Sam Kerbel

On February 12, 2009, the right–wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders traveled to England’s House of Lords for a screening of his short film, Fitna. A few hours after his arrival at Heathrow, the Member of Parliament was detained and sent back to his native Holland, where he is now on trial for hate speech and faces up to sixteen months in prison. Shortly after his detention, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wrote a letter to Wilders justifying the ban, explaining that his comments “about Muslims and their beliefs...would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the [United Kingdom].”

The Wilders controversy is one recent example of conflict between multiculturalism and free speech in the Western world. This tension goes back to the early latter–half of the twentieth century with the advent of postcolonialism thought. In attempting to reveal to the West its alleged ethnocentricity, postcolonial criticism has engendered a self–consciousness in Western thinkers, causing many to conflate multicultural awareness and political correctness.

Former John F. Kennedy advisor and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. investigates this phenomenon in his 1991 book The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. The multiculturalist mentality, Schlesinger says, “is one of divesting Americans of their sinful European inheritance and seeking redemptive infusions from non–Western cultures.” As a result, many Western nations, like the United States, have resorted to a vigilant form of political correctness in order to avoid disrupting an image of harmonious ethnic diversity.

This trend does not concern all Western thinkers, but it has been a dominant one among liberal Western intellectuals. As Wall Street Journal writer Bret Stephens argues, Western liberal attitudes about free speech and political correctness emerge from thinking that people can be both “champions of free speech” and “defenders of multiculturalism’s assorted sensitivities.” This attempt to uphold a complete affinity for both free speech and political correctness is inherently contradictory, yet it has permeated the consciousness of many thinkers in Western countries.

In the last two decades, incidents like the Wilders affair have exposed problems within Western multiculturalism, specifically with regards to its relationship with Islam. The paradigmatic case of this conflict is Salman Rushdie’s highly controversial book The Satanic Verses, published just over twenty years ago. The novel depicts two Indian Muslim actors, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, who magically survive an exploding aircraft that was hijacked en route from India to Britain. Upon their miraculous descent from the wreckage, one character transforms into a devilish figure and the other into the archangel Gariel. The plot then traces Chamcha and Faristha’s attempts to reclaim their individual and cultural identities.

In a speech written two years after the book’s publication, titled “In Good Faith,” Rushdie describes the two characters as “painfully divided selves” on a “quest for wholeness”:

In the case of one, Saladin Chamcha, the division is secular and societal: he is torn, to put it plainly, between Bombay and London, between East and West. For the other, Gibreel Farishta, the division is spiritual, a rift in the soul. He has lost his faith and is strung out between his immense need to believe and his new inability to do so.

To illustrate the brokenness of their personal identities, specifically Farishta’s, the novel depicts dreamlike sequences of Koranic figures experiencing painful inner struggles. At one point, for instance, Farishta visits a brothel where prostitutes use the names of Muhammad’s wives to, in Rushdie’s words, “arouse their customers.”

Rushdie is widely known for his use of magical realism as a means of exploring various forms of internal and external conflict, including Indian socio–national politics, Muslim– Hindu relations, and intra–Muslim debates over secularization. In his Booker Prize–winning novel Midnight’s Children, he creates a parallel history of the independence of India and its tumultuous relationship with Pakistan, the region of Kashmir, and British colonialism. His subsequent work, Shame, explores the political climate of Pakistan through a fictitious city called “Q.” As in Satanic Verses, this imaginative historicism allows Rushdie to explore themes of heritage, conflict, and collective experience within various cultures from an outside, postcolonialist perspective.

Rushdie’s imaginative approach to religious doubt in The Satanic Verses caused a significant outcry against its supposed theological postulations. For instance, the Muslim writer and poet Rana Kabbani claimed that Rushdie should have taken responsibility as a Muslim to represent his community positively instead of depicting Islam as an inherently conflicted spirituality. While Rushdie claimed that he simply wanted to explore the nature of religious revelation without evaluating Muhammad’s religious legitimacy, Muslim leaders and writers saw Rushdie’s novel as self–hating and blasphemous. Rushdie believes that his novel celebrates the “hybridity” that comes with the interaction of different races and cultures. Hardline Muslims saw his portrayal of religious despair as not merely misrepresentative but treasonous. The Satanic Verses was banned in India within a month of its publication, and violent objection to the book spread to many Western nations, specifically the United Kingdom and the United States. Soon after the Indian ban, copies were publicly burned in Bolton and Bradford, England, by furious Muslim demonstrators. Five U.K. bookstores were firebombed, and two more in Berkeley, California. The backlash culminated on February 14, 1989, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie and the 11,000 employees of Viking Publishers:

I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who are aware of its content are sentenced to death.

The fatwa sent Rushdie into hiding for nine years and sparked acts of violence across the world, including the bookstore bombings and attacks on many of the book’s translators The book’s Japanese translator was fatally stabbed, and the Italian translator survived an assassination attempt. The Turkish translator survived a bombing of the hotel at which he was staying—although thirty–seven others did not.

Ten years later, in September 1998, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami publicly stated that Iran would no longer support the fatwa against Rushdie and those involved in the novel’s publication. Nevertheless, some Islamic hardliners have kept the fatwa alive, because, technically, a fatwa only expires when its target dies.


The twenty years since the Rushdie affair have shown a dramatic shift in the West’s approach to multiculturalism. Liberal Western intellectuals have posited that the limits to freedom of expression should be rethought in the interest of social unity. While Rushdie and Viking Publishers opted against withdrawing The Satanic Verses in the face of violence from extremist Muslims, many contemporary intellectuals seem to doubt the prudence of this decision.

The British–Indian writer Kenan Malik explores this phenomenon in his new book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy (Atlantic Books, 2009). Malik disparages Western liberals’ interpretation of multiculturalism and their treatment of Rushdie’s fictional theology. At the Battle of Ideas in London this past November, Malik criticized the West’s moral standard of “not causing offence to other peoples and cultures”:

It is liberal fear of giving offence that has helped create a culture in which people take offence so easily... By accepting the fiction that hostility to The Satanic Verses was driven by theology, that all Muslims were offended by the novel and that in a plural society speech must necessarily be less free, liberals have created a culture of grievance in which being offended has become a badge of identity.

Indeed, a significant reason for the uproar over Rushdie was the political climate in countries like India, where radical Muslims used The Satanic Verses as a means of winning political support in an upcoming election. According to Malik, the fatwa also played an instrumental role in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, “at a time when Iran had lost face by pulling out of a war with Iraq and when political reformists were gaining the upper hand in Tehran.” Some Western liberals have come to assume that political correctness should supersede freedom of speech in certain situations, especially concerning the sentiments of zealous Muslim hardliners.

This new approach to multiculturalism has led Malik to argue that “the [Rushdie] fatwa has in effect become internalized.” The fatwa in itself represents an extremist response to a personal reflection on the Islamic tradition from a postmodern, globalized perspective. To “internalize the fatwa” means to both legitimize the expected extremist response and to purge artistic creation of material that could lead to ethnic polarization. Western liberalism has begun to rely on self–censorship as a measure of ethnic diplomacy.

This reality is epitomized in the controversy surrounding the publication of Sherry Jones’s recent novel The Jewel of Medina (Beaufort Books, 2009). In the novel, Jones, a journalist, depicts the events in Muhammad’s life between his flight to Medina and his death ten years later. The events, however, are described entirely from the perspective of Muhammad’s third wife, A’isha, who was purportedly nine at the time of their wedding.

Things did not go well for the novel. In March 2008, Random House’s Ballantine Books gave a $10,000 advance to Jones for The Jewel of Medina. Subsequently, Random House sent proof copies of Jones’s novel to academics, including University of Texas history professor Denise Spellberg, who wrote the most authoritative account of A’isha to date. Spellberg deemed the book “offensive.” While troubled with its historical inaccuracy, she seemed more concerned about the book’s potential to ignite Muslim violence against Random House. Random House editor Jane Garrett recorded Spellberg’s concern in an email to Knopf executives, stressing that Jones’s book is “a declaration of war” against Muslims and “a national security issue” worse than The Satanic Verses. As a result, Random House pulled the book from publication.

Some critics, like Florida International University professor and author Stanley Fish, do not view Random House’s withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina on the grounds of potential conflict as self–censorship. In response to Rushdie’s support for the publication of Jones’ book, Fish wrote on his New York Times blog that self–censorship arises from attempts to prevent “adverse consequences,” and should not be disparaged, because it demonstrates “civilized behavior.” Writers like Rushdie, Fish argued, should consider the sensibilities of those around them before publishing potentially contentious material.

Muslims in Britain gathered outside the Danish Embassy in London in 2005 to protest the cartoons of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper

Both Spellberg and Fish illustrate Malik’s idea of “internalizing the fatwa.” They believe that self–censorship is a justified, even “civilized” act in the face of prospective uncivilized behavior. In other words, contemporary “civilized” discourse should consider the sensibilities of each group. They further assume that, in the wake of the Rushdie affair, a direct link exists between Jones’s novel and violence at the hand of radical Muslims—a theory that, as Moore asserts, sanctions extremists in their war against anti–Muslim rhetoric. The Jones–Spellberg feud highlights an important point about the multiculturalist debate: the conflict exists not only between Western liberals and Islam but also within the West itself. Self–censorship has become the nexus of an inner struggle: whether the West should promote absolute free speech, or whether this privilege should come with stringent caveats in order to demonstrate Western “civility” towards other cultures.

These dilemmas appeared during the 2005 incident involving the Danish newspaper Jyllands–Posten’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoons, according to Jyllands–Posten culture editor Flemmings Rose, were commissioned as a “response to several incidents of self–censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.” These incidents included a Danish children’s writer’s inability to find an illustrator for her book on Muhammad, and a meeting between a group of imams and the Danish Prime Minister in which the imams requested the minister to “interfere with the press in order to get more positive coverage of Islam.”

Many newspapers, especially in the United States and Great Britain, refused to publish the cartoons. The Boston Globe, for example, insisted that “newspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance.” The Christian Science Monitor went so far as to compare the cartoons to “staging a neo–Nazi rally in a Jewish neighborhood”—a questionable comparison, considering that the cartoons were not published in a Muslim newspaper and that neo–Nazis do not accept ideologies different from theirs. As a whole, the response by Western newspapers was dubious, and although they acknowledged the childish innocuousness of the cartoons, they simultaneously conceded that violent Muslim retaliation would be inevitable.

By choosing not to publish the cartoons, newspapers capitulated to a relativistic ideology that abandons free speech. The newspapers’ reasoning muddles a crucial distinction between ideological tolerance and homogenization. Just as Rushdie should not be forbidden from scrutinizing Koranic teaching due to his secularism, no one, not even the cartoonists at Jyllands–Posten, should be forced to follow the decorum of another culture to prove their multicultural tolerance or “enlightenment.” Such rhetoric beckons not a multiculturalism in which difference is embraced, but one of interethnic sycophancy and fear.


The controversy over the Rushdie fatwa has yet to subside. In June 2007, the Queen of England knighted Rushdie, sparking riots and death threats in Iran, India, and other countries. The Pakistani Religious Affairs Minister, Muhammad Ijaz–ul–Haq, even excused the likelihood of suicide bombings against Rushdie and Britain, saying that the British government should apologize for “hurt[ing] the sentiments of 1.5 billion Muslims.”

Rushdie has continually spoken out against such remarks. He argues that one “must assume [one’s] right to freedom” under any circumstances. In a similar vein, Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish author put on trial in 2005 for speaking out about the Armenian and Kurdish genocides, has repeatedly asserted that freedom of speech does not conflict with human rights: the two are one and the same. “[T]o respect the humanity and religious beliefs of minorities,” he writes, “is not to suggest that we should limit freedom of thought on their behalf. Respect for the rights of religious ethnic minorities should never be an excuse to violate freedom of speech.” Striving for ideological harmony in a multicultural society does not require one to resort to political correctness in the extreme. Multiculturalism must embrace difference and recognize that, though some differences may be irreconcilable, they can nonetheless be part of a humanistic discourse that promotes diversity of thought.

By removing our “freedom to challenge,” Rushdie says, freedom of expression is destroyed. Moreover, self–censorship can result in its own form of arrogance. “If we write in such a way as to pre–judge such belief as in some way deluded or false,” inquires a character from The Satanic Verses, “then are we not guilty of elitism, of imposing our worldview on the masses?” Pamuk also recognizes that free speech is fundamental part of our exploration of unfamiliar cultures:

[H]olding strong beliefs about the nature of things and people is itself a difficult enterprise. I do also believe that most of us entertain these contradictory thoughts simultaneously, in a spirit of good will and with the best intentions... It is because our modern minds are so slippery that freedom of expression becomes so important: we need it to understand ourselves, our shady, contradictory, inner thoughts.

Artistic mediums such as literature have unsurprisingly come to the forefront of debates over multiculturalism. Literature is ultimately the product of individualistic plunges into the complexities of a particular milieu. For Rushdie, it paradoxically succeeds when it reflects a sentiment shared by a vast network of people, whether they have held similar experiences or not, and despite its individualism:

The liveliness of literature lies in its exceptionality, in being the individual, idiosyncratic vision of one human being, in which, to our delight and great surprise, we may find our own image reflected. A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.

For Rushdie, The Satanic Verses epitomizes this experience. Written as “a secular man’s reckoning with the religious spirit,” the novel exhibits the manner in which both Islamic tradition and modernity have influenced his writing. Though the novel undertakes Muslim themes, its expressions of doubt and the search for identity in modern times reach out beyond Muslim culture. Such an outlook responds directly to Kabbani’s assertion that writers who come from a particular heritage are responsible for it in their creative output. The writer, from Rushdie’s perspective, possesses the freedom to create without carrying the burden of writing on the behalf of others. Permitting individual modes of expression celebrates the success of multiculturalism, not its defeat.

How to incorporate this freedom with people like Wilders—who actively seeks the censoring of the Koran and other forms of Muslim religious teaching—is a question Western liberalism must face. In the shadow of the Rushdie fatwa, it has arrived at a crossroads. As Bret Stephens acknowledges, the West must differentiate between “a civilization that protects, even celebrates... its cultural provocateurs and a civilization that seeks their murder.” In commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Rushdie fatwa, Western liberalism must choose either to define itself or to be defined by its opponents, to be silent or to permit the power of the written word.

SAM KERBEL, List ’11, is staff writer of The Current.

Above: A cartoon depiction of Salman Rusdhie, author of The Satanic Verses which sparked unprecedented controversy in 1989.

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