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This item is taken from PN Review 67, Volume 15 Number 5, May - June 1989.

The white heat generated by the affair of The Satanic Verses cannot continue for ever. This is what makes the matter at once urgent and insoluble. No action can be taken, it would appear, to reverse the "sentence of death" on Salman Rushdie. Writers, readers, publishers, newspapers, diplomats, governments themselves rise to the occasion. But the occasion refuses to pass. Acres of print are expended on reporting, arguing and explaining. Then the subject drifts off the front page. Gradually it will fade out of the news, though there will be the occasional bloody skirmish in Lahore, or Tehran, or Delhi. Those who wish to associate themselves with Salman Rushdie will do so in petitions, articles, letters to the press, rendering themselves vulnerable, to an incalculable extent, to the wrath of Shi'ite fundamentalists. But the sentence hangs there primarily over Salman Rushdie and his publishers. When Khomeini dies the sentence will become irrevocable. When Salman Rushdie dies - in the fulness of time rather than at the hand of an assassin, we hope - the sentence still hangs over his work and those who publish it.

Abroad, to express solidarity with the author and his book, to uphold the principle of freedom of expression, or to reduce the vulnerability of individual publishers and translators (no doubt the translator's name will remain anonymous), consortia of publishers intend to undertake the risk of publication. In the United Kingdom, while delegations of Muslims proposing the banning of the book from public libraries and the prohibition of the book more broadly are entertained in town halls and at the Home Office, petitions from those who support Mr Rushdie's freedom gather. Just as it is to be hoped that the Muslim delegations will not prevail with the civic authorities, it is to be lamented that the petitions will not prevail with those parts of the Muslim community who seek to suppress the book or to inflict the retributive sentence on the author.
Salman Rushdie's main foe is time - time that will carry off his austere and fanatical judge, leaving the legacy of his sentence; and time which will make the story of his persecution, with its momentous international repercussions, old news. Time which will lead his publishers to consider the loss of market in Pakistan, in India and elsewhere and count the cost - the very real material cost - of principle. Time which will leave booksellers to consider the peril to their employees and customers if they dare to run in the teeth of the extreme members of a religious community bent on suppressing the book.

Will political expediency, public safety and commercial arguments prevail in the end? It is likely that they will. Against the threats of a fanatical minority, those who would stand by Salman Rushdie have little clout: it is a question of terrorism, and a terrorism which will not go away. If a writer of the stature of Norman Mailer instructs his publisher that he does not wish his books to be sold by any bookseller who refuses to stock The Satanic Verses, he puts in the balance an important economic weight, and yet in the end he cannot force his publishers to comply with his stipulations, any more than authors under contract can compel their publishers to refuse to sell their books in South Africa.

Writers have considerable power: witness the Rushdie affair. Writers have virtually no power: witness the Rushdie affair. In the first flush of outrage the issues are clear enough. As time passes, the story loses its force, the issues of principle subside into the area of informed debate rather than passionate though perhaps ineffective stance-taking.

Those who attack the book and its author (and many of those who support them) have one thing in common: most of them contest the issue on principle, not having read the text. We are back to the Index with a vengeance, and the issue is more urgent than Spycatcher or the Kirkup poem on Christ or Lady Chatterley because it is not the work but the author himself who has been condemned.
Should the law of blasphemy be extended to include "the other faiths", there will be a strong case for the suppression of the Koran as blasphemous of the Christian faith, denying as it does - among other things - the divinity of Christ. It may already be actionable under the terms of the sexual discrimination act. It may seem odd to set in the balance a work of contemporary fiction, with a few pages which Muslim fundamentalists insist merit capital punishment, with the sacred text which is the basis of a faith to which Averoes and Avicenna adhered, a faith which contributed so much to our humanist traditions. Yet is there an alternative, if the case against Salman Rushdie is pursued?

It must be insisted that certain basic - secular - principles of our culture outweigh the religious principles of individuals of any faith, and one of those basic principles is the very one that Salman Rushdie exemplifies in his offending text: the freedom of responsible speech. It is important to remember Rushdie's own eloquent apology and to understand that even this statement is unacceptable to the fundamentalists of a faith which in another extreme form condemned Mafouz for the portrayal of women in his fiction. For the time being we insist on our traditions: we must enjoin our publishers, our readers and our governments to do so, and to take the lessons of The Satanic Verses affair to heart, even when those lessons are hard. A tolerant and essentially liberal society only survives when its tolerance is insisted upon, even against the supposed interests of minority groups.

This item is taken from PN Review 67, Volume 15 Number 5, May - June 1989.

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