Conservatives are ruthlessly regicidal is only the latest myth surrounding the Conservatives to be crushed during Mr Johnson’s leadership. This is a party of government that cannot govern. It is the party of business that hates business. It is dedicated to staying in power, yet refuses to take the steps necessary to keep itself there. Even more recent folklore is misleading: this is a populist party with an unpopular agenda.” [The Economist]
A young Fergal Keane reports for RTE from a Belfast pub where the owner has a pet alligator. As golden as you might expect.
That’s all for today, my friends. As always, thanks for your support. If you like any of this, please consider sharing it wherever you feel like doing so. Equally, those of you who upgrade to a paid subscription - thereby allowing me to do more of this kind of thing - are truly the Chosen People. See you next time!
The Debatable Land is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.