Flaming Rage (3 February 1989)
There are many lessons to be learned from the Islamic campaign against Salman
Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the first of which is that
if you set out to ban a book, make sure you succeed , otherwise you will
only promote it.
Britain’s attempts to prevent the publication of Spycatcher
made the boo k an international bestseller, and the Islamic campaign is
doing the same for Rushdie. I half wish someone would burn one of my books
in public. (A Hendon Rabbi once threatened to do so, but never got round
to it. I should have sent him a box of matches.)
A Government has the right to expect confidentiality from its servants
and I therefore had every sympathy with the campaign against Spycatcher.
I have none however, for the campaign against Rushdie, not merely because
he happens to be a particularly gifted author, but because every man has
the right to look God in the teeth and to question the fundamentals of
his faith; and if the fulminations of the book burners are anything to
go by, Mr Rushdie’s questions are well founded.
I recently found myself in conversation on the issue with cultured Muslim,
who said I should not judge his faith by the actions of the Mullah, and
that Islam was basically broad-minded and tolerant.
I appreciated the point he was trying to make, because I have frequently
argued that one should not judge Judaism by the actions of utterances
of the Rabbi; but in the last resort, Islam is as Islam does (the same,
of course, is true of Judaism).
Whatever admiration one may have for Islamic culture, or the work of
this or that Muslim poet or thinker, the fact remains that there is hardly
a single democratic country in the Muslim world. One must inevitably judge
Islam not by the urbanities of its apologists, but the Khomeinis and Gaddafis,
the Assads and the Sadddams, and the book burners of Bradford.
(I will no doubt be reminded that Pakistan recently elected Benazir Bhutto
as Prime Minister in a free and democratic vote, but let us see how long
she remains in power, and while in power, how long she remains democratic).
Dr Hesham El Essawy, director of the Islamic Society for the Promotion
of Religious Tolerance in the UK [sic], is unhappy about
the book-burning episode if only because “it has awakened
the sleeping demons of racialism in so many”. This may be true,
but it has also evoked painful memories of what book-burning led to in
The actual book burning may have been the work of a few hotheads, but
no responsible Muslim leader has denounced it, or the threats against
Rushdie and his publishers, and the whole Muslim world seems to have combined
in the effort to have the book banned.
The may be an indelicate point for someone to make who is himself an
immigrant, but it has to be made: the Muslims are abusing the very freedom
which have led them to seek, and obtain, a home in Britain. They
are not only making things difficult for themselves; they are making things
impossible for prospective immigrants, especially from the Muslim world.
Britain may not be a particularly bookis h society, but it is a particularly
fair minded one, and it is intolerant of attempts to spread intolerance
and interfere with free speech; and if the anti-Rushdie campaign has led
to a backlash of anti-Muslim feeling – which it has – the
Muslims have only themselves to blame.
But wait, who am I to talk? What of the Jewish campaign against Jim Allen’s
“Perdition”? Jews, to be sure did not burn Allen’s play
in public, or even in private, but they did join in an effort to have
it banned – and what’s more, they succeeded. The two cases,
however are not the same.
Allen’s work was not a novel, but purported to be a reconstruction
of recent events which touched on the personal experience of countless
people still living, and which was a blatant piece of anti-Zionist propaganda.
It was, moreover, to have been staged by the Royal Court Theatre,
which, unlike Penguin (Rushdie’s publishers), is heavily dependent
on public funds . And the play itself was trash.
Nevertheless, it is not a crime to write bad plays, or even to stage
them, and, as I said at the time, it was not worthy of the wrath it provoked.