The Satanic Verses – 20 years on

Prior to the release of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, the Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw), Weekly Mail and South African publishers, invited the author to be the keynote speaker at the Weekly Mail Book Week which was to be held in November. Rushdie was to have spoken on censorship.

Although Rushdie was regarded as an opponent of colonialism and racism, The Satanic Verses, contained shockingly offensive passages about some of the most revered personalities in Islam.

A dream sequence in the book portrayed the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) engaging in adultery and homosexual practices. Rushdie referred to the Prophet Abraham (PBUH) revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, as a bastard. He described Muhammad’s companion Bilal ibn Rabbah, (a freed black slave who delivered the first call to prayer) as an “enormous black monster”.

Not surprisingly, the book sparked widespread global protests by Muslims, and The Satanic Verses was immediately banned in Muslim-majority countries. Iran’s Ayatullah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious decree) in 1989 calling for the execution of Rushdie.

Mohammed Farid Choonara, director of the African Muslim Agency, was one of the first Muslims in South Africa to read the offensive excerpts from the book. Choonara, together with Muslim activists, Iqbal Jassat and Imthiaz Jhetham, immediately lobbied the South African Muslim community. Within days they convened a meeting in Lenasia, Johannesburg comprising of a coalition of over 30 local Islamic organizations from across the country. A national campaign to mobilize the support of the Muslim community in opposing the Rushdie visit was launched.

At the meeting, Choonara, Jassat, Jhetham and various other representatives from Muslim organizations were elected to represent the coalition at a meeting with the Book Week organizers.

At the meeting, Weekly Mail co-editors Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim and Cosaw’s Nadine Gordimer, argued that the reaction and demands of the Muslim community were excessive. For them, the retraction of Rushdie’s invitation would amount to censorship, and they were not prepared to withdraw the invitation under any circumstances.

Harber also claimed that his staff had received numerous threats from “Muslim fundamentalists”. Nadine Gordimer later accused Choonara of threatening to execute the fatwa of the Ayatullah Khomeini –” even though that meeting took place three months before the fatwa was even issued!

The issue had also triggered wide debate within the Muslim community. Not everyone felt that Rushdie should be banned from South Africa. Writer, Achmat Dangor, called the attempts to prevent Rushdie from coming to South Africa as “shameful and tragic”. At a public debate, the late Yusuf Cachalia and Amina Cachalia personally invited Rushdie to their home whenever he was in South Africa.

The revelation that the book had been banned by the government incensed the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM). MYM was outraged that Muslims would go to the very censors who regularly banned Islamic newspapers, including MYM’s Al-Qalam.

In a highly emotive atmosphere on 7 November 1988 – just a day before Salman Rushdie was to arrive in South Africa – the invitation was withdrawn. Book Week organizers maintained that the only reason behind the decision was their inability to guarantee Rushdie’s safety in South Africa.

Weekly Mail felt that it had been subjected to censorship from two fronts. The first was the forced withdrawal of Rushdie from Book Week, following pressure from the Muslim community. The second came from the apartheid government which had just banned the newspaper for a month.

Muslims were seen as the enemy of free speech. “Loud-mouthed local extremists” had prevented Rushdie from coming to South Africa, according to The Star Books Editor James Mitchell. Author JM Coetzee went so far as to call those who had opposed the visit “terrorists” who had no place in the anti-apartheid struggle. Choonara argued at the time that to attribute the withdrawal of Rushdie’s invitation solely to the threats was a “blot against the Muslim community.”

The coalition of well-respected Islamic organisations were portrayed by the South African mainstream media as violent fundamentalists. This was in spite of Choonara’s assurances that no members of the coalition organisations had made death threats. Choonara subsequently issued an unequivocal condemnation of Muslims who threatened the lives of Weekly Mail staff and Cosaw members.

According to the late independent journalist, Ameen Akhalwaya, the Book Week organisers would not have invited Rushdie in the first place if they had known before-hand that he had written such an offensive novel. This, too, would have constituted a form of censorship by the organisers –” the very thing of which they were accusing the Muslim community.

What later became evident, however, was that the controversy and discussions about the “Rushdie affair” in South Africa was a preview of the global debate and protests about Rushdie’s book for the next few years. The campaign of the South African Muslim community organizations snowballed and became the model for other Muslim minorities around the world to follow in voicing their protests about The Satanic Verses.

Unfortunately, the discussion of the issue in the South African and global media was reduced entirely to censorship and freedom of expression. Very little consideration of the larger socio-political context within which the protests over Rushdie’s book took place, was ever made.

The Rushdie controversy erupted at a time when the Cold War was ending. The Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979, the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signalled the end of the Communist threat. Add to that the events in the Middle East, particularly the intensifying Palestinian struggle for liberation, the 1980’s hostage crisis in Libya, and the issuing of the fatwa (religious decree) by Imam Khomeini in 1989, and you end up with the stereotype of Islam as a violent religion that breeds terrorism.

This, coupled with the deliberate, distorted depiction of Islam’s most sacred personalities and texts by various authors at the time, including Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen and, later, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, meant that Islam had become synonymous, not only with violence and terrorism – but also as an opponent of free speech in the 1990’s and beyond.

In 2001, George W. Bush repeated this mantra when he told the world “they hate us and our freedoms” before declaring his ‘war on terror’. Fast forward to 2006 and the Danish cartoons controversy. Journalists and editors in this country were outraged when Islamic organizations obtained an interdict preventing them from publishing the cartoons. “Muslims had robbed us of freedom of expression”, was the general sentiment.

Muslim calls for the banning of The Satanic Verses and, later, the Danish cartoons, are not about restricting freedom of expression. Those who defended the publication of the book and the cartoons argue that the media should not have restrictions imposed upon it. But the media has never been totally free of constraints. Political and corporate interests, socially-defined and accepted notions of what is tolerable and what is not, as well as the welfare of the majority of the population have always restricted the freedom of the media. Freedom of expression has never been –” nor should it be –” absolute.