When Viking Penguin published Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses 25 years ago this week, all hell broke loose. The novel, written by a celebrated Indian-British author who hailed from a Muslim family, set off a chain of events that included bookstore bombings, book bans and burnings, and blasphemy accusations. The real low point in what came to be known as the Rushdie Affair occurred when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Rushdie’s death. Rushdie was forced into hiding for the better part of a decade.
Why was The Satanic Verses so controversial? The novel offended many Muslims because of its portrayal of Islam as a deceitful, ignorant, and sexually deviant religion. Rushdie described Mecca as ‘Jahilia,’ a term signifying the period of ignorance prior to the revelations received by Muhammad. He referred to Muhammad as ‘Mahound,’ a medieval Christian designation that implied Muhammad was some kind of false deity. He gave the names of Muhammad’s wives to twelve prostitutes in a brothel. And most controversially, he invoked a discredited tradition in Islam, the so-called “satanic verses,” in which Satan inspired Muhammad to compromise with the people of Mecca and to allow them to continue to worship other deities in an attempt to lure them to Islam.
The heart of the controversy pertained to freedom of expression and what limits, if any, should be placed on this freedom when it is used to criticize if not demonize a minority religious community. Rushdie and his most ardent defenders insisted that freedom of expression was a non-negotiable principle. Muslim concerns over the novel were either of secondary importance or simply irrelevant. Some of Rushdie’s critics, including prominent religious leaders in Britain such as the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury, acknowledged Rushdie’s right to express his opinions on Islam but chastised him for abusing this freedom to malign and ridicule Muslim beliefs. They sought to balance freedom of expression with the fair and just treatment of Britain’s Muslim minorities.
There is plenty of criticism to go around for the participants in the Rushdie Affair. Some Muslims in Britain, for example, exercised poor judgment in how they responded to the novel. Public book burnings conjured up horrible episodes of repression in Europe’s past, from the Inquisition to Nazi bonfires. Other Muslims voiced support for Khomeini’s fatwa, giving many non-Muslims in the West the impression that Muslims were inherently prone to violence or otherwise incapable of “fitting in” to Western societies. And while still other Muslims defended Rushdie’s right to express his views and denounced Khomeini’s fatwa, the media tended to lump all Muslims together, and this made it more difficult for the broader public to understand what were otherwise some legitimate concerns about the novel.
While the reputation of Muslims took a severe hit during the Rushdie Affair, as we reflect on this episode 25 later, it is Rushdie’s defense of freedom of expression that deserves more scrutiny. Rushdie and some of his more outspoken supporters adopted a fairly uncritical approach to freedom of expression, assuming at times that this freedom benefits all members of Western societies equally. But is this true? Not really. The supposedly free exchange of ideas and opinions in fact arises from individuals and communities who occupy unequal positions of power and privilege. More often than not, cultural and political elites have access to a pulpit from which they can preach their views and shape public opinion. Not everyone is so fortunate.
Rushdie was a member of Britain’s cultural elite. This had not always been the case. He was, after all, a child of two worlds, India and Britain, cursed with what he refers to in his memoir as a “double unbelonging.” But as a renowned author, he rubbed shoulders far more with the movers and shakers of Britain than with the country’s growing number of Muslims. His fame as an author gave him access to publishers and media outlets that enabled his voice to be heard and his views to be spread far and wide. Most Muslims in Britain, by contrast, occupied the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. They lacked influence in the mainstream media as well as access to political power. Their voices, therefore, were often ignored or otherwise went unheard, and this reality undoubtedly fed their frustrations and influenced the forms their reactions took during the Rushdie Affair.
It is an illusion, albeit a powerful one, to believe that a free exchange of ideas exists in any pure form in the West. Racial, ethnic, and religious minorities rarely have possessed the same opportunities to shape public opinion as those with political power or cultural capital. More to the point, there is a long history in the West of political and cultural elites dictating or distorting the narratives of minority religious communities. Mormons, Catholics, and Jews, for example, struggled to communicate their own stories on their own terms to Protestant America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead, Protestant lawmakers, religious leaders, and newspaper editors sometimes used their power to co-opt the narratives of these religious communities in order to promote outright bigotry and discrimination.
The Rushdie Affair demonstrated just how resilient this phenomenon was. It is quite ironic that Rushdie, an ex-Muslim, wielded more power to shape popular opinions of Islam than all of Britain’s Muslims combined. We still see these uneven power dynamics at work in more recent episodes, such as the Danish Cartoon Controversy, or in the disproportionate attention given to Islamophobic personalities such as Michele Bachmann, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Geert Wilders. Non-Muslims in positions of power and influence, from authors to politicians to journalists, continue to dictate the often negative terms in which the story of Muslims and Islam is told.
What we still must learn from the Rushdie Affair is that freedom of expression, while in theory an extraordinary concept, rarely functions in practice in a way that is truly and equally inclusive of the diversity of voices and perspectives in Western societies. In the case of Muslims, we still have much work to do when it comes to discussing Islam in a manner that does not privilege the voices of non-Muslim cultural and political elites, particularly when their portrayals of Islam either endorse bigotry or otherwise perpetuate stereotypes that do not reflect how many Muslims understand themselves and their own religious tradition. This does not mean Islam should be exempt from criticism or debate. But it does mean that until we level the playing field between the Salman Rushdies on the one hand and the West’s Muslim minorities on the other, we will remain in the shadow of the Rushdie Affair, and a fuller, more robust freedom of expression will struggle to find the light of day.
Todd Green, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion at Luther College and co-chair of the Religion in Europe Group of the American Academy of Religion.
Green writes and conducts research on secularization and Islamophobia in Europe. He has published articles in a number of academic journals, including the Journal of Church and State, Journal of Religion in Europe, Religion Compass, and CrossCurrents. He is also the author of Responding to Secularization: The Deaconess Movement in Nineteenth-Century Sweden (Brill, 2011). He is currently writing a book for Fortress Press that surveys the history of Islamophobia in Europe and North America.