Ed West Ed West

25 years after the Rushdie fatwa, are we more or less afraid of Islamism?

It’s 25 years since the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued history’s worst Valentine’s Day message to author Salman Rushdie, during that momentous spring when communism began to topple in Poland and Hungary, the world wide web was invented, and the Iranian leader issued in a new age of religious tension.

The background is full of paradoxes and ironies, such as the fact that the book had been on sale in Tehran for months before and no one seemed to care, and the whole thing was rather cooked up as part of Iran’s struggle with the Saudis; for anyone interested in the background I can’t recommend Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad highly enough.

But what really matters is the answer to the question: have things got better or worse? Are we more cowed now than we were then? I would say, overall, that they’ve got worse, but then I would say that.

It’s striking when you read about people involved in the novel how naïve their attitudes seem in retrospect; today such a book proposal, even from someone as great as Rushdie, would be destroyed in the first trimester. No one would touch it.

Unfortunately that’s because British society rather set the tone in 1989, including a great deal of conservatives who did not back Rushdie to the hilt, a grave error of principle and self-interest (easy to say now, I’m sure I would have done the same).

Liberals were more split, between supporters of freedom and supporters of equality, and still are to some extent; the cultural relativism line has worn thin, but as with the recent question of the segregation of the sexes you still find people using tortured logic to defend such practices and calling it a Right-wing plot to discredit Islam.

That’s because, like Rushdie’s tormentors, the religious reactionaries of 2014 have been given protection by the politics of race; another, less discussed factor, is the culture of censorship established by the campus thought police of the 1970s and 1980s.

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