My first journalistic job was at the free speech and human rights magazine, Index on Censorship (which, many years later, I still warmly recommend to Coffee Housers who care about fundamental liberties). My months at its offices on Highbury Fields had a profound effect on me, and stirred in me a sense that something unexpected and of deep cultural significance was happening in the towns and cities of this country. Index had been founded as a bastion of free speech during the Cold War, a vehicle to unite liberals and conservatives in the common fight against totalitarianism. But, by 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was clear that the threat to free expression was mutating and growing ever more complex.
At the heart of this dawning realisation was the Rushdie Affair - and today marks the twentieth anniversary of the fatwa on the author of The Satanic Verses
. As I wrote in the Telegraph
four years ago, February 14, 1989, was the day when the conflict with Islamic militancy truly began – a conflict of which the War on Terror, post 9/11, is only one aspect. The core question was, and is, this question:
Multi-culturalism - often presented as a sinister Left-wing conspiracy - is, in fact, as the philosopher John Gray has written, "an historical fate'', a purely empirical description of the modern condition. The challenge for a multi-cultural society like Britain, therefore, is not to identify the areas of difference between its component communities, but to have the courage to identify, and insist upon, the points of non-negotiable conformity.
That challenge is still far from being answered satisfactorily: witness the chaos over the banning of Geert Wilders, the far-Right Dutch politician whose film Fitna
makes hugely controversial use of the Koran and terrorist imagery. Gordon Brown’s unfairly-derided “Britishness” project is at least an attempt to find out if it is possible to define the boundaries which can and cannot be transgressed in a modern, diverse, heterogeneous society such as ours. It may not succeed but it is a laudable effort to force the issue in as diplomatic a fashion as possible.
I interviewed Rushdie
for The Spectator
last year, and – having interviewed him in a Special Branch safe house many years before when he was in hiding and always on the move – it was a delight to see the novelist restored to normal life, with a twinkle in his eye and at the height of his powers. The novelist has many detractors but (alongside his literary accomplishment) he personifies something important and, in my view, non-negotiable. To adapt Kenneth Tynan: I could never love anyone who did not think that his right to publish The Satanic Verses
free of fear was inalienable. I felt that in 1989 and I feel it now. Sad to say, the stakes in 2009 are not only artistic but truly, terrifyingly geo-political. As well as 9/11 and 7/7, let us never forget 14/2.