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The Shock of the Fatwa – What it was Like Back Then

Anthony Barnett remembers the political and social circumstances around the response to Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’

Salman Rushdie signs copies of ‘The Satanic Verses’. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Reuters/Alamy

The Shock of the FatwaWhat it was Like Back Then

Anthony Barnett remembers the political and social circumstances around the response to Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’

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It is now a generation, 33 years, since the Fatwa took place and Salman Rushdie and all who assisted the production and distribution of The Satanic Verses were threatened with death by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, after the criminal folly of the invasion of Iraq and the horrific expansion of terrorism in its wake, it’s hard to grasp its historic impact.

When you are living through a historic turning point you know it, what you cannot know is the direction history will point when the turning stops.

We certainly knew it was turning in 1989. While that year opened with an unprecedented violation of the life of one of Britain’s greatest novelists, it closed with a triumph of free voice over oppression as one of Europe’s greatest playwrights, Václav Havel, was sworn in as President of Czechoslovakia.

The velvet revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 overthrew Soviet control and initiated the greatest expansion of political freedom since India and China gained their independence from Western and Japanese domination in 1948-49.

Yet, like post-war decolonialisation, 1989 prepared the way for often bloody and irreconcilable movements of national self-determination rather than a shared embrace of democracy. Above all, in China, where Deng Xiaoping crushed the movement for political freedom in Tiananmen Square in June.

Britain was both roiled by, and a source of, this world reshaping. Margaret Thatcher had passed the zenith of her power, the high point of which had been her third election victory of 1987, won thanks to the ‘Lawson Boom’. Her supremacy was going to her head as she insisted on the Poll Tax and opposed the reunification of Germany as a Hitlerite revival. With Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party unable to mount an effective opposition, there was a clear, novel danger to the country’s liberties and freedom.

What was different between Britain then and now is that, in 1989, the country was being reconstructed by a novel reactionary system that was working and confident – indeed over-confident – symbolised by the 1986 ‘Big Bang’ that turned the City of London into a new global electronic financial centre. It was quite different to today when, with the banks broken by the financial crash, the country is being sucked into a doomed Brexit.

Across the left, we felt it was imperative to challenge Thatcher’s rampant ‘regime’, as she herself came to describe it. And we too were energised as we explored new forms of defiance.

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Towards the end of the decade, Marxism Today – one of the preeminent journals on the left at the time – was declaring ‘New Times’. Scottish civic and political groups combined to make their Claim of Rights. Charter 88, which I co-ordinated and which Salman among many others helped to draft, demanded a modern, European constitution. The June 20th group of writers was launched from the home of Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser and discussed how the left could succeed, much to tabloid disgust. And on the streets, a refusal to pay the Poll Tax was gathering strength.

The deeper earthquake was the collapse of the labour movement collectivism. Its two political turning points were Thatcher’s crushing of the miners and Murdoch’s dismantling of the power of the print unions. The underlying cause was the end of what we learnt to call ‘Fordist’ mass production. The challenge was to create new ways to confront the reckless supremacy of finance capitalism.

Although New Labour came to embrace the neoliberal market form of globalisation, following Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1992, the seeds of its urge to ‘modernise’ were sown in the strange if not surreal creative energies of the late 1980s.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown participated in Charter 88 and wrote for Marxism Today, while Brown signed the Scottish Claim of Rights. As the principles of internationalism were corrupted by communism, across the left we explored the positive aspects of globalisation, from the European social model to the rise of anti-colonial cosmopolitanism.

This was the heady atmosphere in which Salman Rushdie thrived and his writing took off. A new era of relevant literature was feeling its power, epitomised by the opening sentences of Angela Carter’s Magic Toyshop, published like Rushdie’s breakthrough novel Midnight’s Children, in 1981:

The summer she was 15, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land. She embarked on a tranced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her own mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys…”  

A New Global Conflict

Rushdie explored more widely than any, revelling in the emancipation from old forms of authority.

The drama of The Satanic Verses confronts change itself. As its two protagonists Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha descend explosively on England, they meet the central issue of modern life: are you true to yourself by leaving your roots behind or does self-allegiance demand remaining loyal to your origins? Who is the traitor and who is loyal when society itself becomes defined by global change?

Tragically, the far-right, in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, attacked globalisation before progressives could get a measure of it.

Khomeini’s ‘mumbo-jumbo’ to borrow a phrase from Francis Wheen, was Thatcherism’s twin. Both were born in 1979 – he was declared supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, a month before Thatcher became Prime Minister. Unlike her he was not married to an oil millionaire and did not appreciate the market. This meant his bigotry and xenophobia were much worse. In 1989, with his health declining and his influence under threat, he exploited protests about the new book and lashed out with the Fatwa.

At the time, I was co-ordinating Charter 88 from the offices of the New Statesman. Two weeks before the Fatwa, the magazine’s editor Stuart Weir asked me to write an editorial on the burning of The Satanic Verses in Bradford, where around 1,000 protestors had gathered to put it to the flames.

I argued that the book was a tremendous exploration of migration and transformation. “English literature concerns itself with what it means the ‘be’ something or someone,” I asserted with the confidence that writing anonymous editorials bestows, whereas just like the Channel Tunnel then being drilled to connect us to our continent, Rushdie was creating European literature, which “is about what it means not to be something: to be in flux, in change, in metamorphosis.” To burn this, the editorial concluded, puts “the very principles of pluralist democracy… to the stake”.

Rather than being recognised as a far-reaching challenge, however, the protest in Bradford was treated as a local upset of little wider significance. But the Fatwa itself could not be so ignored. A foreign state had singled out a British citizen to be assassinated for writing a book. For those of us on the left seeking a new way forward based on human rights and democracy, it was like an unexpected punch in the face. 

Had Rushdie been a white Christian, the wider public uproar would have been comparable to the reaction against Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands.

I organised a protest demanding a strong government response. The maximum allowed into Downing Street to deliver it was six people. It was strange watching the television news that night when it switched from a million people in Tehran chanting for Salman’s death to our polite group with Harold Pinter reading out our letter to the cameras.

The Guardian front page depicting Harold Pinter, Hanif Kureishi and Anthony Barnett outside Downing Street

Many, especially the Conservatives, saw Salman as an uppity colonial native who should have been grateful to the United Kingdom for its hospitality, rather than lancing the hypocrisies of Thatcherism with enviable eloquence and literary achievement.

But thanks to his adamantine defiance, the Fatwa initiated a redefinition of what it meant to be ‘us’. Henceforth, being British included the need to defend people like Rushdie with all the resources of the state. Yet his challenge to Islam was greater still.

By claiming that it was his right, as a person born into the Muslim faith, to mock the absurdities of its orthodoxy, Salman asserted the ultimate migration: the right to become like ‘the other’ and lay claim to the highest, secular standards of the half-civilisation he was now a member of, including the right to satirise it and insist upon its improvement.

The Fatwa’s death sentence in effect asserted that no one can publicly repudiate the faith of their birth, expose its inconsistencies and challenge its patriarchy. Rushdie defied its narrowness, misogyny and authoritarianism. Edward Said, a Palestinian, rightly celebrated his claim to do so as an “intifada of the imagination”.

A new global conflict began in 1989 that still defines our time. It is not a ‘cold’ war. On the contrary, it is a new kind of hot war of power, wealth and dogma against the wider potential of humanity as we cast aside the confinements of the past. Everyone can feel it. An arbitrary hatred and contempt for rivals – however distinct in their intensities and registers – was shared by both Thatcher and Khomeini. As they are today by the current strongmen, who are the enemies of human creativity and possibility.  

One challenge is that in fighting back we begin to become, as so often in conflicts, like our enemies. ‘Cancel culture’ represents such a danger. Another is that the globalisation that Salman Rushdie personifies in the reach and energy of his writings, is also inhuman – especially if it is embraced fatalistically in terms of market values and supremacy of fame to which there is ‘no alternative’.

This is why Rushdie retains such importance. Not as a victim or a symbol, but as the bearer of the knowing laugh that tells us things are complicated, ambiguous and turn into their opposites – which is why you cannot know where a turning point will end. 

Anthony Barnett’s most recent book is ‘Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic’. The author extends his thanks to Gavin Jacobson 

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