Writers, broadcasters, friends and publishing insiders recall what it was like to be caught up in the most controversial story in recent literary history, The Satanic Verses and the ensuing fatwa against its author, as Salman Rushdie prepares to bring out his eagerly awaited memoir
Geoffrey Robertson QC
On Valentine's Day 1989, the dying Ayatollah Khomeini launched the mother of all prosecutions against Salman Rushdie. As with the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, his fatwa was a case of sentence first and trial later.
Defended Salman Rushdie in the blasphemy case brought against The Satanic Verses
Rushdie's difficulties brought many of his north London friends into a closer and warmer contact with officers of the Special Branch than they might ever have thought likely.
It was not long before a private prosecutor tried to issue a summons against the author of The Satanic Verses to attend, at the Old Bailey, his trial for blasphemous libel. The magistrate refused, so the prosecutor appealed to the High Court, where 13 Muslim barristers attempted to get the book banned, but their action forced them to draft an indictment against Rushdie and his publishers specifying with legal precision the way in which the novel had blasphemed.
Their efforts convinced me that The Satanic Verses is not blasphemous. The book is the fictional story of two men, infused with Islam but confused by the temptations of the west. The first survives by returning to his roots. The other, Gibreel, poleaxed by his spiritual need to believe in God and his intellectual inability to return to the faith, finally kills himself. The plot, in short, is not an advertisement for apostasy.
Our opponents could in the end only allege six blasphemies in the book, and each one was based either on a misreading or on theological error:
God is described in the book as "The Destroyer of Man". As He is similarly described in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, especially of men who are unbelievers or enemies of the Jews.
The book contains criticisms of the prophet Abraham for his conduct towards Hagar and Ismael, their son. Abraham deserves criticism and is not seen as without fault in Islamic, Christian or Jewish traditions.
Rushdie refers to Muhammad as "Mahoud". He called him variously "a conjuror", "a magician" and a "false prophet". Rushdie does nothing of the sort. These descriptions come from the mouth of a drunken apostate, a character with whom neither author nor reader has sympathy.
The book grossly insults the wives of the Prophet by having whores use their names. This is the point. The wives are expressly said to be chaste, and the adoption of their names by whores in a brothel symbolises the perversion and decadence into which the city had fallen before it surrendered to Islam.
The book vilifies the close companions of the Prophet, calling them "bums from Persia" and "clowns", whereas the Qur'an treats them as men of righteousness. These phrases are used by a depraved hack poet, hired to pen propaganda against the Prophet. They do not represent the author's beliefs.
The book criticises the teachings of Islam for containing too many rules and seeking to control every aspect of everyday life. Characters in the book do make such criticisms, but they cannot amount to blasphemy because they do not vilify God or the Prophet.
The case had one very satisfying result: the Home Office announced it would not allow further blasphemy prosecutions, declaring "how inappropriate our legal mechanisms are for dealing with matters of faith and individual belief … the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers". Amen to that (Pussy Riot prosecutors please note). The crime of blasphemy has now been abolished, although this wretched legacy of English law still permits courtroom persecutions in Pakistan and some other countries of the Commonwealth.
Although Rushdie remains alive and well after nearly 24 years, spare a thought for the families of those who did not get away from this theocratic regime: the 162 democrats and dissidents assassinated in Europe; the thousands of atheist and Marxist prisoners murdered in prison; the green movement protesters and their lawyers (15 so far) who have been sentenced to long prison terms for being their lawyers. Had the world devised a way to bring this regime to justice for devising the Rushdie fatwa, we would not now have to worry about what it will do with nuclear weapons.
Other contributors include David Davidar - Novelist and publisher of Penguin India, 1985-2004, Ian McEwan - Novelist and friend, Peter Carey - Novelist, 1988 Booker prizewinner and many others.
Read the full, comprehensive report at The Guardian