On Wednesday, I was drinking Indian chai with the writer William Dalrymple at his beautiful farmhouse outside Delhi. I was interviewing him for a book I am writing on England and the East. He is well settled out there and rightly admired for his magnificent books on India and for starting the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF), now the equivalent of Cannes for writers and celebs.
The JLF name that was exciting Indians was not Oprah Winfrey but Salman Rushdie. Some benighted Muslims had issued deadly warnings to him. To them his is the Satanic Voice. Dalrymple was sanguine; the show would go on as planned. By Friday, the threats had got serious enough for Rushdie to withdraw. At one event, novelists including the British writer Hari Kunzru protested by reading from The Satanic Verses, a book banned in India.
Oh no, not again, Rushdie must think. And millions of others too, including me. The saga goes round, comes round. So, too, the old fears of a clash of civilisations and the loyalty test. You can only be wholly with the author and his values or wholly against him and them.
What is wrong with these Muslims? Have they learnt nothing from those wasted years when Rushdie was hounded? Every time they turn on him, they make him more famous – for the wrong reasons. Their uproar intensifies and justifies anti-Muslim attitudes. In Britain, hard lessons have been learnt since The Satanic Verses was burnt in Bradford. In fact, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, one of the men who went to see Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to request the fatwa, deeply regrets what he did and has become an advocate of free speech.
All these years on from the fatwa, we still can't have the conversations that will take us towards that understanding and enlightenment. Too many novelists imagine they live in a bubble where there is no moral responsibility or political and social awareness, that they must be totally free. In that they are like pure, amoral capitalists.
The Satanic Verses affair exploded those assumptions. Fiction was messed up by fact, perceptions shattered truths. We need to talk about that. And freedom and censorship – conceptual slogans, but even in the liberated West, not straightforward. Authors allow all sorts of restrictions without raising a sigh. I cannot write about some things because of legal constraints. A raunchy novel about a seductive paedophile or one on the imagined assassination of Rushdie would never be published.
The Islamic world needs to embark on other vital debates. With democracy breaking out in Arabia, Muslims must begin to see that minds need to be liberated if political freedom is to transform their lives and that they must not oppress free thinkers and writers.Reuse content