To those of us who live without religion, superstition – at least, in the traditional sense of the word – comes to us as if from another world. Genuine belief in superstition, belief in supernatural occurrences happening in the midst of our lives, is held by those who live far away from us; and thus we allow ourselves to be complacently fatuous about them and their bronze-age ignorance.
But what happens when we encounter such a person in our own cities? One, moreover, who has treated you with hospitality and patience? Who seems unembarrassed about his beliefs and at the same time expresses them in a gentle and unimposing manner?
In the weeks anticipating the 30th anniversary of the death sentence issued against Salman Rushdie on 14th February, 1989, by the Ayatollah Khomeini, I had read as much as I could find about the case of The Satanic Verses. The backlash against the novel in so-called Muslim communities from London to Braford had occurred before the fatwa (which I shall come back to) had been issued. The history and background of such communities, which you may read about in Kenan Malik’s 2009 book From Fatwa To Jihad, had made me curious to visit some of the local mosques in my town. Why, I thought, had I never been to one?
I had no curiosity other than that which I would possess when visiting a church or synagogue or temple. My usual routine: to wander, tourist-like, through a gloomy, gothic hall, admiring the architecture, enjoying the dusty, mournful darkness, all the while behaving with the self-regarding respect of one visiting elderly relatives. For the most part, such places are empty; clergymen, if spotted, always appear to be late for something else. Silence among the tourists, as Philip Larkin well knows, is maintained by the reluctance to produce an echo.
At the mosque, which I called beforehand to ensure that I would not interrupt a congregation, I was treated with flattering attention. Not long after I had removed my shoes, I was greeted by a gently spoken imam, for whose time I am extremely grateful. Thanks to him, I am now familiar with the architecture and furnishings of the typical mosque. But I was also greeted with nods and smiles by almost anyone who spotted me there, probably as I appeared rather odd and awkward to regular worshippers.
Later I was introduced to a self-described sheikh, a tall, broad man with a European accent and a thick black beard, who spoke in a livelier manner than his learned brother. He and I went for a walk, and he spoke to me, among other things, of the miracles of Islam, before it was time for me to return to the mosque to attend an evening congregation.
There is not much to say about my visit, which I would not dwell on for much longer except for two moments that came to me as a surprise. The imam, opening a copy of the Qur’an to show me the Arabic writing, claimed, in the same gentle tones as he had said everything else, that, by a miracle, anyone may read the holy text and the audience would be unable to detect his accent. This, he said, is a sign that the book is a truly universal revelation, for all mankind.
The sheikh, meanwhile, guiding me down the long London street as the winter evening drew in around us, gestured to the bare branches of trees; gestured to the grey overlapping clouds above; and cited the bumblebee. Why? Because the leaves, the stars, and the honeycomb structure of the bumblebee nest, like the verses of the Qur’an itself, are patterned according to the ratio 1.618. Also known as the Golden Ratio, the ‘Divine Proportion’, it serves as evidence that the universe has a creator; and His name is Allah.
Now, I do not believe in the supernatural or, I hope and trust, own superstitious beliefs. I could have responded with mild scepticism to either of my tour guides, and would, no doubt, have made more interesting conversation for them. Instead I chose to humour them, and show that I was impressed. I had not thought to encounter such beliefs among my neighbours, but there it was; and my response was hypocrisy. For goodness’ sake, what did I imagine was going to happen?
‘In the name of Him, the Highest. There is only one God, to which we shall all return. I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses – which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the Qu’ran – and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death.
‘I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.
‘In addition, anyone who has access to the author of this book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should report him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions.
‘May peace and the mercy of God and His blessings be with you. Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini, 25 Bahman 1367.’
Broadcast on Tehran Radio at 2pm on Valentine’s Day, 1989, this message marked the end of unguarded safety for the author of The Satanic Verses, who would be under the protection of Scotland Yard and the FBI for the subsequent decade, moving from house to house, flanked by highly trained officers and isolated from his family and friends The novel’s Norwegian translator, William Nygaard, was shot but not killed outside his own home; Ettoro Capriolo, its Italian translator, was beaten up and stabbed; Hitoshi Igarashi, its Japanese translator, was stabbed to death. At a literary gathering in Turkey, at which the Turkish translator was to speak, a mob of anti-Rushdie Muslims attacked the hotel at which he was being hosted and set it ablaze, killing thirty-seven. Meanwhile, a Tehran-based charity placed a £3 million bounty on Rushdie’s head.
I take my facts from Malik’s book, which usefully examines the roots of the Muslim grievances in Britain, as well as the wider geo-political motive for Khomeini’s fatwa. Perhaps most disconcertingly for our time, Malik shows the failure of liberals and conservatives to defend Rushdie. Conservatives were resentful that Rushdie, stirring up unnecessary trouble by publishing the novel, should now enjoy taxpayers’ money for his own protection; liberals, squeamish about causing offence among minorities, believed that Rushdie was at fault for deliberately blaspheming against Islam. Politicians and clergyman first trembled, and then buckled. There were, of course, many brave exceptions, demonstrating that true principle knows no political party.
Malik’s book provides neat summaries of the legacy of the ‘Rushdie affair’: ‘The responses of Western nations first to the fatwa and subsequently to jihad have helped undermine civil liberties, erode freedom of speech and western democracy’. Indeed, we cannot imagine The Satanic Verses being published today. We either live in fear, unwilling to subject ourselves to intimidation, as Penguin chief Peter Meyers was (which, to his lasting credit, he admirably withstood); or we accept the premise of Islamists and fundamentalists that such things are offensive, and censor ourselves as well as each other.
The legacy is bleak. Thirty years on, freedom of expression has become discredited, to be defended strictly on a partisan basis, while its limitations are stressed more often than its liberties. Of course, when I encountered the two Muslim gentlemen with which I began this essay, I did not fear a violent response from them, should I have questioned their superstitious beliefs. They could not have been more generous to me and, besides, I was their guest.
Nonetheless, my reluctance to express my own opinion, rather than humour my guides, speaks even in the smallest degree to the legacy of the fatwa. And that legacy is cowardice. One only needs to observe the difference between the staunch defences made for The Satanic Verses by Penguin, and Random House’s premature withdrawal, in 2008, of The Jewel of Medina, which depicts Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad; one only needs to observe the subsequent reactions to the Danish cartoons and the response to the Charlie Hebdo murders to conclude that we have not honoured those who struggled for our right to think and speak.
‘How with this rage,’ asked Shakespeare, ‘shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ For the 30th anniversary of the fatwa, we can surely begin to make up for lost time. We can reclaim our withering liberty, not through gruelling (and unhelpful) street protests, or through Twitter rage, or by the comedian’s joke. We can begin by simply reading The Satanic Verses; a triumphant work of literature. In the next two essays, I shall attempt to answer Shakespeare’s question, and in my appreciation of the novel make a plea for ‘beauty’.