I remember the Satanic Verses furore well. It was the first time I had encountered liberals being flabby over issues of basic freedoms. I was running a student magazine and I had asked Jonathan Montgomery to write a piece on the affair: and was utterly gobsmacked to find that he had sided with the book burners against the author. I also remember a friend of mine, Andy Choudhry, getting hugely upset by what he thought was in a book which he had not read. I suspect that it was the reaction to the book which put him on the path, from an amiable left leaning stoner on the fringes of the Socialist Workers Party, to becoming the leader of Al Muhajiroun.
It was also interesting to see the reaction of those on the right wing of the political spectrum to the whole business. The book was crap, unreadable, we were told. Rushdie was an ingrate foreigner who cursed the British while poking a hornets’ nest filled with funny foreign types: and now expected us to protect his sorry hide. Dismal.
Having read the book, I was astonished by the reaction. I like magical realism, and I vex about religion: so I loved it. There’s a great tradition in English literature of books dealing with loss of faith, inability to believe, god-shaped holes, and so on, stretching right back to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and the Satanic Verses forms a part of that canon.
Anyhow, here’s an extract from Samuel Fleischacker’s article.
Rushdie does his best, I think, to try to imagine himself into Mohammed’s shoes, to try to make sense of prophecy in terms that a modern secular person can understand. He presents Mohammed as struggling to figure out what God wants, rather than as simply knowing that, but this is a view of prophecy that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, or liberal Catholics and Protestants. Even if Rushdie is an agnostic or atheist (I suspect that he was an agnostic when he wrote the book but is now an atheist), he tries hard to draw from Mohammed’s teaching a message that he can endorse himself. In Rushdie’s hands, the oneness of the universe may not, ultimately, be something theological, but it is nevertheless of the highest importance that we recognize it: it means, among other things, as the whole of The Satanic Verses as well as many of Rushdie’s other writings make clear, that there is a possibility of unity, of harmony and mutual respect, among Hindus and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, secular and religious people, and traditionalists and modernists. In particular, I think, Rushdie wrote this book to help secular people like himself understand religious people better, find something to admire in religious teachings. This was his olive branch to the religion of his youth, his attempt to come to a rapprochement with it, not his rejection of it.
Why, then, was the book so reviled by religious Muslims (and religious Christians and Jews, even if they deplored the fatwa against Rushdie)? Well, for one thing, Rushdie’s critics didn’t read the book, and believed characterizations of it that were blatantly false. For another, the violence and irreverent jokes and promiscuous sex in the book are likely to irritate religious readers, whether or not a deep theological teaching lies beneath the surface. (Rushdie probably expected such people to ignore the book; he wrote it for elite Western sophisticates, for whom the shock would be that they were supposed to take religion seriously.) And for a third, the sort of radical neo-Platonism I have been describing, in which one seeks God even where He seems most emphatically to be not, has always had an air of heresy about it, has always disturbed more traditional religious people.
That said, I think the critics of The Satanic Verses made not just a moral but a strategic mistake. I found myself being much more interested in the Quran after I read it than I had ever been before, and I was not alone: sales of the Quran went up everywhere that the book was read. Looking back on the novel now, I find much of it overwrought, and Rushdie has turned out in the intervening years to be shallower and more self-indulgent than I would like. But he offered us an opening for a deep conversation on religion in 1988, which could well have led to a far greater respect for Islam in particular among Christians and Jews. The fact that that opportunity was rejected rather than welcomed was a harbinger, and partial cause, of the catastrophic religious divide in which we now find ourselves.
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