First, the necessary caveat. If anyone killed Salman Rushdie, it would be an evil act, a murder that should be condemned by all sane and law-abiding people. It would be a devastating blow at freedom of speech, a disgraceful manifestation of bigotry and fanaticism. May it never happen.
Vol. 11 No. 7 · 30 March 1989
In common with, no doubt, many other of your readers, I have been keenly looking forward to the London Review’s reaction, in due course, to the matter of Salman Rushdie – and have been proportionately disappointed by what appears in your current issue. Robert Fisk’s ‘Diary’ (LRB, 16 March) is an interesting footnote to the affair of The Satanic Verses, but it is hardly more, even with his disclaimer at the start. It is reassuring to know that, together with ‘all sane and law-abiding people’ – Sir Geoffrey Howe, for instance – he deplores death-threats to authors. But, again perhaps like Sir Geoffrey, though he doesn’t think writers should be murdered for writing, he’s not going to get very excited about ‘freedom of speech, etc’.
Perhaps in the Middle East it is harder even than in most places for a sophisticated observer to see the wood for the trees. But here at least it seems clear that free speech is the real issue; and though of course it is one which transcends Salman Rushdie’s individual plight, and though other recent assaults on it have not been wanting, there seem to be intrinsic reasons why The Satanic Verses should be the storm-centre of this latest and most violent manifestation. Mr Fisk writes about the ‘demonisation’ of political agitations, and the importance for political leaders, Middle West as well as Middle East, of manufacturing fiends to serve as adversaries. He might have noted and found it to the point that precisely this pandemoniacal state of affairs is a main theme of the novel: that, indeed, Salman Rushdie’s most striking achievement is to express so vividly the common feeling that all hell is breaking loose, and that this condition is not only a consequence of political manipulation and media distortion – important though these are in his phantasmagorical story – but reflects a general disorder. Again, the way in which social/cultural/religious confict, especially between Islam and the West, operates in Rushdie’s satirical scheme, might have been thought to bear on the matter in hand. Patrick Parrinder touched on some of these points in the review you published last September, four months before the ‘blasphemy’ row broke out. We see, now, how remarkably – uncannily, if you like – the novel describes and prefigures the fate that has befallen it. It diagnoses, in advance of the particular effect upon itself, the condition of a world dominated from top to bottom by ‘fictions masquerading as human beings’.
It is unfortunate, therefore – even making allowance for irony – that Mr Fisk should find the ‘reality’ of the Rushdie affair purely in terms of political manoeuvre, and in the humiliation of the Imam who is now ‘reduced to threatening an author’. Yes, to threaten and perhaps to feel threatened by a person no more significant than a professional scribbler! Maybe it is unreasonable to expect Mr Fisk to look beyond his own specialised point of view. But the reality which might seem worth your further comment is that an author, a mere book, a pulpable paperback, should once again have acquired, in the strongest sense, exemplary importance.
We do in fact mean to publish further, and at length, on the threat to Rushdie.
Editors, ‘London Review’