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Gareth Jenkins

Salman Rushdie: Off-target anger

(March 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 129, March 1990.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IT IS JUST over a year since Salman Rushdie went into hiding. His recent article in the Independent on Sunday stirred old arguments.

Rushdie’s explanation of The Satanic Verses demonstrates once again what a brilliant novel it is and how much his detractors, who for the most part have not read it, distort what it says.

He also directs some bitter comments at false friends and defenders. Labour MP Keith Vaz first telephoned his ardent support to the author and then weeks later supported the banning of his book at a demonstration which called for the author’s death. Guardian columnist Hugo Young decided that if Muslims didn’t appreciate tolerant British culture, they could always leave (not much tolerance there).

Now Rushdie is calling for a paperback edition which would enable many more people – particularly young Muslims – to judge for themselves and disperse the fog of prejudice.

James Kirkup, though against censorship, is against a paperback edition. He feels it would provoke further misery. (The irony here is that the editor of Gay News was charged with criminal blasphemy and jailed for reprinting Kirkup’s poem about the dying Christ’s homoerotic fantasies!)

But to distinguish between hardback and paperback is elitist by implication. The assumption is that it is acceptable for people with money to have access to such books but not ordinary people. These were the arguments used against paperback editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Last Exit to Brooklyn. When Penguin was brought to trial for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover the prosecution could ask in all seriousness if this was the kind of book one’s wife or servant should be reading.

A more serious kind of opposition to a paperback edition comes from Bhikhu Parekh, deputy chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality.

He says that freedom of expression has been satisfied with the existence of the hardback, which should not be banned or withdrawn from circulation.

A similar point seems to lie behind Michael Dummett’s Open Letter to Rushdie, also printed in the Independent on Sunday.

Dummett, a liberal anti-racist, argues that of course the death threat is wrong, as is the whipping up of racist hostility to Muslims, but that Rushdie himself does not seem to realise how his book has damaged race relations.

Free speech, Dummett argues, is fine, but the rhetoric surrounding it disguises whether there should be restraints when it comes to defiling what people regard as holy – something which Western unbelievers cannot grasp because they are oblivious of the pain caused.

Therefore, Dummett concludes, there is a case for extending the blasphemy laws to other religions. We don’t allow free speech to cover racist incitement, so we shouldn’t in the parallel case of gross offence to believers.

These are exactly the same arguments used by Rushdie’s attackers to have the book withdrawn and can be used by every brand of bigot, from the Catholic Church to Mary Whitehouse, to censor any book or TV programme considered offensive to belief.

Racist offence and religious offence are two different things.

We oppose racist provocation not on the grounds of “offence” but on the grounds that it strengthens the hold of reaction, dividing the working class and terrorising one part of it.

Religion is a different matter. Socialists are for the right of people to practice the religion of their choice, although we are opposed to attempts by the state to impose religion.

But we do so not because we approve of religion. On the contrary, we oppose religion as being incompatible with genuine human emancipation. We defend religious liberty because not to do so strengthens rather than weakens the hold of these ideas.

This is because, as Marx well understood, religion appears to abolish the alienation caused by material conditions. Without tackling material conditions the need for religion cannot be overcome.

But this process must involve the idea that human emancipation is not compatible with belief in Holy Texts and Supreme Authorities. So socialists also defend the right to attack or mock religion.

Those who say that Rushdie should not ridicule religion may do so for the best of motives – that we do not want to add to the pain of the oppressed. There is a problem, however. Of course, socialists are against “superior” white society imposing enlightened solutions from above. But what about those in the Muslim community who want to break with religion, who want to question religious authority and the “right” of the elders to dictate anything from dress to sexual behaviour?

Absent from most of this discussion is any consideration of why racism has led to a revival of religion in Britain. Fundamentalism in towns like Bradford and parts of London hasn’t increased because people with brown skins are prone to fanaticism (a racist myth). It has to do with things like unemployment (in 1984 in Bradford 34 percent of young male Asians were without work as opposed to 17 percent young male whites) and with the way in which Bengalis in east London have been forced into the most dilapidated estates by Liberal-run Tower Hamlets council.

It also has to do with the growth of state racism, including a tightening up of immigration controls and more deportations, in the context of the retreat by the reformist left and the trade union leaders from any effective challenge to Thatcher.

Into the vacuum has stepped religion, which a dozen years ago would not have appeared attractive to youth.

It is this that explains the furore around Rushdie. All the pain and rage of racist oppression has exploded but missed its real target by lashing out at a book that more than any other gives a deep insight into the pressures on the immigrant community.

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