Twenty-five years ago Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Two week later the theocratic ruler of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring it permissible for Muslims to assassinate Rushdie because of the suposedly “blasphemous” subject of the book.
This is how an Iranian comrade of ours defended Rushdie.
We defend Salman Rushdie because we've experienced Khomeinism in practice. Many Iranians in Iran and in exile, oppose the “Islamic Republic”, and want a secular Iran.
Those of us living in Britain would like also to see a secular Britain, and oppose any religious group, including those of oppressed minorities, trying to foist their religion on everyone else.
Ayatollah Khomeini's threat on the life of Salman Rushdie is typical of the man and his regime. The “Islamic Republic” was founded on the defeat of the Iranian revolution in 1979, and instituted a regime of medieval barbarism, persecuting all of its opponents — left-wingers, Kurds, women and religious minorities.
There is at the moment in Iran a wave of executions of leftist opponents of Khomeini. The threats against Rushdie are also a warning to oppositionists in Iran, and opponents of Khomeini everywhere.
The spread of Islamic fundamentalism is very worrying. Obviously it was spurred on by the consolidation of the Khomeini regime. Although ti claims to be “anti-imperialist”, it is deeply reactionary.
Salman Rushdie has a perfect right to write about Islam. Free speech and the right to criticise are vital for a democratic society and religious leaders do not have the right to prohibit or threaten their critics.
There is a danger of a racist backlash; the right have seized on Muslim opposition to Rushdie as an example of barbarian immigrants who don't know how to behave in a civilised country. But there is nothing exclusively Muslim about fundamentalism and intolerance — look at the recent fuore over “The Last Temptation of Christ”.
The working-class movement must defend free speech. Muslim workers who now call for the banning of The Satanic Verses are playing with fire. The workers' movement itself always suffers form bans. If it's Rushdie now, it could be other anti-racist writers later — and Rushdie, let it not be forgotten, is a socialist and anti-racist writer.
No one can seriously argue that The Satanic Verses is encourgagement to racial harassment or a threat to the democratic rights of black people in Britain.
The workers' movement needs democracy and debate — in Iran and in Britain. Khomeini and his ilk are the enemies of working-class freedom. Religious leaders who want Rushdie banned or killed will not be striking a blow for Muslim communities, but against the rights of all people to think, write and talk as they wish.
Racists have been climbing on the Salman Rushdie bandwagon. Muslim opposition to Rushdie's right to free speech has been seized on by racists to show the supposed “barbarism” not only of Muslims but of immigrants in general.
The implication is clearly that “these people” shouldn't come to “our country” with their obnoxious views.
None of those putting forward such arguments could claim to be democrats. Their criticism of Islam is pure hypocrisy.
Christians have proved just as touchy. The attempt to ban The Last Temptation of Christ was only the most recent example of a long list of Christian-inspired attacks on civil liberties. The original Gay Times was eventually destroyed by a “blasphemous libel” case.
Who wanted to ban Death on the Rock? The very same racist newspapers that now criticise Muslims for wanting to ban Rushdie's book.
Socialists are clear. We oppose absolutely the attempt to deprive Salman Rushdie or any other artist of their artistic or political freedoms. We oppose the Muslim fundamentalists who will not accept any standards but their own.
Equally we oppose the racist backlash. It is a matter of fighting for free speech, not “against Islam”. We are for full freedom of worship.
In fact not all Muslims by any means support Khomeini's call. Dr Zaki Badawi, chair of the Imans and Muslims Council, the voice of Britain's 400 mosques, told the Guardian: “If you go into any library you can find worse books about Islam, and Christianity for that matter.”
Democratic debate is the way forward. And the racists have no interest in that.
Socialist Organiser, 22 February 1989