In the spring of 1989 I was in Amsterdam for a conference. The Marxist novelist and art critic John Berger was to be one of the main speakers and, as I'd much admired his book about migrant workers, A Seventh Man, I was looking forward to seeing him. We met and walked about Amsterdam for hours, arguing about The Satanic Verses and the question of censorship.
To my surprise, Berger was all for repressing the book, and was furious with Salman Rushdie for provoking and attacking the poorest and most vulnerable, the already oppressed proletariat. Berger saw this as a class argument: the poor of the Third World, who were in this case Muslim, ranged against the wealthy, educated and powerful intelligentsia who could say whatever they liked about them. The next day, when I spoke up for Rushdie at this conference, which was attended by liberals - though I was the only person of colour there – my remarks were met with silence.
Nick Cohen rightly calls The Satanic Verses controversy "the Dreyfus Affair" of our age, a central signifier of our preoccupations, one which divides friends and brings out the unbelievable and perverse where you least expect it. John le Carré, for instance - clearly unaware of Shaw's sublime quote, "It is immorality not morality that requires protection" - will not be forgotten for his remark that there is "no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity".
It wasn't long before we found that an extreme version of this great religion had not only become an absolutist, sacrificial death cult organised around Nazi ideas of anti-Semitism - fused with promises of virgins and paradise - but that it was capable of killing thousands of people in New York, London, Madrid, as well in as numerous other places, and that it might have been advisable to pay close attention to Rushdie's concerns and criticisms earlier.
What also escaped notice was that, far from being insulting, Rushdie's scepticism and satire spoke not only for Western liberals, but for the many Muslims who had unexpressed but important doubts about the limitations of the imprisoning ideology which had been implanted in them since childhood. It was the fact that Rushdie addressed their unacknowledged questions which gave rise to unbearable inner, and then outer, conflict.
If we fast-forward to the present day, we might wonder what exactly the footballer Luiz Suaraz said to Patrice Evra when Liverpool played Manchester United in October, how much his words matter, and what meaning we will ascribe to them. We will also consider what to do with the supporter who racially abused the Oldham defender Tom Adeyemi, making him break down in tears. Or what a central British institution like the BBC thought it was up to when the pundit Alan Hansen recently referred to "coloured" players, however "naively".
Language in sport is as important as in literature or politics. These contemporary "word wars" are where our daily ethical battles are being fought. And what these disputes have in common is language and power, about who can say what to whom, and what difference it makes when they say it.
If Berger wanted to represent a powerful, prescriptive and often abusive religion (of women, homosexuals and those of other beliefs) as a victim which had to be defended against "insult", he was ruling out the possibility of engagement, argument and social and political development. For victims there is only pity, and they can retaliate with impunity. The problem with free speech is that, as Socrates taught us, people may be encouraged to alter their opinions, and then their lives.
The terror of knowing certain truths, and the desire for ignorance, is a central human passion. People don't want to hear themselves, let alone anyone else. The truth can be so disconcerting that any lie is preferable. Therefore the possibility of another view of things is ruled out by political systems, corporations, authorities, bankers, parents and power-mongers of all types.
As Cohen points out, this doesn't only happen in authoritarian regimes. The moment you step into your office, you are stripped of your speech. If, after de-regulation, the economic system collapsed, it wasn't that people didn't know it wasn't going to happen; it was that they couldn't tell anyone for fear of being punished. Speaking is dangerous, and true speaking even worse, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali discovered in Holland, when even her allies turned on her.
The arguments Cohen describes so vividly are necessary and important to hear, as is the fact that the tension between suppression and freedom will never end. It is not as if one day everything will be settled. What is crucial is that the quarrel is not closed; and to see that closing quarrels is what lifeless ideologies do. They behave as though only one view of the world was possible, as if it was credible to kill the imagination, and that other versions of reality are inconceivable.
Cohen has written a decent introduction to these issues, and presents numerous important incidents – the Danish cartoons; Simon Singh; Julian Assange; the libel laws, as well as new forms of ingenuity, when it comes to truth-telling, such as Twitter - competently and informatively.
Although the book reads like an extended newspaper article, it is useful to have all this material in one place, particularly for the benefit of young people, who must be taught about previous disputes over free expression. Poets and writers of all kinds are, rightly, the custodians of language; it is their daily work to keep the language clean and accurate, just as it is the Murdoch press's job to do the opposite.
But we all speak, God knows, a lot of the time, and it might be a good idea to be reminded that the freedoms we enjoy have been hard fought for, and are not enjoyed by most people in most of the world. They could also be removed in a moment. When someone is speaking truthfully, the future can always be different.
Hanif Kureishi's 'Collected Essays' and 'Collected Stories' are published by Faber & FaberReuse content