Freedom, fatwas and the Mob

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The fatwa

In September 1988 the world was a different place; Phil Collins was at the top of the charts, poll tax was but a distant nightmare and drones were still radio-controlled helicopters with cameras attached.

Al-Qaeda were a few tribesmen given guns by the US to fight those pesky Russians in Afghanistan, and Salman Rushdie, the British-Indian writer and literary darling, had just released his fourth and still most revered novel The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie at this point, was no stranger to controversy. A self-described “antagonist to the state”, he had already been accused of attributing the death of Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi’s husband, Feroze, to her neglect of him, and had written extensively about US foreign policy citing their government as “the bandits posing as sheriffs.”

But what was to come made his previous criticisms feel like a pallid dream.

By February of 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, had issued a fatwa declaring a death sentence against Mr Rushdie for blaspheming

Islam in The Satanic Verses.

The writer would spend the next ten years in hiding, protected by the British security services with a 24-hour, four-man guard at an estimated cost of £11 million to the UK taxpayer.


Salman Rushdie [Flickr: Antonio Nava]

Many, including fellow writers, have repeatedly criticised Rushdie for what they saw as a blatant exercise in self-promotion, if a very hazardous one.

Roald Dahl searingly wrote in an article for The Times: “[Rushdie] is a dangerous opportunist [who] knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on to the top of the bestseller list – but to my mind it is a cheap way of doing it.”

And Prince Charles apparently, in a dinner party conversation with novelist Martin Amis, also showed disdain for the writer saying he could never offer backing for Rushdie for “insulting someone else’s deepest convictions.”

But the writer has not been without support: Literary horror heavyweight Stephen King phoned the head of bookshop chain B. Dalton, following the announcement they wouldn’t be stocking The Satanic Verses, telling him: “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses; you don’t sell Stephen King.” The store quickly reversed its decision.

The consequence of his right to free speech has perhaps been most damning for those he never knew. In 1993, Aziz Nesin, a prominent Turkish left-wing intellectual, was targeted by angry Sunni Muslims for translating and publishing extracts from Rushdie’s novel.

The hotel in which he was staying during a literary festival was set alight by the mob, and although Nesin managed to escape unharmed, 35 others weren’t so lucky and burnt to death in the blaze. The incident was not isolated.

Two attempts on his life, a knighthood and three wives later, Sir Salman is still here.

The threat to his life, however, is still very much alive with a current bounty of $3.3 million on his head. In 2010 he was placed on an Al-Qaeda hit list by Anwar al-Awlaki; the same list that included the now-deceased Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, murdered in the Charlie Hebdo killings of January 2015.

The Mob

Having the wrath of the largest religion in the world is one thing. Having the rage of Neapolitan mobsters is a wholly different affair.

In 2006, Roberto Saviano published Gomorrah, the culmination of a five-year investigation into the Camorra, a ruthless criminal organisation, or as the writer puts it: “Italy’s other Mafia”.

Driven by what he says was “a desire for vendetta against an extremely ferocious world that involves everybody,” he waited tables at gangster weddings and worked on Camorra-run construction sites, building his investigation.

Initial sales figures were expected at five to ten thousand – which is the average for an independent, Italian-published book on organised crime.

This estimate was quickly put to rest as the book shifted a million copies in its first year, and that figure now in exceeds 10 million, with the book translated in 51 countries.


Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano talks about life under constant police protection. [Flickr: Alessio Jacona]

The attention Saviano brought to one of the world’s nastiest criminal organisations did not go unnoticed, in particular by the Casalesi clan, whose exploits are detailed in great length: running construction rackets and being heavily involved in the drug trade, but also the hugely profitable dairy business and, of course, murder.

By 2008, Saviano’s life had been threatened numerous times and was living under constant police protection, moving from safe house to safe house.

Saviano has spoken damningly of his forced exile and the solitude it’s brought him. He told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, for whom he occasionally writes: “What is my crime? Why must I live like a recluse, a leper? I only wanted to tell the story of my people, my land and their humiliation. I want a life. I want a home. I want to fall in love. I want to [be able to] drink a beer in public, go to a bookshop and choose a book after browsing the back cover. I want to go for a walk, enjoy the sun, walk in the rain and see my mother without fear – and without frightening her – I’m only 28 years old, for fuck’s sake.”

Is the expense one pays for the right to free speech sometimes greater than the reward? As Saviano himself aptly puts it: “The fuck with success.”

In a somewhat ironic kick in the teeth for Saviano, the disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waged in on the affair, accusing the mob-shamer of bringing dishonour on the country, with his daughter calling the writer in an open letter “a one-way street publicist.”

Providing some solace for the writer, the wider world has been much more supportive, with the Guardian running an editorial in his honour saying: “He should be commended for his bravery, and supported by all who share his revulsion.”

The opera

If you’ve ever sat wondering what the Salvation Army, Harvey Keitel and the Klu Klux Klan have in common, well wonder no more: they’re all players in the controversy that dogged Stewart Lee’s The Jerry Springer Opera.

A satirical look at the exploitative nature of American chat shows through the canon of Christianity, the musical was written by Lee and Richard Thomas in 2001.

It ran for more than 700 performances throughout England and the US, before succumbing to the pressures of Christian right-wing groups, with Lee himself claiming “the Christian Voice killed my opera”.


Christians protested against Stewart Lee’s dogged opera. [Flickr: Philip Evans]

At the height of its run, hundreds of protesters could be found outside theatres across the country on opening nights with the Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, calling the show “gratuitously offensive”.

As part of a BBC Two season on Jerry Springer, former General Director Mark Thompson made the decision to televise the musical in 2005.

This became the single most complained-about show in British history (to be later beaten only by Big Brother) receiving 55,000 complaints to the BBC prior to airing, whilst regulator Ofcom recorded 9,000 after transmission.

Years of campaigning by evangelical Christian groups had taken their toll; a year later, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 came into effect – it was the government’s third attempt to bring a bill of this nature into power following the events of 9/11, but many saw the publicity that had come with the opera as a proponent in pushing it forward.

Stewart had been asked to speak in Parliament in the months prior, noting, “journalists and an MP want me to speak about the government’s badly thought out incitement to religious hatred bill and how it will affect the arts. I’d love to do this, but worry about being billed as a representative of the opera itself. The bill appears to suggest, for example, that the opera could be closed down immediately if there was a complaint while police investigate it, and that even our own intent for the piece would be no excuse for any offence caused, so I sign on.”

Christian Voice, however, did not stop there. They attempted to sue Thompson for blasphemy calling the show “an offensive, spiteful, systematic mockery and wilful denigration of Christian belief [that] clearly crossed the blasphemy threshold”.

The case was thrown out by judges who ruled: “As a whole [it] was not and could not reasonably be regarded as aimed at, or an attack on, Christianity or what Christians held sacred.”

But for many, the damage was already done. Dogged by years of blasphemy allegations and campaigning, the show came to an end.

When asked, more recently, if Lee had been disheartened by the process he answered, “It did make me feel there was not much point ever trying to reach a mass audience with anything interesting and provocative. You just run the risk of being misunderstood on a large scale.”

The Gurdwara

Another show that became swamped with controversy, despite only running for two nights before being cancelled, was Behzti, a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. A black comedy, the theatrical work was set in a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple, and included scenes of rape, physical abuse and murder.

The play’s premiere at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2004 saw hundreds of members of the Sikh community turning out to protest against the production.

The demonstration soon turned violent when the building was stormed and windows, equipment and doors were smashed – 85 police officers, including 30 in riot gear were required to bring peace to the situation.

Bhatti said she created the play from the “fury at injustice and hypocrisy” she saw within the Sikh community, but prominent figures within the Birmingham Sikh community were quick to attack the play.

With local MP Khalid Mahmood stating the performance aimed to cause maximum offence while chairman of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras Sewa Singh Mandha said that “it will not help race relations in the city.”

The playwright was placed under temporary police protection and her flat fitted with window bars and CCTV following threats of abduction and violence.

Ten years on, Bhatti told The Guardian: “My experience showed me that freedom of expression is precious, both as a gift and a right. When it is taken away, there is nothing left but abject, depressing silence. The only way of filling the void is to create anew.”

The human zoo

An exhibition by South African Brett Bailey, in which black actors are put on display in a ‘human zoo’, featured at the Barbican centre in London in 2014, following previous showings in 12 cities.

A commentary on racism, or racism itself? That was the question posed by journalist Sara Myers advocating the cancellation of the show and a online petition that reached 22,987 signatures.

Following protests and support from around the country, including Lord Boateng, who was Britain’s first black cabinet minister, the performance was cancelled.

In Edinburgh, where the show originated, there had been no protests – many commentators called the protest a product of ‘viral hysteria’ following the petition.

Bailey himself queried how many people protesting had actually seen the show: “Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform? My work has been shut down today, whose will be closed down tomorrow?”

The prophet and the future

What happened at the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 will stay with many people forever – a turning point in the argument for free speech and civil liberties.

Is there ever a step too far? An offence that is too grave to forgive? Or are we living in an overtly extremist, too easily offended world?

Is there ever a guise for self-promotion in the furore that offence can cause? Would Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses have sold in its millions had it not been one of the most continuously covered news stories in the world?

Would The Interview, a comedy about assassinating the North Korean Supreme Leader, have made $45 million had it not been given the world-wide publicity it received following its hacking scandal?

As one commentator noted; “how do you turn a lousy movie script into a multi-million dollar blockbuster? Put King Jong-un in it.”

There’s no black and white answer to it but what must be held up is a person’s right to write, produce and create freely, without fear, intimidation or death.

As Oscar Wilde put it more succinctly: “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”


Feature image by Robert Croma via Flickr

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