Rushdie Affair, the

Rushdie Affair, the
   The 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses precipitated the most dramatic reception ever experienced by a literary text. The intellectual debate and violent protestation associated with this work, crossing boundaries of literature, religion, cultural identity and international politics, have come to be known as ‘the Rushdie Affair’.
   Muslim opponents of The Satanic Verses point to its allegedly blasphemous representation of the Prophet Mohammed, claiming that Rushdie seeks to question the validity of the Qur’an as a holy book. For its critics, the text appears to undermine the very foundations upon which the Muslim faith rests: that the Prophet Mohammed’s source for the Qur’an was divinely inspired by God through the Archangel Gabriel. Consequently, charges of apostasy were levelled against Rushdie, followed by the declaration of a fatwa, or religious ruling, by the Ayatollah Khomeini. This fatwa was based on the view that Rushdie had blasphemed and consequently merited a death sentence. Calls to ban the book in Britain were supported by public demonstrations against Rushdie. Suspected racist attacks against Muslim offices soon followed. However, the Al Azhar Seminary of Cairo, the Muslim religious ruling body, has not passed any decree on The Satanic Verses.
   Much debate has centred upon the protection against blasphemy afforded by British law to the Christian faith, yet denied to other religions. In 1976, for example, successful action was taken against the magazine Gay News for publishing a poem depicting Christ within a homosexual context. Recourse to similar legal redress is denied those of a Muslim faith. Calls to extend the blasphemy laws have so far been unsuccessful. Such debate suggests a tension between Britain as a constitutionally Christian state, and as a multicultural society encompassing a variety of religious faiths. However, this view is complicated by Christian leaders’ support for Muslim protest. Defenders of The Satanic Verses prefer to direct debate towards issues of freedom of expression. Such debate questions the accountability of literature, as fiction, to non-fictional realms of discourse. Rushdie himself has repeatedly pointed to The Satanic Verses as a work of literature, as a product of the imagination, but one that engages with the world. Supporters of the text direct us to Rushdie’s use of the imagination, not as an attack upon the Muslim faith but as an attempt to explore and express the nature of cultural identity and religious faith in a post colonial and increasingly secular world.
   In 1998, ten years after the first publication of The Satanic Verses, the UK authorities negotiated an official ‘end’ to the fatwa with the government of Iran.
   Further reading
    Appignanesi, L. and Maitland, S. (eds) (1989) The Rushdie File, London: Fourth Estate.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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