The Satanic Verses: How one book ignited a culture war

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The phrase "literary London" is usually employed to nebulous effect but it accurately describes the gathering that took place at the Greek Orthodox church in Bayswater on 14 February, a clear blue St Valentine's Day, in 1989. The occasion was Bruce Chatwin's memorial service, and it was attended by a large contingent of what was and remains an exceptional generation of British or British-based writers. Among them were Martin Amis, Paul Theroux and Salman Rushdie.

According to Theroux, Chatwin's funeral "was the high watermark of that decade's creative activity". For Amis, Chatwin, a recent convert to Greek Orthodoxy, had played a last joke on his friends by subjecting them to "a religion that no one he knew could understand or respond to". If so, it was a joke destined to be overshadowed by a very different kind of theological offering that was far more of a challenge to understand or respond to. That same morning Rushdie had been informed of the fatwa issued by the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, calling for his execution for the crime of writing a novel, The Satanic Verses.

Word of the death sentence had spread among the mourners. Thinking the fatwa was little more than the empty threat of a faraway tyrant, Theroux called out to Rushdie: "Next week we'll be back here for you!" But Khomeini's pronouncements in such matters were seldom without consequence. As far back as 1947, when merely a cleric, he had ordered the death of an Iranian education minister who within days was shot dead. And thereafter countless other political and intellectual opponents were to lose their lives on Khomeini's command. Chatwin's memorial service was to be Rushdie's last public appearance for some time.

He spent the remainder of that day searching for his son, Zafar, then he went into hiding. The headline of the London evening paper read: EXECUTE RUSHDIE, ORDERS THE AYATOLLAH. "Salman had disappeared into the world of block caps," wrote Amis. "He had vanished into the front page." In fact he had moved with a Special Branch protection team to the Lygon Arms hotel in the Cotswolds. Apparently a tabloid reporter happened to be in the next room, conducting an adulterous affair, and missed the biggest story of the year. That same evening Channel 4 broadcast a pre-recorded interview with Rushdie on The Bandung File. "It's very simple in this country," said the author, when asked about the demands that his book be withdrawn from shops. "If you don't want to read a book, you don't have to read it. It's very hard to be offended by The Satanic Verses - it requires a long period of intense reading. It's a quarter of a million words."

Four days after Rushdie received his "unfunny Valentine", he issued an apology: "I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam." At first the apology was rejected then accepted in Iran, before Khomeini stated that even if Rushdie repented and "became the most pious man of all time" it was still incumbent on every Muslim to "employ everything he has got" to kill him. So much for the spirit of forgiveness.

What the mixed responses pointed to was that, right from the start, The Satanic Verses affair was less a theological dispute than an opportunity to exert political leverage. The background to the controversy was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran to be the standard bearer of global Islam. The Saudis had spent a great deal of money exporting the fundamentalist or Salafi version of Sunni Islam, while Shiite Iran, still smarting from a calamitous war and humiliating armistice with Iraq, was keen to reassert its credentials as the vanguard of the Islamic revolution. Both the Saudis and Iranians saw a new constituency, ripe for exploitation, in the small British protest groups that initially responded to The Satanic Verses with book-burning demonstrations. But in fact the protesters who took to the streets in Bradford and other mill towns were themselves the offspring of other far-off theocratic politics in the subcontinent.

The Satanic Verses was published on 26 September 1988 and, after pressure from the Janata party, banned in India by Rajiv Gandhi's government nine days later. Flushed with this success, Indians working for the Saudi-financed Islamic Foundation of Leicester suggested trying to get the book banned in Britain. According to Malise Ruthven, author of A Satanic Affair, the campaign was then orchestrated by Jamaat-i-Islami, the party founded in Pakistan by Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi. A journalist-cum-theologian, Maududi preached that "for the entire human race, there is only one way of life which is Right in the eyes of God and that is al-Islam".

Nevertheless it was the Saudis who funded the United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, the protest body set up to maximise pressure on The Satanic Verses. It featured Islamists like Iqbal Sacranie, the future head of the Muslim Council of Britain. (Sacranie famously opined that "death, perhaps, is a bit too easy" for Rushdie. He was later knighted for services to community relations.) And it was the Saudi clerics who were planning a trial of Rushdie in absentia.

In keeping with most Muslim countries, Iran did not ban The Satanic Verses. It was even reviewed in an Iranian newspaper. But noticing the protests in India and Britain, a delegation of mullahs from the holy city of Qum read a section of the book to Khomeini, including the part featuring a mad imam in exile, which was an obvious caricature of Khomeini. As one British diplomat in Iran said: "It was designed to send the old boy incandescent." So it was that the Iranians delivered the fatwa, thus winning the competition to be the greatest haters of Rushdie, and therefore the West, and all that entailed.

As Khomeini put it in a speech nine days after the fatwa, The Satanic Verses was very important to what he called the "world devourers" because they had mobilised the "entire Zionism and arrogance behind it". The book, he went on, was a "calculated" attack by "colonialism" on the greatness and honour of the clergy. It's worth noting here that the book, written by an arch anti-colonialist, was indeed in part an attack, or at least satire, on the role of the clergy, the caste of priests that has no Qur'anic authority. In this newspaper, just before the fatwa, Rushdie had written: "A powerful tribe of clerics has taken over Islam. These are the contemporary Thought Police."..

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