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18 FEBRUARY 2009

Reconsidering the Rushdie affair: free-speech, censorship and 'The Satanic Verses'

"The history of modern Iran provides a dramatic illustration of the fallacy represented by the modern jingoism of 'better our imperialism than theirs'. For the two forms of imperialism are actually intimately related. By forcefully imposing Western values on Muslim states we are merely creating the ideal conditions for the very form of Islamic imperialism we most fear. At the same time, by maintaining an attitude of almost complete insensitivity in relation to The Satanic Verses we are feeding the cruel fundamentalism we seek to oppose. For the continued prestige of the novel in the West is itself a source of cultural humiliation for countless thousands of Muslims both in this country and elsewhere.

Most ironically of all, by persisting in their intransigent support for Rushdie's novel, Western liberals are demonstrating not their strength but their weakness. For it is by having the courage to correct mistakes and misjudgments that cultures ultimately demonstrate their strength.

In this respect Salman Rushdie's reflections on his own possible fallibility are highly significant. In his essay 'In Good Faith', he writes: 'Would I have written differently if I had known what would happen? Truthfully, I don't know. Would I change any of the text now? I would not. It's too late. As Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote in The Physicists: 'What has once been thought cannot be unthought.' '

The flaw in this argument is that the quotation from Dürrenmatt addresses a quite different problem from that which is at issue. It is quite true that 'what has once been thought cannot be unthought' but thoughts are not words. They are essentially private and the fact that we cannot 'unthink' them is irrelevant to the Rushdie affair. For it is one of the conditions of human freedom that we can choose whether or not to voice in public the thoughts that we have in private. And having once chosen to commit our thoughts to speech or to writing we remain free to have 'second thoughts' – to revise, change or even completely repudiate what we have already said.

It is, indeed, almost a precondition of successful human relationships that we should remain free to withdraw or apologise for remarks which have proved hurtful, to 'unsay' things which we have already said and to put right mistakes or misjudgments. To place ourselves in a position where we are unable to do this is a sign not of liberty but of rigidity. Indeed, when Rushdie claims that he cannot alter or withdraw what he has written, he appears to invest himself with the infallibility which traditional religious believers normally ascribe to their gods and their divinely inspired prophets. It is just such delusions which lead to the monolithic and terrible certainties of scripture. By implicitly applying a scriptural doctrine of inerrancy to his own secular writing Rushdie has come close to making a novel – a human fable – into something as rigid and dangerous as scripture itself."
(Richard Webster, 1992)

TAGS

censorshipcultural sensitivityethics • free-speech • Friedrich Dürrenmatt • fundamentalismimperialismIranIslamIslamophobiajingoismMuslim • Richard Webster • Salman Rushdie • Satanic Verses • scripturetradition • unsay • unthought

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
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