Civil Liberties

25 Years After the Fatwa

Censorship, Islam, and Western projection.


Today is the 25th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Brendan O'Neill has marked the occasion with a contrarian essay that condemns the censors of the Islamic world but also argues that "the true motor of the culture of offence-taking and censorship today" is actually "moral cowardice among the cultural elites of the West, not moral fury on the part of Muslim groups." Here's the core of his argument:

When Western publishing houses and theatres do hold back from publishing or displaying material critical of Muslims, often it isn't because massive mobs have been hammering on their doors but rather because they themselves feel uncomfortable with expressing strong, possibly offensive opinions. So in 2008, Random House decided not to publish Sherry Jones' novel The Jewel of Medina, which tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad's relationship with his 14-year-old wife Aisha, after one academic reader said it 'might be offensive to some in the Muslim community'. Both the London Barbican and Royal Court Theatre have in recent years cut or cancelled plays critical of Islam on the entirely pre-emptive basis that they might stir up Muslim anger. In each case, it wasn't threats from agitated Muslims that caused the censorship—rather, elite fear of the spectre of agitated Muslims generated self-censorship. Today's concern about what 'might be offensive' to Muslims is best understood as an externalisation of the cultural elite's own internal doubts about art, politics and debate, a projection of their own uncertainty about what is sayable and unsayable on to an imagined mass of seething Muslims.

In essence, what the fatwa has provided over the past 25 years is a justification for the cowardice of the West's own gatekeepers of knowledge and publishers of literature, who, feeling increasingly unsure about what can be said and depicted in this era of multiculturalism, cultural sensitivity and professional offence-taking, often display an instinctive urge to hold back, to pulp, to unpublish….And of course, this in turn inflames some Muslim groups' belief that they have the right to surround themselves with a forcefield against offence.

I'm wary of efforts to determine a single "true motor" for any historical development, but I think O'Neill has certainly identified an important motor. And his point about projection is well-taken. It doesn't take much imagination to think of other times a process like this has been at work—in the attempt, say, to respond to Benghazi by suppressing a movie.

Bonus link: Our interview with Rushdie.