In the late 1980s, when Salman Rushdie was writing the novel which would make him famous among people who cared little for literary works of any kind, he knew it would annoy some touchy Muslims, but it did not occur to him that one of their “spiritual leaders” would put a contract on his head. Then, to worldwide surprise, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did just that by issuing a fatwa offering US$3 million to anyone who murdered the blasphemer and apostate. This forced Rushdie to go into hiding for well over a decade during which the British secret services did whatever was necessary to foil the hit-men who were out to get him and had the support of parts of the local Muslim community willing to help them track down their prey.
But as the years passed Sir Salman – as he became in June 2007 when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his “services to literature” – felt able to participate in public events without being surrounded by well-armed bodyguards ready to rough up anyone suspicious who tried to get near him. This is why a youthful fanatic called Hadi Matar could jump unopposed onto a stage and stab him repeatedly when he was about to deliver an address at the Chautauqua Institute in a rural part of New York State. Will Matar, or his relatives because he could spend the rest of his life behind bars, be able to claim the bounty promised by the Iranians? If Rushdie, who is said to be recovering, fails to pull through, we could soon know the answer.
Meanwhile, as tends to happen whenever Islamists commit atrocities in Western countries, the New York Police, politicians and all respectable journalists quickly swore that they had no idea about what could have motivated Matar. This is their way of informing the world that they understand it is bad even to suggest that devotees of a particular faith are more likely than others to kill people for religious reasons. In their view, it is utterly wrong to think there could possibly be some connection between Islam and terrorism even though the Qu’ran, which believers are taught was dictated by the almighty himself and therefore should be taken quite literally, contains many passages the holy warriors of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State enjoy quoting because, in their own eyes and even in those of Islamic scholars who loathe them, they give divine sanction to their bloodthirsty behaviour.
In any event, while there can be no doubt that a large majority of Muslims who have settled in the West are law-abiding men and women who would never dream of using violence against non-believers or fellow Muslims who stray from the true path as set out by the clerics, there are still millions who say that on occasion it is right and even necessary to do so; after Khomeini stepped in, Muslim mobs in British cities gathered to howl abuse at the author of The Satanic Verses and demand he be put painfully to death.
For a time, it seemed that most Western governments would refuse to let themselves be cowed by Islamic potentates who tried to make them adopt strict blasphemy laws. However, helped by a widespread willingness to go to almost any lengths to stave off communal violence, the mood soon changed. These days, succumbing to “Islamophobia” can get you into deep trouble in most English-speaking countries where the Iranian inquisition, along with its Sunni equivalents, has many allies.
In 1989, leading Western literary figures closed ranks behind Rushdie, though even then some said they thought he had been asking for it, but since then much has changed. The rise and rise of identity politics, with an increasing number of groups claiming they feel “unsafe” if criticised even in the mildest fashion, has created a situation in which giving “offence” is regarded by many in powerful positions as an intolerable crime that deserves to be harshly punished.
In the United Kingdom, saying anything allegedly provocative about Muslims, homosexuals, transsexuals, “people of colour” and so on can lead to a visit by members of the local constabulary who will press you to sign up for a course of “sensitivity training,” that is, indoctrination. Such efforts enjoy the enthusiastic support of much of academe, some large media organisations, the civil service and many big commercial entities, all of which make it their business to ensure that dissidents lose their jobs and with them their chances of having a successful career.
Not surprisingly, this sort of thing and the self-censorship it encourages has had a dampening effect on creativity. In the English-speaking world, freedom of expression is now a relative concept; you can say what you like as long as it does not make anyone at all anxious or ill at ease. Rushdie himself is well aware that in the 21st century he would have been hard put to find a publisher for The Satanic Verses and so would have been unlikely to write it and that if, despite efforts to be emollient, he somehow managed to get on the receiving end of a murderous fatwa, far fewer literary eminences would support him than was the case in 1989 because they would have thought he was gratuitously insulting a vulnerable ethnic and cultural minority.
A third of a century ago, most educated Westerners seemed prepared to defend freedom of speech because they knew that without it their civilisation would have remained stuck where it was in the Middle Ages, but then the need to accommodate not just newcomers but also groups that have “come out of the closet” has made many retreat. Pessimists warn that, as a result, confidence in what the West was once supposed to stand for has collapsed, and this is harmful not only to Westerners themselves but also to those who fled societies in what were once described as backward parts of the world mainly because they valued the freedoms they had been denied back home.
In Africa, the Arab countries, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and many other parts of the world, including enclaves in Europe dominated by recent immigrants and their offspring, there are plenty of men and women who feel betrayed by those Westerners who in effect support blasphemy laws designed to silence anyone who dares to speak out against the prevailing orthodoxies. In the UK, the most eloquent defenders of what can be called “the Western way of life” tend to be recent immigrants from Africa and the Middle East who quite naturally are alarmed to see influential members of the British cultural establishment making common cause with the very worst reactionaries in the repressive societies they left behind.