The Dreyfus Affair Of Our Age

In 1988, the highest bid for the English language rights for The Satanic Verses bettered its nearest rival by a full $100,000. The literary agent Andrew Wylie belied his nickname of “the Jackal” when he told his client to turn the offer down. “Could you just explain again why I should not agree to receive an extra one hundred thousand dollars?” his puzzled author asked. Wylie was adamant. A company owned by Rupert Murdoch “would be the wrong publishers for you”. Salman Rushdie sighed and agreed, contradicting all those who were to claim that he was in writing to get rich as he did it.

After the storm broke, Murdoch told the New Yorker, “I think you should not give offence to people’s religious beliefs. I hope that our people would never have published the Salman Rushdie book.” If Rushdie had gone for the money, Murdoch would have pulped his novel.

Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton — the pseudonym he adopted when he went underground — is as multi-layered as his fiction. At times it reads like a literary Day of the Jackal. You know Rushdie must survive, just as you know that Charles de Gaulle must survive, yet the intensity of the malevolence directed against him makes you wonder how he can live. It is a psychological study of disintegration and redemption. Rushdie is in fear of his life and the lives of his young son and all those associated with his work. Assassins murder one of his translators and wound a second. Terrorists bomb libraries and bookshops from Karachi to the Charing Cross Road. Special Branch move him from house to house so often he can never settle. Whitehall tells him to keep quiet so as not to provoke his enemies. He is humiliated, afraid, isolated and silenced. Rushdie pulls himself together by ignoring the authorities, and taking on his adversaries in argument — and there is a lesson for us all there.

But as the Murdoch example illustrates, most of all and most depressingly, Joseph Anton is an account of how comfortable people in Western democracies react to the threat of political violence.

Not well is the politest available answer.

The teeth-sucking pundits who tell us to remember that moral issues are complicated and we must always look for shades of grey are usually right. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was an exception: the simplest moral question of my lifetime. On Valentine’s Day 1989, a dying theocrat diverted attention from his military and political failures by ordering the murder of a citizen of a foreign country for writing a novel. The Rushdie Affair became the Dreyfus Affair of our age because it revealed how, when faced with such extreme provocation, ordinary political categories collapse. Whatever your opinions, if you supported Rushdie, you supported the freedom to write, read and publish what you liked, even when (I would say especially when) books were being burned and death threats issued not in some far away and forgettable dictatorship but in your own land. You supported the rule of law, for Rushdie had committed no crime, and placed the right of the individual to express him or herself above the rights of the collective. The enemies of Dreyfus said that they must keep an innocent man in prison to protect the collective honour of the French army and French state. The enemies of Rushdie said that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s incitement to murder was understandable or excusable because it protected the collective honour of Muslims. No one who professed a belief in freedom of conscience and thought could hesitate for a moment before taking Rushdie’s side. As it turned out, those who shouted the loudest hesitated the      longest.

Rushdie writes that he “learned how to withstand the Islamic attacks on him; it was after all not surprising that fanatics and bigots behaved like bigots and fanatics.” Non-Muslim critics were harder to endure. Most came from the Right, or at least at first. Margaret Thatcher said she understood the insult to Islam. Norman Tebbit described Rushdie as “an outstanding villain”. Hugh Trevor-Roper, Roald Dahl, Richard Ingrams and Auberon Waugh behaved as disgracefully as one would expect. Daily Mail journalists deplored and pursued a man who put his life on the line for the freedoms that made them a comfortable living. At one point Rushdie describes watching the news at a secret address, when the pudgy face of Geoffrey Howe popped up on the screen. Howe tried to placate fanaticism by pretending that as well as insulting Islam, Rushdie had insulted Britain by comparing it to Nazi Germany. “Where?” shouted Rushdie at his television. “On what page? Show me where I did that?”

The Right’s animosity was understandable if not forgivable. Rushdie was a leftist, and an immigrant leftist to boot. He had supported the Nicaraguan revolution and been active in the anti-racist movements of the 1980s. Conservatives claimed that the slippery foreigner “knew what he was doing”. Rushdie deliberately insulted Islam because he wanted to make money from the controversy. They then used the costs of the Special Branch protection the ungrateful migrant had forced on the taxpayer to create a caricature from Tory fantasy. Rushdie was a highbrow scrounger, a champagne socialist, who collected his royalties while milking the public purse. When a snide Prince Charles joined the hostile chorus, Ian McEwan said that His Royal Highness’s security cost far more than Rushdie’s even though the prince “had never written anything worth reading”. Understandably, Rushdie was more outraged than amused. It took him four years to write The Satanic Verses. Did his opponents not find it strange that a serious writer would spend a tenth of his life creating something as crude as an insult? But of course, his enemies could not accept that he was a serious writer. “In order to attack him and his work, it was necessary to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist whose work was without merit, who ‘attacked Islam’ for his own personal gain. This was what was meant by the much-repeated phrase he did it on purpose.”

Like Howe, the Conservative grandees of the day had not read the book, any more than the most thuggish and philistine demonstrators on the streets of Bradford or Tehran had. They neither knew nor cared that the satire of the founding myths of Islam was a small part of a whirling narrative about the traumas of migration from West to East, traumas which the reader cannot help but notice all but did for Rushdie.

If Norman Tebbit still wants to talk about “outstanding villains”, the most outstanding were Douglas Hurd and his officials in the Foreign Office. At one point, a reporter asked Hurd, the minister charged with protecting a British citizen from state terrorism and all British citizens from that same state’s attempts to dictate what they could read, “What was your most painful experience in government”?

“Reading The Satanic Verses,” Hurd said with the philistinism the British upper class habitually mistakes for wit.

Egged on by Edward Heath and Conservative backbenchers, the wider Foreign Office regarded a global campaign of murder as a distraction from the task of “normalising relations” with Iran. To please the theocracy, diplomats suggested that Rushdie might plead for clemency for an alleged terrorist accused of bombing a bookshop that stocked The Satanic Verses. Rushdie protested, but the authorities allowed the suspect to return to Iran unpunished nevertheless. Just in case you run away with the idea that a concern for the tender feelings of Muslims motivated Hurd and his contemporaries, I should remind you that they went on to do everything possible to prevent a  robust Nato response to the slaughter of the Bosnian Muslims in the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. “Respect” for Muslim feeling did not concern them. In both instances, their chief desire was to strike illusory deals with arbitrary power, whether it was in its Iranian or Serbian form.

The world appears different now. If I were to show you an editorial urging us to “respect” regimes and movements that support the oppression of women, gays and Jews by biting our tongues and censoring our books, you would know without my prompting that it was from a leftish rather than a conservative newspaper. They were harder to spot, but the signs that the majority on the Left was prepared to outflank conservatives on the Right were there in 1989. Rushdie writes of how he was criticised from the Left by Germaine Greer, John Berger and John le Carré, whom I never thought of as left-wing, but I suppose is, if leftism is only anti-Americanism. Rushdie’s sister Sameen understood how left-liberal thought was going wrong from the outset. “For a generation the politics of ethnic minorities in Britain had been secular and socialist,” she said. “The fatwa was the mosques’ way of destroying that project and getting religion back into the driving seat.”

The honourable left-wing response was then and is now to fight back and support Muslims and ex-Muslims around the world who want to resist theocratic politics. In Egypt, Iran and across the “Muslim world”, many realised what was at stake and put their own lives in danger by defending Rushdie’s ideas and right to publish. But the calculating white leftist could not help noticing that radical identity politics were sweeping the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Supporters of Rushdie were a minority, frequently an embattled minority in Muslim countries. 

Just as the enemies of Dreyfus anticipated fascism, the left-wing intellectuals who went for Rushdie in 1989 anticipated a future when many on the Left would be happy to go along with reactionary and obscurantist forces as long as they were anti-Western. Had it not been for Khomeini’s incitements to murder in 1989, wrote the constantly shallow and occasionally sinister Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in 1994, “the world would be hurtling, unchallenged, towards the inalienable right to wear blue jeans and eat McDonald’s hamburgers”. Many on the Left would concede acres of ground to avoid that appalling fate. Social democratic politicians with large numbers of ethnic minority voters, meanwhile made an equally debased calculation, and are still making it today.

I did not think that my opinion of Jack Straw could sink any lower until I read Joseph Anton. A few years before Khomeini’s fatwa, the BBC had broadcast a play many Jews found offensive. While disapproving, Straw gave the proper response. “Democracy is about according rights of free expression to those with whom one profoundly disagrees,” he said. When fanatics wanted to murder Rushdie and ban his novel, however, Straw forgot about free expression, and called for a universal blasphemy law that would have banned The Satanic Verses and all other books the religious found offensive. There were many more Muslims than Jews in Straw’s Blackburn constituency and in the constituencies of other Labour MPs. As Rushdie reminds us, Tony Blair’s Labour government went on to propose a bill to enforce Straw’s prohibition, and very nearly succeeded in putting it on the statute book. I am ashamed to say that our freedoms to think, speak and argue feel safer now that Labour is out of power.

Rushdie’s autobiography has two sets of heroes, who look all the more heroic when set against the politicians and intellectuals of Left and Right. The liberal chattering classes, who are the butt of so much mockery, behaved impeccably. They hid Rushdie in their homes, and although Literary London is the most gossipy corner of the planet, never revealed the locations of his hiding places. The other heroes are the protection officers of the “A squad” of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch, who worked on the Rushdie “prot”, and maintained their honourable record of keeping their charges alive. (“We’re not like the Americans,” they told him. “They lost one president and nearly lost another.”) In 2003, when the security services decided that the threat had passed after 13 years, Special Branch threw a party for Rushdie at New Scotland Yard. We “want to get as many of the lads together as possible,” said one officer. “It’s been one of our very longest prots, and there’s a lot of pride in what’s been done, and a lot of appreciation for what you endured.”

In their way, the cops knew what Rushdie meant when he said, “Wherever in the world the little room of literature has been closed, sooner or later the walls have come tumbling down.” It is to Britain’s dishonour that too many of their supposed superiors did not.

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