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A Week in Books: How Plato started the fatwa business

Dame Iris can account for Rushdie's plight
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ALL WEEK, the tributes have rolled in for a writer who drew on creeds of every kind in her bold investigations of belief and unbelief. And tomorrow marks a full decade since another novelist, who tried to pull much the same trick, suffered a state-sponsored threat of execution. Iris Murdoch's obituarists have taken it as read that a career spent composing tall stories on the margins of other people's cherished faith - or lack of it - merits respect. Dame Iris herself did no such thing. Indeed, her books gleefully depict figures who (give or take a few twists of history) could not only support the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, but cheerfully carry it out.

Murdoch argued so hard for the fearless art of fiction because, as a philosopher, she knew that most of the world's leading doctrines detested it. She grasped the force behind the ancient critique of imitative art as an irresponsible game with truths that lie too deep for tales. Forget the wrangles over "blasphemy", and that critique drives Rushdie's more rational antagonists.

Murdoch makes a superb advocate for a fiction free of priestly - or political - interdict only because she can voice the other case so well. The best commentary on the core assumptions that fuel the Rushdie "debate" (if debates can happen with a gun at one side's head) can be found in her great exposition of "why Plato banished the artists", The Fire and the Sun. This account of Plato's notorious urge to censor and control all art is reprinted in Existentialists and Mystics, the rich hoard of Murdoch essays that Peter Conradi edited in 1997.

Artists, thought Plato, make mischief with religion; they "portray the gods as undignified and immoral". Art "apes the spiritual", and subtly "trivialises" faith. It teaches a "spiteful amused acceptance of evil", and lures us into preferring shadows over substance. That metaphysical loathing for storytellers or actors has shifted very little over the past 2,500 years.

Now, Platonism suffused aspects of Islam almost as much as it did Christianity. Akbar Ahmed's new survey of Islam Today (I B Tauris, pounds 9.95) points out that some Muslim scholars call Plato a secondary "prophet", who spread God's word. So a punitive fury at irreverent fictions grows not from alien superstition, but from the dark heart of "western" culture. Murdoch saw, and explained, all this with a bracing wit and clarity. Which is why we can mourn a truly illuminating thinker, as well as a spellbinding teller of tales.