Twenty years ago this week, the Ayatollah issued a fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses. Then I brought him into my house to hide from the assassins.
It was twenty years ago, on St Valentine’s Day, that the Ayatollah Khomeini launched the mother of all prosecutions against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, and his publisher Penguin Books. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, the Ayatollah chose to sentence first and try later—through a fatwa proclaiming the death sentence for blasphemy on all connected with publishing the book. One of its translators was in consequence murdered (“executed” as Iran preferred to say); the book was burnt at demonstrations throughout the world (twenty-two protesters were killed by police in Pakistan); and a $3 million bounty was offered for the author’s capture—alive or (preferably) dead. Soon afterwards, Salman came to stay for a short time.
We made him welcome. I am his lawyer, and something of an expert on the arcane law of blasphemy, which had been revived shortly before in Britain to prosecute my client Gay News for a poem imagining that Christ was gay. My wife, the author Kathy Lette, is a good friend. More important, as it turned out, was our house in North London, which overlooked a church: our bedrooms, the security service explained, offered them a clear view of the approach of any would-be assassin. Having Salman as a visitor had compensations, and brought many of his left-wing friends into a closer and warmer contact with officers of the Special Branch than they ever thought likely or even healthy. The goodwill flowed both ways: the police enjoyed the literary company rather more than that of the politicians they were normally detailed to protect, and radical writers came to see the point of secret-state surveillance of suspected terrorists. My wife was quick to point out, when we went away with Salman and other friends for country weekends, that while Guardian-reading male feminists put their feet up by the fire, it was always the police who volunteered to wash up. (On the other hand, one of them developed a close friendship with our nanny, excited, we suspected, by the occasional glint of gun metal).
For Salman, this period of hiding in his own city must have become tiresome. In those days, when Osama Bin Laden was a CIA-backed hero fighting for freedom against the Soviets, and Al Qaeda was yet to form, we did not know the murderous extremes of fanatical Islam. What made this experience nerve-wracking was the fact that the fatwa was an exercise in state terrorism: nobody knew what loyalty Khomeini might command among Muslims in England; or whether the Iranians would send a hit squad, hire local gangsters, or just remain content to let the threat of terrorism make us terrified. After a few months of edgy precautions, Rushdie’s coterie of supporters became more relaxed. When Salman came to dinner, however, we kept our curtains drawn.
Everyone was forced to take the fatwa seriously, because the book-burnings (by Muslims who had not read the book) continued up and down the country, as did attacks in other countries on his publishers and translators. We tried to arrange a holiday for him, but the cowards running British Airways refused to fly him–even from London to Edinburgh. (Other airlines, of Arab countries, were all too willing.)
It was not long before certain Muslims decided to flush him out of hiding, by using the one device to which he would have no option but to surrender. Not a gun, but a summons. They began a private prosecution against Rushdie himself and Penguin Books, for the ancient crime of blasphemous libel. The magistrate refused to issue their summons, on the curious but correct grounds that it was only a crime to blaspheme against Christianity. The Muslim lawyers appealed and I duly prepared to represent the author in court. The police helpfully informed me that I was now classified as a “potential target – grade 3.” This grade was not high enough to qualify for protection but sufficient to receive some security tips, like how to tie a mirror to a broomstick and look underneath my car for bombs. (We actually tried this and my wife wailed, “but it all looks like a bomb under there”.)
One tip that did stick in my mind was that grade 3-ers should under no circumstances draw attention to the fact that they were potential targets, because then they might become real ones. It might not occur to the Times–reading Iranian terrorist that the barrister representing Rushdie would be a satisfactory substitute for his client, unless some further news item put the idea into his head. The same advice was given to the judges: while this case lasts, don’t advertise yourselves as potential targets.
The case lasted three days in the appeals court. The presiding judge, Tasker Watkins VC, had won his VC (the Victoria Cross – the highest British award for bravery) in action in the Second World War, when he picked up the machine gun of a wounded comrade and proceeded single-handedly to attack a trench of seventeen startled Germans, killing all of them as their laughter at this hotheaded young Welsh fusilier died on their lips. On the second day, he entered court at much the same pace, with a steely glint in his eye. “This court is in receipt of a communication. Let it be handed to counsel.” It was an ill-written threat of vengeance against us all, should the case go against the Prophet. “Well”, he snapped with ill-concealed impatience, “what do counsel suggest we do?” The defense barristers held a whispered conversation at the bar table, reminding ourselves of the police advice against saying anything which might turn us—or the judges—into grade-2 targets. “Nothing, my Lord”, we murmured quietly, “We see no need to draw attention to the matter.”
“No need to draw attention to it!” exploded Watkins VC. “This is a death threat to Her Majesty’s judges and counsel! We shall certainly draw attention to it and say in the strongest terms that it will not be countenanced!” He had, for a moment, a look in his eye probably last seen by seventeen unfortunate German soldiers. The infidel hordes had been warned: let them descend upon the Royal Courts of Justice if they dared.
The case became a forensic jihad against Salman the Apostate. The object of the would-be prosecutors, eighteen Muslim lawyers, was to convince the court that the blasphemy case should go to trial. They were obliged to draft an indictment, and they scoured The Satanic Verses for evidence. They came up with only six charges and we were able to show that every one of them was based either on a misreading of the book or upon theological error. Here, for the record, are the six alleged blasphemies and their disproof:
• God is described in the book as “the Destroyer of Man.” As He is similarly described in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, especially men who are unbelievers or enemies of the Jews.
• The book contains criticisms of the Prophet Abraham for his conduct towards Hagar and Ishmael and their son. Abraham deserves criticism and is not seen as without fault in Islamic, Christian, or Jewish traditions.
• Rushdie refers to Mohammed as “Mahoud.” He called him variously “a conjuror,” “a magician,” and “a false prophet.” Rushdie does nothing of the sort. These descriptions come from the mouth of the drunken apostate, a character with whom neither author nor reader has sympathy. “Mahoud” is in fact a name that has been used by Christians for the Prophet.
• The book grossly insults the wives of the Prophet by having whores use their names. This is the point. The wives are expressly said to be chaste, and the adoption of their names by whores in a brothel symbolises the perversion and decadence into which the city had fallen before it surrendered to Islam.
• The book vilifies the close companions of the Prophet, calling them “bums from Persia” and “clowns” whereas the Koran treats them as men of righteousness. These phrases are used by a depraved hack poet, hired to pen propaganda against the Prophet. Christ’s disciples were derided by his enemies as ignorant fishermen, so it can hardly be blasphemous for an author to imagine the Prophet’s followers being subjected to the same kind of criticism.
• The book criticizes the teachings of Islam for containing too many rules and seeking to control every aspect of everyday life. Characters in the book do make such criticisms, but they cannot amount to blasphemy because they do not vilify God or the Prophet.
So if the law of blasphemy had extended to Islam, The Satanic Verses would not have infringed it. But even if Salman were tried and acquitted by an Old Bailey jury, I doubt whether the verdict would have made the slightest difference to his enemies: as one Iranian leader put it, the fatwa was not about the book, but “over the West trying to dictate to Islam.” The case, in 1989, was a clear sign of the coming clash, but Western intelligence services did not have the intelligence to analyse it as a precursor to 9/11. The CIA (and Congressman Charlie Wilson) continued to support Bin Laden.
At least the charges against Salman were thrown out and in the UK the case had an even more satisfying result: the government announced that the blasphemy law would not be invoked again for “divisive and damaging litigation.” This repressive crime thereafter became a dead letter and has now been abolished.
Blasphemy has had an inglorious history in Britain, most notably for its use to jail courageous booksellers who stocked Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason in the decades after the American Revolution. They were sentenced to years of hard labor in a disease-ridden prison, the House of Correction. When one already-ill publisher begged the court, “I trust it will not be too great an indulgence if I have a bed,” the Chief Justice retorted, “I cannot order that: The Age of Reason is horrible to the ear of a Christian.” That was more than two hundred years ago—when The Satanic Verses is no longer horrible to the ears of a Muslim, the age of reason may dawn at last.