Essay: A victory for literary freedom

Iran's retreat on the Salman Rushdie fatwa is not the end of censorship, argues Ursula Owen

On Friday there was an air of euphoria in the building. People hugged each other, close to tears, as Article 19, above the Index on Censorship offices, prepared for Salman Rushdie's press conference. It was an extraordinary moment, one for which Article 19 and countless others have been fighting tirelessly for over nine years. Salman Rushdie has remained articulately and intelligently defiant, as one of his many brave statements a few years ago showed: "What one writer can make in the solitude of one room is something no power can easily destroy" perhaps gave us just a whiff - note the "easily" - of what this fatwa has cost him.

When the celebrations were over, the story of the fatwa will be remembered for many things - certainly for the enormous rallying round of friends, writers, booksellers, publishers and readers who care about free speech, all over the world. But we'd do well to remember also the somewhat ambivalent note which entered the public and private discussions in Britain just after it was delivered.

In those early days there was of course, the initial shock - at the first public book burnings in centuries, at the leader of a foreign power declaring a death sentence on a British national. But gradually the opinion makers in our media-obsessed culture bean to take in other realities: the scale of the Muslim presence in Britain, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, solidly established in places such as Bradford, Birmingham, Southall, places where these opinion formers did not live. Then it slowly sank in that the beliefs of some of these fellow citizens - about morality and justice, about religion and natural law, were very different from those of the humanist Church of England. Ironically, Salman Rushdie knew much more about the lives of Asians in Britain, indeed had written about them and fought for their rights, as he says he will continue to do.

Our own liberal values were not always impeccably displayed at the time. Here is Lord Tebbit; "Mr Salman Rushdie's public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal to his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality... How many societies, having been so treated by a foreigner accepted in their midst could go so far to protect him from the consequences of his egotistical and self-opinionated attack on the religion into which he was born". And the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper "I would not shed a tear if some British Muslim, deploring his manners, should waylay him in some dark street and seek to improve him. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer." Others talked of Rushdie's character and talents in ways which made one think perhaps that his gleeful comment "The Empire strikes back!" (referring to the range of talented people writing in English in the eighties who came from imperially dominated countries) had got up their noses.

More interestingly, and more educatively, the Rushdie affair was a dramatic example of how in the modern world people live side by side not only in different cultures but almost in different centuries. The literary critic WL Webb had this to say four years after the fatwa: "It had never occurred to anyone in Britain that a newly fundamentalist construction of Islam and a secular, post Christian, existential modernism, should they improbably come into collision, might not be able to avoid an almighty smash. But collide and smash they inevitably did when a highly gifted son of Islam, transplanted into a secular Western culture at its most sophisticated, turned eventually to pondering the faith of his fathers, and just as inevitably did it with the irreverent critical intelligence native to the modern literary tradition in which he was writing."

If one believes that literature has a value - among other values - in its ability to subtlely tell us something about the history of consciousness, then The Satanic Verses has a place in history beyond the story of the fatwa, and in spite of Salman Rushdie's wish that it simply be "returned to the place where it belongs - to the bookshelf, the armchair, the beach."

Index on Censorship seems all too often to be about bad news, but there are some other recent stores about free expression which are worth celebrating. One comes from Iran, where there is evidence apart from the Rushdie case of a new freedom to debate, comment and criticise. The writer and editor Faraj Sarkoohi was released this January after a year in jail. He had been beaten, endlessly interrogated and humiliated. "Some people may wonder why I allowed myself to be humiliated and debased in this way, and why I was prepared to do everything they told me to do. I do not wish to justify my actions or make excuses, but the physical and mental pressure I was under shattered and crushed me totally. I wanted to get it over as quickly as possible and do what was to be done so that they could kill me. In Nigeria, another country where, after the death of Sani Abacha at least, there are some grounds for optimism, the journalist Christine Anyanwu, given a 15 year sentence for reporting the news, was released recently. "I was marooned in a huge building, locked in all day, drapes drawn, the room dark, dank, airless. My only neighbours were monstrous rats that actually walked on two legs... I had nightmares every night. Within eight days, my hair went grey."

I quote these accounts in some detail because it is not easy to make people in Britain understand why free expression is so important. There is hardly any public debate here about why censorship is dangerous. There tends to be a knee jerk reaction - often in the name of protecting children - towards banning anything that shocks or offends. We have one of the worst records in Europe for film censorship, videos are removed from sale at WH Smiths, the police confiscate photographs from the library of the University of Central England, and despite a categorical pledge from Tony Blair in 1996, freedom of information legislation, the other side of the free expression coin, is in danger of being seriously compromised. Disturbingly, the new institutions of Europe seem to be similarly obsessed with obfuscation and secrecy. It is easy enough for us to report the censorship and harassment of writers and journalists in places like Burma, Turkey, Malaysia and Serbia, yet recently, we've felt unable to expose to further risk a journalist in Brussels who is writing about corruption in the European Commission. As a result, the Index published six blank pages.

But meanwhile, let us celebrate an extraordinary moment. The Iranian government has taken a serious step, and there is every reason to believe that it has been done with a strong consensus across Iranian opinion. Its boldness lies in the implicit acceptance that moral dialogue may be treated as an exercise in mutual persuasion rather than a display of force. And that, as Salman Rushdie said, is "a serious and grave satisfaction".

Ursula Owen is the editor of 'Index on Censorship'.

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