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Literary Controversies Since the Rushdie Affair

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As the current wave of protests against the derogatory and risible video Innocence of Muslims reminds us, the Rushdie affair has been succeeded at regular intervals by other cases of religious minorities protesting against creative works. We focus on Britain, where controversy surrounded Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane (2003) and its filming in 2006. On the publication of the novel, the Greater Sylhet Development and Welfare Council wrote an eighteen-page letter to the author protesting against its depiction of their community. Three years later, filming of the novel on Brick Lane itself provoked further dissent: around one hundred protesters marched through the streets, and the film company eventually withdrew to produce the final scenes of the film elsewhere.

In 2008 Sherry Jones's romantic novel The Jewel of Medina took up The Satanic Verses's fictionalisation of Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad's youngest and favourite wife. Aisha is revered by the majority Sunni sect as 'Mother of the Believers', but less popular among Shias, who hold her responsible for Islam's seventh-century schism. Fearing Muslim protests anticipated (or some say manufactured) by American academic Denise Spellberg, Random House pulled The Jewel of Medina's UK release, after which Jones was signed by Gibson Square, which found itself on the receiving end of a firebomb attack.

From outside the Muslim community, a production of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti was cancelled in 2004 by the Birmingham Rep, because Sikh activists disputed its portrayals of gurdwara violence and use of religious icons. This last example indicates that artistic−religious controversies subsequent to the Rushdie affair have not just involved Muslims: in the Behzti case, the protests were initiated by largely working-class British-Punjabi Sikhs. Shortly afterwards, English PEN lobbied the government against the proposed incitement to religious hatred legislation, arguing that it would dangerously curtail freedom of expression and criticism and that it would only encourage protests such as those against Behzti.

The British protests against Rushdie's novel and these more recent protests are commonly understood in terms of the free speech versus religious offence argument. But it is important to think beyond this limiting binary to attain a greater degree of intercultural understanding in twenty-first century Britain. One way of doing so is to highlight the unequal access to cultural and economic capital that frequently marks such disputes. Discussing the Behzti controversy in an arts magazine, Sarita Malik describes the chasm that separates Britain's ethnic minority communities from artistic spaces from which they feel excluded. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the representation and perceived defilement of the gurdwara within an arts space might trigger a hostile response.

Similarly, the gulf between the novel Brick Lane and the literary domain it inhabits, and the area of Brick Lane which a large community of working-class Bangladeshis have settled, shaped and made their home, is deep. Their exclusion from the discussion space surrounding a novel that is, to quite some degree, engaged with their culture and their home, was for them provocative. While the gurdwara is a sacred space and Brick Lane a secular one, the gurdwara's significance extends beyond doctrinal religion to Sikh culture and community, just as Brick Lane encompasses the faith of the community who live and work there. In other words, religion and religious offence cannot be separated from race and class when considering these controversies.

To make this point is also to break down the assumed split between a censorious religion and freedom of speech. The sacralisation of freedom of expression since the Rushdie affair, and its post-9/11 resurgence led by New Atheists such as Martin Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens, has entrenched both liberal and conservative perception of religions, particularly Islam, as repressive, dogmatic and violent. It is less commonly recognised that the hard secularist position also has 'fundamentalist' tendencies, such as its near deification of art (especially literature and its avatar, The Writer) and of science and Enlightenment values, often partially understood or taken on 'faith value'.

In the post-9/11 climate and bolstered by contemporary disputes, some of the novelists who were loudest in their complaints about loss of freedom of speech have written about Islamist terrorism and Islam, often in two-dimensional ways. Far from being silenced, authors such as John Updike (Terrorist), Ian McEwan (Saturday) and Sebastian Faulks (A Week in December) have much readier and more unfettered access to the mainstream media, publishing and other means of cultural expression than the people the proposed incitement to religious hatred legislation had claimed to protect. Although a few 'community leaders' are often in the press, they cannot really be said to represent most men and women of faith, and those voices that do get heard are themselves confined within a narrow frame of offence and outrage.

Minority offence at creative works can be traced in part to social and cultural disenfranchisement, or the fact that some people have more freedom and opportunities to speak than others. If we are to live together with difference in a genuinely multicultural society, we need to challenge polarised understandings of such controversies that pit secularism against religion, majority against minority.

In his new memoir Joseph Anton, Rushdie describes the fatwa against him as

an intense light shining down on everyone's choices and deeds, creating a world without shadows, a stark unequivocal place of right and wrong action, good and bad choices, yes and no, strength and weakness.

In the light of the story he is telling, of marriages, relationships, and his own safety being damaged or destroyed by the deplorable fatwa's fallout, his black-and-white analysis is understandable. However, given the violence that has ensued from George W. Bush's similarly uncompromising rhetoric, 'You're either with us or you're with the terrorists', isn't it possible to find a more storied approach to what Tariq Ali describes as this 'clash of fundamentalisms'?

Read the second part in this pair of posts, Muslims Protest Against H.G. Wells book in 1930s Britain, here.

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