The Blog

Salman Rushdie Reminds Us That We Must All Defend Freedom of Speech

On Valentine's Day, 27 years ago, Salman Rushdie began a transition that would lead to a life on the run, going by the name of Joseph Anton.

On Valentine's Day, 27 years ago, Salman Rushdie began a transition that would lead to a life on the run, going by the name of Joseph Anton.

Most people will be aware of the controversy, but it is often interesting to go over the facts again: a passage from Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was considered by the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeni to be blasphemous; the cleric then issued a fatwa condemning Rushdie to death.

In a time before this one, when mock outrage and tender feelings tended to be more suppressed, it's often tempting to wonder what the growing sense of dread that the threats against his life - which were not idle ones - must have felt like for him.

I remember reading all about it in Rushdie's memoirs, suitably entitled Joseph Anton. That a man of such literary talent and distinction will continue to be defined by something that eventually went beyond his writing is something of a shame; but the story is engrossing: I must have finished it over the course of a wet Glasgow weekend a few years ago.

Now, as someone who had grown up in India, where religious controversies have often brought the nation's diverse faith groups into conflict, this may have been expected. What happened next was not: in a process of what we now recognise to be going viral, anger against the slight, real or perceived, led to mobs burning copies of Rushdie's work all over the world.

The viral part of it is just one aspect of why it seems to have been such a harbinger of the world to come beyond the 1980s. Islamic extremism burst into the popular imagination; the case offered an unfortunately brief and cursory introduction to Islamic theology for many, and it could be argued that many contemporary misconceptions about Islam follow from the controversy.

The bizarre reactions of some who then sought to ban Midnight's Children - a highbrow literary effort that would never be sought after by the National Front - out of some misplaced cultural sensitivity could themselves be seen as a forerunner of the types who try to ban speakers from University campuses for having views they disagree with.

There are so many aspects of the whole saga which have been somehow forgotten in the intervening years: The assassination of the Japanese translator, for example; or the attack on the the Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard who was shot three times, reveal that the fatwa was not all about Joseph Anton, but about anyone who had helped to disseminate his work too. And what of Rushdie's family? A life of police protection; constant location changes; ducking and diving meant that his relationships would suffer. The most heartbreaking of all would be the challenges he faced in trying to be a father to his son, Zafar.

The scenes of book burning and violent, even murderous, censure was to light a fire in many who refused to accept Rushdie's fate. That the rights of a writer, and the life of a man, could be so irrevocably changed by the forces of censor, especially when there was no intention to hurt the sensibilities of believers, made a great impression on me.

And so it is, that since my election in May, alongside my duties to my constituents, I have made a commitment to free speech and human rights a key part of what I hope to achieve in Westminster. I've consistently sought to hold the Government to account on their relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially in the light of their treatment of another writer, Raif Badawi: himself imprisoned because of works perceived to be blasphemous.

One of my first actions in Parliament was to hold a debate in Westminster about Raif Badawi; and since then I have been fortunate to meet a whole range of groups, from Amnesty International to English & Scottish PEN, who bring awareness of freedom of speech and human rights abuses to a wider attention: I'd certainly recommend helping them out when you can.

And so it was this week that I laid down an Early Day Motion to celebrate the literary achievements of Salman Rushdie, himself a winner of the PEN Pinter prize like Raif Badawi. This was intended, not only as a reminder of the great contribution Sir Salman has made to English literature, but that his story now, more than ever, remains important.

I am still a member of the National Union of Journalists, and am proud of the fact that I am now able to have more of a platform to speak for them, at a time of job losses in the industry here in Scotland, caused not only by economic considerations, but also sadly legal ones, in the case of Graham Spears and Angela Haggerty at Herald newspapers. The struggle for free speech and critical writing is not a foreign battle but one that we must engage with here at home too. Politicians have a particular duty to defend this important pillar of democracy and if we become ambivalent towards it then it will be the undoing of our ancient traditions.

Freedom of speech, so long as it does not incite violence or harm on anyone else, is a central tenet of my political beliefs, and one I hope one day to see enshrined in the constitution of an Independent Scotland. This Sunday, I'll be remembering Salman Rushdie: thanking him for his writing, and rejoice in the fact that The Satanic Verses has finally taken on the ordinary life of a book: stacked in book shops around the world with no fuss, just like millions of others.