‘It’s not enough to rely on the principle, we have to think harder’: PEN, Rushdie and free expression thirty years on…

In our latest free expression podcast, Professor Anshuman Mondal of the University of East Anglia talks to Professor Rachel Potter about Salman Rushdie, thirty years after the Satanic Verses affair.

Mondal, who has written extensively on Rushdie and particularly on free expression and Islam, explores the implications of the West-versus-East narrative at the centre of the Rushdie scandal and discusses how anti-censorship discourses work within global politics often to the detriment of non-Western cultures and belief systems.

‘Whereas I have no problem with writers mobilising on behalf of another writer I think that writers just like any other constituency have the political right and the duty to do so, what I would try to do is to just problematize this notion that writing and that writing and especially imaginative writing of a certain kind, it is on a special pedestal.

‘It is something special, something really truly remarkable that is so exceptional that it needs a special provision and special exceptions and so forth and I’m not entirely sure that that’s the case and I think that that’s one of the strands of the discourse established at that time that I am still working on and trying to address.’

He also responded to some of the documents we found in the PEN Archives which relate to the Rushdie case, including letters from PEN Centres lending their support to Rushdie’s cause and an essay written by postcolonial scholar Edward Said and published by the PEN America Center.

‘Edward Said quotes Rushdie’s essay ‘Outside the Whale’ and I think that that is a great reminder to both Rushdie himself and to the rest of us about the way in which writers are invested in these situations, they aren’t neutral players and they can’t be observers.

‘However, I’m constantly struggling always to remind everyone of the complexity of the situation, so I’m going to complicate that position.

‘It emerges most importantly in the trope that Rushdie himself uses in his essays ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ and ‘A Thousand Days in a Balloon’, those essays that were published and were brilliant responses under considerable duress, but he uses this trope of the imagination in a sort of quasi-romantic way and one of the things that I’m really interested in is that this trope of the imagination is quarantined from everything else.

‘It’s a sort of performative contradiction in the essay in that he talks about the imagination or the writer’s imagination being responsible for being able to think differently, for enacting changes in the world and so on and so forth and yet at the same time this faculty of the imagination is free-floating and is quarantined from the messiness of the real world.’

He also traces some of the current narratives around Islam to the Rushdie case: ‘In terms of the Rushdie case, what was problematic was this framing of free speech as part of a civilizational struggle and Rushdie himself does it actually in the novel and in the para-textual interventions that he makes during the controversy.

‘But that discourse set the scene for that civilizational battle that free speech is part of the west and is a civilizational value and I don’t think that’s helpful at all.’

Discussing the changes of recent years, Mondal describes how arguments against censorship must be nuanced and complicated – they are never black and white, right or wrong: ‘Principles are a good starting point but if you are going to end there then you’ve got a problem.

‘I value free expression but I want it to be adequate to the predicament of the world today as a very globalised multiracial, multicultural, multi-religious global society with all of these factors that need to be negotiated. It’s not enough to rely on the principle, we have to think harder.’

For more information on the Rushdie affair, read our case study on PEN’s response.

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