Salman Rushdie’s battle for free speech has been lost, friends say

Sir Salmon Rushie - Nancy Kaszerman / Avalon
Sir Salmon Rushie - Nancy Kaszerman / Avalon

Sir Salman Rushdie’s fight for freedom of expression has been “lost”, according to his friends and supporters, with censorship now so rife that the author would struggle to publish The Satanic Verses today.

Rushdie’s determination to keep voicing his vision free of dogmatic strictures has been severely undermined by extremist religious leaders and society’s willingness to accommodate them, they say.

Their comments came after Rushdie continued to receive emergency medical treatment in hospital after being stabbed up to 15 times at a literary festival in western New York State.

Frances D’Souza, his close friend, said: “No one anywhere should ever, ever, be threatened with death for writing a novel, yet we seem to be living in a world, despite Salman’s fight, where that could be a possibility.

“There are other instances around the world - especially say, in India - where people are threatened with death because they have written something,” she said on the Today programme.

“It is a very sad end to this that we have it almost as a norm that if you offend a certain sector of a religious minority or majority then your life is in danger. That is medieval.”

Rushdie has laboured under the threat of death since a fatwa was imposed on him by the Iranian regime 33 years ago following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988.

Baroness D’Souza added: “Even though Rushdie made a strong stance for free speech I’m not sure it has worked, because I think that anyone who would wish to publish something even vaguely anti-Islamic would not be touched by any publisher for a start, but would also subject him or herself to enormous danger.

“It [the fatwa against Rushdie] was the beginning of something really evil in our society and censorship is very much on the agenda these days.”

Another friend of his said the book that prompted the fatwa would be seen as too controversial to be released today.

Lisa Appignanesi, the British-Canadian writer and former president of the writers’ organisation English PEN, said: “Satanic Verses certainly wouldn’t be [published]. There are a lot of fanatical religions in the world at the moment and no one knows where the greatest terror will come from next.”

Critics ‘lost the battle, but won the war’

Ms Appignanesi said it was ironic that the book had been seized on by hardline Islamists as it was not a critique of Islam, but of the Britain of the time.

“Satanic Verses is a satire of Thatcher’s Britain, not of Islam,” she told Radio 4’s Today Programme. “And a lot of things he describes are very much still with us, such as the tragedy of migrants and the extraordinary racism that still exists.”

Both women praised Rushdie’s bravery in confronting the threat to freedom of expression and supporting other writers who faced similar attacks.

Kenan Malik, the author of From Fatwa to Jihad: How the World Changed From the Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo, said: “The boundaries of free speech, the boundaries of restrictions on offence, on blasphemy, have got much tighter, over the past 30 to 35 years partly as a response to the Rushdie affair.

“In some ways the critics of Rushdie lost the battle, but they won the war. They lost the battle because the novel Satanic Verses continues to be published, but they won the war in the sense that the argument at the heart of that claim, that it is wrong to give offence to certain people, certain groups and religions and so on, has become much more mainstream.

“You could say that many societies have internalised a fatwa and introduced a form of self censorship in the way we were talking about each other.”