Salman Rushdie is not only a prominent PEN Member of several decade’s standing, and a fierce free speech advocate, his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses was also the subject of one of the organisation’s most high profile and most divisive free expression battles.
Rushdie took on the Presidency of PEN America from 2004-2006, and created the PEN World Voices Festival in 2005, an annual week-long event drawing writers from around the world. He received the English PEN Pinter award in 2014.
As a young writer, Rushdie attended the 48thNew York PEN Congress in 1986, where along with other delegates including J. M. Coetzee, Susan Sontag, Nadine Gordimer, Edward Said and others, he debated ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State’.
Retrospectively, he viewed this discussion as a debate about the role of literature in the waning years of the Cold War. Two years after the New York Congress, however, he would find himself and his novel, The Satanic Verses confronting a very different set of free speech issues, and testing PEN’s cohesion in ways that had not been seen since the 1933 Dubrovnik Congress.
The Rushdie case exposed a rift in PEN – particularly between its Eastern and Western centres. It ignited debates about the rights – and limits – to free expression in the context of different global understandings of blasphemy, the persecution of religious minorities and linguistic harm.
The circumstances around the publication, global controversy and murderous reception of The Satanic Versesare well known. Considered blasphemous under Islamic state and religious law, Iran’s religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, called for Rushdie’s death and one Islamic group offered a financial reward for the author’s killing. Rushdie was forced into hiding, in fear of his life.
A truly global case of literary censorship, suppression and persecution, International PEN’s intervention was inevitable – the threat to Rushdie’s life directly contravened all of its principles and policies in defence of literary free expression. PEN joined the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers, just six days after the Ayatollah’s pronouncement, beginning a long campaign to defend Rushdie.
On 2nd March 1989 the ‘World Statement of Writers in Support of Rushdie’, signed by more than 1000 writers, was sent to governments, newspapers and the UN. Vigils were held outside the United Nations in New York and at other key government buildings in other cities around the world. Letters were sent to the Iranian government and to individual national governments by PEN Centres in countries as diverse as Argentina, India, Mexico, France. PEN worked with organisations such as the Society of Authors, the Booksellers Association, the Publishers Association and Article 19.
However, the matter divided the PEN organisation itself, pitting national centres against one another. The Indian Centre was circumspect in its support of Rushdie, choosing to refrain from public defences of the author in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of Indian Muslims. Its long-running publication The Indian PENnot only published a skit that referred to Rushdie as ‘Mr Satan’, they also ran a review which advocated banning The Satanic Verses ‘without reading’ it. The issue split apart PEN members at the 1990 PEN congress in Funchal, Madeira, with English PEN protesting by quoting Heinrich Heine: “You start by banning books. The next day you burn books. And the day after that you burn people.’
Most Centres agreed with English PEN that they could not support the banning of any book or threats of violence towards authors.
However, while PEN members did not advocate banning Rushdie’s novel, the PEN archives show that a number of them argued that the novel raised issues around the limits to literary expression. Edward Said, in a collection of essays published by PEN America in 1989 which reflected on Rushdie’s novel, both condemned the violent threats to Rushdie’s life, and also questioned the way the book played into existing East-West, colonial and postcolonial power structures. He argued that for many Muslims the question over Rushdie’s book was ‘why must a Moslem [sic], who could be defending and sympathetically interpreting, now represent us so roughly, so expertly and so disrespectfully to an audience already primed to excoriate our traditions, reality, history, religion, language, and origins?’
The fatwa was renewed in 2016. Thirty years on, the Rushdie debate remains a serious faultline in the history of free speech.
In our 2018 podcast Professor Anshuman Mondal explores the Rushdie affair and its implications for free speech debates.
Read more about the Satanic Verses controversy in our PEN Case Study.