The affair began with The Satanic Verses going up in flames in Bradford. Western Muslims lit the spark. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini fanned it into a global blaze and, with American embassies under attack in the Arab world, the fatal dialectic between Islamic rage and western free speech once again leaves death in its wake.
On the day the fatwa was pronounced, February 14 1989, Salman Rushdie attended a memorial service for Bruce Chatwin in central London. When the service ended, we watched as he was pushed into the back of a car and driven off, looking bewildered and frightened.
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In his forthcoming memoir, Joseph Anton – named after the alias he chose to assume – Mr Rushdie will tell us what the next decade was like for him. I once had a glimpse inside. In the 1990s, he and his protection team drove me home after dinner. We circled the north London streets, they watched through the tinted windows and when the car came to a stop and I tried to open the door, the officer said, “Better let me, sir”, the reinforced glass and steel making it too heavy to open. Mr Rushdie was caged in glass and steel for a decade.
The affair erupted into a conflict between the European Enlightenment – reason, tolerance, dialogue, secularism – and radical Islam – theocratic, literalist and intolerant. While Mr Rushdie knew a lot about Islam, his liberal followers like me knew less. Looking back, we purchased moral clarity about our own values at the price of greater confusion about Islam.
We fell for the idea that the ayatollah was speaking for the whole faith. In reality, he was recovering from the disastrous war with Iraq, battling with the Saudis for mastery of the Muslim masses and in need of a cause célèbre to reignite an Iranian revolution becalmed. The affair was a gift from the gods and he used it to bolster a terrorist theocracy in difficulty.
The risk to Mr Rushdie was never from Islam or from its western believers, but from a terrorist state. Twenty-three years later, the fatwa, though not enforced, still hangs over Mr Rushdie, Iran lurches towards possession of a nuclear weapon, it still proclaims death to the “Zionist entity” and it is still a terrorist state. Perhaps that is what the wily ayatollah, architect of permanent revolution, wanted all along.
The imams who organised the book-burning in Bradford got what they wanted too. When I went to Bradford in the spring of 1989 to listen to Muslim leaders, their sincerity was clear enough. It was their authenticity that I questioned.
They told stories that expressed unease about what their daughters and sons were learning on the streets and unease about the compromises that western life was forcing upon them. One prosperous restaurant owner – who loudly supported death for Mr Rushdie – admitted he made his living selling alcohol to the infidel. The Rushdie affair was exactly what he needed. The angrier the reaffirmation of his faith, the more authentic he felt.
The affair gave liberals and the worldwide ummah of Muslim believers a chance to define what was sacred for each. It allowed both to express strong emotions, but neither side closed the gap between the sincerity of their emotions and the authenticity of their faith.
An authentic faith might have made us both more humble about our beliefs and more curious about the convictions of others. We might have learnt something from each other. Instead we had a painful awakening to our differences.
The affair was the moment that westernised Muslims encountered the hidden demand of life in a secular democracy. They discovered that their faith could be mocked and they demanded that freedom of expression be circumscribed by respect. Their demand was backed, at least among a marginalised and angry minority in Europe, with a threat to burn the multicultural house down.
The threat was as unacceptable as the fatwa. No one should be required to rethink the terms of free speech with a gun to his head. If it is true that no western author now will dare to insult Islam after the Rushdie affair, the death of his translators, the attack on the Danish cartoonists, then all of us will lose.
So if resentful self-censorship on the liberal side and violent explosions in European banlieues would be the worst possible consequence of the affair, what might be a positive outcome?
We need to rethink what it means to live together. Everyone in a free society shares the deepest possible interest in protecting Muslim minorities, indeed all faith communities, from discrimination, defamation, violence or incitement to acts of hate. But no free society has an interest in protecting their doctrines, beliefs and practices from criticism, scorn, ridicule or belittlement.
This is a hard bargain for faith communities. It is not pleasant to live in societies that appear to hold nothing sacred except the liberty to get rich and the freedom to be sarcastic and sacrilegious. But tolerance is a hard bargain for secular liberals too, requiring them to live with those who believe in the subjection of women, the subordination of reason to faith and the division of humankind into the faithful and the infidel.
So we come out of the Rushdie affair with one thing in common: democratic life together is a hard bargain. Each of us, Muslim believer and secular liberal, wishes the other were different. But we are not, and living together requires us to accept what we cannot change.
Living together should not be in resentful silence, each in our own ghettos. It means shouldering a burden of mutual justification without privilege. Faith has no privilege, no exclusive rights, and secular reason has none either. We are stuck with each other, with the burden of justifying ourselves, living with each other in freedom and trying to persuade the other to be different, free from menace or violence. That is what democratic life demands.
The writer teaches human rights at Harvard and the University of Toronto