The Satanic Verses: A Legacy | Sarah Stook

Thirty years ago, an Indian-born British author wrote a book. This novel, a story of magical realism akin to the author’s usual work, combined fantasy and religious history in two worlds. The book? A little known worked called The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

It is rare that controversy in a book remains years after its release. Sure, you have schools banning classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, but the Harper Lee novel remains beloved and lauded by many. The Satanic Verses is far from the first or last piece of literature to cause controversy, but perhaps no book in modern history has caused more moral panic. The only remotely comparable thing is the 95 Theses, somewhat more extreme due to the religious split it caused in medieval Europe. Most of our readers will not have even been born when the infamous Rushdie novel was published, but will still know of the impact.

So what’s the issue?

The Satanic Verses has been criticised for being Islamophobic. In a nutshell, the main issues some found were: a fictionalised tale of the Prophet Muhammad; the implication that the Qur’an was incorrect; the insulting name used for the Prophet and other figures and the names of Mohammad’s wives being used for prostitutes and other undesirables.

The novel immediately caused uproar within parts of the Muslim community. In Bradford, a well-known settlement for Muslim migrants, a book burning occurred and in London there was a major protest against it. The USA also saw fierce protests. Bookshops were targeted and Rushdie became Public Enemy No. 1. It was, however, worse in many Muslim-majority countries across the world. India, which has a large Islamic community and is the home of the author, was one of the major protest sites and the main point of anger after the UK. Pakistan also saw riots that killed people.

Most dangerously, Iran erupted. In one of the most infamous religious episodes of recent history, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Rushdie, and less famously those who supported the publication of the book. A fatwa is legal Islamic judgement which sets an opinion on a certain issue- in this case, apparent blasphemy against Islam. Sent out on Valentine’s Day (how romantic), it included a multi-million dollar bounty and a yearly reminder to Rushdie of this action. The issue became so fierce that it led to the UK breaking relations with Iran, something very serious in geopolitical circles.

Rushdie was placed in twenty four hour police protection and he and his wife moved around constantly to avoid threats. He remained in hiding for nearly ten years, writing under a pseudonym to avoid any problems. Even after leaving hiding, he remains in constant threat and survived an attempted assassination amongst other things. Fortunately, Mr. Rushdie remains unharmed to this day despite attempts to the contrary. Unfortunately, non-Muslims also condemned him- though most didn’t wish him any harm- believing his book to be provocative, offensive and just wrong. One example is the then-Archbishop of Canterbury wanting to expand the blasphemy laws in the United Kingdom, something that only protected Christianity.

Countries that have banned it are:

  • Bangladesh
  • Indonesia
  • Kenya
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sudan
  • Singapore
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania
  • Thailand
  • Venezuela

A number of book sellers don’t stock the books whilst some keep it under the counter. In a hilarious twist, the book became extremely popular after the fatwa was declared- as is usual, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

So, why is it so relevant and what do we think?

It is relevant because it is a key example of freedom of speech and the repercussions of it. Rushdie has every right to write whatever he wants, however grossly offensive and awful it could be to some. Anyone has a right to write content deemed unsavoury, there is a difference between that and actively advocating for violent action against a group or person. Creativity has no limits and neither does freedom of speech. It is not up to any government or authority to define what speech is acceptable and is not, simply because motives change and opinions are a subjective thing. If one group has certain prejudices, they will censor views that promote those they oppose. It is almost universal in dictatorships, with books banned and media only allowed to report certain things, the latter often being state run.

No group is above criticism, whoever they are. There is a difference between attacking someone in the street who is clearly Muslim, Jewish or anything else and saying ‘I disagree with this part of X religion on the grounds stated in their holy book because of what is says on X, Y and X.’ You can criticism Islam, Judaism and Christianity on its ideas and rightly so, because very religion has its unsavoury aspects. You have a right to argue against theocracies that impose religion and ban others. Criticism is not hate despite what many have you believing these days.

Nobody has to read The Satanic Verses. If some Muslims and others are offended by the book, they can simple ignore it and read another piece of literature of their choosing. They have a right to dislike what is says, but not the right to decide that others cannot read it and that the author should be strung up. It went from personal beliefs to hate when they started burning effigies and attempting to murder Mr. Rushdie. No belief, however devout, should lead you into believing in the harm of others because they oppose that view. Rushdie is not a threat to the world, unlike terrorism, war and poverty. If they want to protect each other, angry readers should focus on making the world a better place for those they claim to protect.

Thirty years on and we’re still talking about this. In thirty years, we may be talking about it again- Rushdie will be 101 then if he is lucky, but if he is departed, then it will define his legacy. Rushdie has written other books, most notably Midnight’s Children. If anything, we should be lauding him as a hero for not regretting what he wrote.

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