Monday, February 16, 2009

A Twenty Year Sentence

In addition to the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, another anniversary was observed last week in the literary world. On February 14, 1989, while many people were exchanging valentines, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini was sending an entirely different kind of message when he issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers over Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses.

So, twenty years on, how much does the "Rushdie affair" still influence writing and publishing? According to an article in The Independent, the effects can still definitely be felt in Britain. Indeed, just last September, a very similar situation seemed to arise with a controversy around Sherry Jones' novel, The Jewel of Medina (see my earlier blog entry here). What is easy to forget -- and what the Jones incident brought back to mind -- is that Khomeini's fatwa was not just against Rushdie but against his various publishers, some of whom were killed or injured in Japan, Italy, Turkey and Norway.

As the article points out, one of the main effects of the fatwa is probably self-censorship, which is impossible to measure because you are talking about an absence, a silence. There are topics that writers and publishers are just not daring to approach. But novels and stories about Islam and Muslims are still appearing in Britain, though the emphasis may be more on society and culture than religion. And if the fatwa had a positive effect, it was to remind those of us in the relatively safe West that in many countries around the globe. thousands of writers take their lives into their hands any time they publish a story or essay which those in power see as criticism directed towards them.

By the way, the present Iranian government noted last week that the fatwa against Rushdie has never been formally rescinded, and therefore technically is still in effect.

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