This year is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, which led to one of the most famous free speech controversies of modern times. Deemed offensive to Muslims because of its portrayal of the prophet Mohammed, the book provoked large demonstrations by British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, some of who publicly burned copies of the book. The book was banned in India, and in February 1989 the Ayatollah of Iran issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s head. As a result, The Satanic Verses became a totem of the battle for free expression across the world.
Today, the controversy continues to illuminate not so much a clash of civilisations as fault lines within the West itself. The response to the fatwa first revealed many anxieties familiar in contemporary debates about identity and ‘social cohesion’. In particular, the spectre of multiculturalism has haunted the book’s wider reception. Many believe that home-grown terrorism is proof that policies designed to quell discontent and minimise social atomisation, have achieved the opposite effects.
The journey from the Ayatollah’s fatwa to self-directed jihad waged by a small sect of British Muslims is complex. What does the Rushdie affair really tell us about the origins of radical Islam? And does the West still have an appetite for intellectual freedom?
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writer and broadcaster; author, The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics and From Fatwa to Jihad
columnist, Independent titles; advisor to Evgeny Lebedev; author, Twirlymen: the unlikely history of cricket’s greatest spin doctors
Rushdie says he is an atheist who finds dead religions “much more attractive” but says he has nothing against true believers until their faith spills over into the public sphere and becomes “my business”.Ben Hoyle, The Times, 1 October 2008
Rushdie's critics lost the battle to ban his book but they have won the war.Kenan Malik, The Times, 29 September 2008
Quick, somebody buy a wreath. Last week marked the passing of multiculturalism as official government doctrine. No longer will opponents of this corrosive and divisive creed be silenced simply by the massed Pavlovian ovine accusation: “Racist!”Rod Liddle, The Times, 27 August 2008
Yes, African-Americans are biologically different from Ashkenazi Jews, but race is utterly useless for scientific researchKenan Malik, The Times, 2 July 2008
John Gray, Britain’s foremost political philosopher, says that Ruth Kelly’s new campaign against Islamic extremism is doomed because it exaggerates the scope for cohesion in our fragmented modern worldJohn Gray, Spectator, 14 February 2007
Truly moderate Muslims are finding that the host community is cutting the ground from under their feet and delivering them into the hands of the extremists. This is a deliberate policy of riding the Islamist tiger. But those who ride a tiger may get eaten.Melanie Phillips, The Times, 6 June 2006
No question about it: it’s harder to celebrate polyculture when Belgian women are being persuaded by Belgians “of North African descent” to blow themselves — and others — up.Salman Rushdie, The Times, 10 December 2005
David Goodhart's essay challenging liberals to rethink their attitudes to diversity and the welfare state has provoked a bitter debate among progressive thinkers.David Goodheart, The Guardian, 24 February 2004
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Chris Rapley, director, Science Museum