Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Those who would murder Rushdie will never learn

Muslims must begin to see that minds need to be liberated if political freedom is to transform their lives

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. The controversy sucked up all the precious oxygen of publicity and landed the organisers in trouble they could do without.

A historian I met blamed the Brits for the situation: "You should keep your trouble-makers. We don't need neo-colonialists and brown sahibs like Rushdie to destabilise us. This is a multi-religious, volatile nation which has to hold together. All he knows is how to divide people." I reminded him that Rushdie is proudly acclaimed as a great Indian writer – he was born there – and also a great British writer, a phenomenal dual reputation: "That is the view of fellow authors who can't accept how much damage he did with that irresponsible book," came the response. "How many people died because of his intransigence?"

Oh no, not again, Rushdie must think. And millions of others too, including me. Groundhog Day. That 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. Most letters in the Mumbai and Delhi newspapers reflected this ideological split and some cast all Muslims as "backward" people. Sometimes I find myself thinking this too.

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 ardent advocate of free speech.

Depressingly, too many Muslims abroad still won't do that. No one deserves to be relentlessly pursued and persecuted. Writers, however successful or flawed, are human and have inviolable rights to be seen, read and heard. If Rushdie had gone to Jaipur, those who still can't forget or forgive could have asked him if he has learnt anything. They might have heard his side of the story – how it felt to be in hiding and to be the object of such terrible hatred when once he was loved across the globe. Words, not violence, bring understanding.

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 – and Rushdie is there high among them – 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 people and organisations because of legal constraints. A raunchy novel about a seductive paedophile or one on the imagined assassination of Salman 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 freethinkers and writers.

I want to end on an elegiac note. When first I came across Salman Rushdie's writings, I felt as if he had shaped my inchoate thoughts, given expression to roaming feelings, lit up my inner life with many candles. I defended him when the fatwa was issued and do still. But I also tried to find out why British Muslims were so hurt, and was repelled by the instinctive xenophobia and militant atheism of many in our liberal intelligentsia. Now the same faultlines have appeared and the writer once again embodies them all. I wonder if he ever wishes those days back again when he was not a battle cry but just a man with a glorious imagination and way with words.