As I may have mentioned before, I used to work in a bookshop when I was a teenager. It was a chain called Sherratt & Hughes, who are now (after several more name and ownership changes) better known as Waterstones. This was all about twenty years ago, which makes it pretty much the time of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’.
The shop was (and indeed still is) in Sheffield, which meant that we were close enough to the book-burning in Bradford for it to feel slightly frightening, and though as a weekend staff member I had far less to do with the whole situation than many of the other staff, it still felt like a serious issue. The stance of the bookshop at the time was that we wouldn’t be stocking the book, but if customers wanted to order it, we’d fulfil those orders, though the books would be stored behind the Customer Orders desk, where they were wrapped in carrier bags. The idea was that it wouldn’t be seen as immediately inflammatory, and that people who wanted to get the book could do so. As far as I know we didn’t have anyone come into the shop and cause a fuss either way, so I guess this was a pretty good approach in practical terms.
For the record, my stance on the issue of the book is pretty straightforward, and probably won’t come as a surprise; as far as I’m concerned, Rushdie has a perfect right to write whatever he wants, about Islam or any other subject. The freedom to express oneself is a very fundamental one, and no-one should feel cowed into self-censorship by threats of violence or any other kind of intimidation. This applies just as much to any other religion, or indeed political ideas: as far as I can see, there is no reason – ethical or legal – why anyone should be restrained from saying whatever they want, in verbal or written form. This includes the freedom to cause offence, as far as I’m concerned – because an equal freedom to disagree naturally applies as well. And that’s how discussion and debate and learning all work together, as does being civilised and adult about things – as opposed to just shouting and threatening.
So, if Rushdie wants to write a book which could be interpreted as offensive to one religion (and I’ll get into that in a moment), he’s entitled to do so. If Dan Brown wants to write a book which offends Christians, there’s no reason he shouldn’t (as I’ve no doubt said before, I find The Da Vinci Code offensive on literary grounds, but that’s another issue – still doesn’t mean I don’t think he should be allowed to write or publish, mind). If someone wants to write a book attacking everything I believe, then again, they should be fully entitled to do so, without me shouting at them and threatening to kill them. Because, amazingly enough, I’m actually able to accept that there are people walking around who have different ideas to me.
Speaking of the specifics of The Satanic Verses; I’m able to do that, because I’ve read the book. I’m not suggesting that you should attempt to read the book before deciding whether you feel Rushdie was right or wrong to have written it – though a lot of people seem to have decided ‘he was asking for it’ on the basis of what they’ve been told about the book, which seems questionable to me – but I do think that the people who are so offended by it should make an attempt to read it, rather than simply going on what they’ve been told by religious leaders. Going back to the start of the fuss surrounding the book, I find it very hard to believe that every religious figure voicing an opinion actually read the entirety of an 500-page hardback book written in a sprawling Magic realism style, with characters and places changing names and aspects from chapter to chapter… which was, as far as I know, only available in English at the time. I suspect a lot of people are going on what they’ve been told about the content of the book, which is often a mistake, as people tend to lie – especially to exaggerate or minimise the degree of offence involved (and in that I include myself – I have an agenda here, obviously, so I recommend you read the book and decide for yourself).
Just to make this absolutely clear, I believe in unfettered freedom of expression, and the right for people to make their own minds up about what they want to read or see or listen to or whatever. This extends to books on shelves, programmes on TV and radio, art being created, films being made, articles being written, whatever; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the kind of items which are likely to offend my beliefs and sensibilities are those which I most think deserve to be aired. I’m not so vain as to think I’m right all the time, nor to think that I know best for other people all the time. That’s human vanity, which we need to move beyond – and as a species, we certainly need to stop claiming to have some greater power on our sides when it comes to this kind of discussion.
Given that, I think it was very wrong indeed that a fatwa was issued against Rushdie in 1989, and only right that the Iranian government said it no longer supported the fatwa in 1998.
All this, of course, is swirling round my mind as the fuss about Rushdie rears its head once more, as he’s been given a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, for his services to literature. Leaving aside whether you think this is right (and I think, for context, it’s worth bearing in mind that June Sarpong was made an MBE in the New Year Honours), a number of people seem to have interpreted the action as a deliberate insult to Islam, and we seem set to rehash the same debate all over again – though this time with the backdrop slightly changed, as Islam and acts of violence have unfortunately become linked in the minds of many people (which is in no way reflective of true Islam, of course – no more than shooting doctors outside abortion clinics is following the teachings of Jesus). And I’m sincerely hoping that we won’t start to hear people sounding more iffy about Rushdie’s right to write whatever he wants this time round.
I mean, people are utterly free to say whatever they like about the subject (and indeed any other), but in doing so, they have to bear in mind that they’re exercising exactly the same right which they’re seeking to quash in Salman Rushdie. That’s not irony, it’s hypocrisy, and we should all be free to point it out.