The Ghost of Joseph Anton: Salman Rushdie and the Futures Lost


As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

John Milton, Areopagitica

The macabre edict that was to condemn the novelist Salman Rushdie to a fearful existence was first broadcast over the crackle of the radio in Tehran on Valentine’s Day 1989. A newscaster came on in the afternoon to announce that the Ayatollah Khomeini had instructed the faithful to hunt the author (whose name was unmentionable) ofThe Satanic Verses as well as anyone else who had a hand in publishing the heretical book, promising to revere as a martyr anyone who lost their own life in the endeavor. [1] At a stroke, the Ayatollah was able to outflank his Saudi rivals for the title of defender of the faith, deflect domestic criticism of his conduct of the ruinous Iraq-Iran War, skirt fallout from the revelations about his arms deals with the Great Satan, minimize attention on the mass executions he had ordered of the members of the leftist Tudeh party, and portray himself as a staunch anti-imperialist who was protecting traditionalists from the secular “world-devourers.” [2] The Satanic Verses, the ambitious third installment in a trilogy of novels by Rushdie exploring the interlocked themes of migration, displacement, and selfhood, had lampooned the Ayatollah as a gloomy, black-robed imam (cleric), plotting a theocratic revolution in his once and future homeland, Desh. Behind the thick velvet curtains of a rented mansion flat in London, the fictional imam thunders against westernized Muslims and consoles himself with the thought that his exile in the ungodly West is temporary, “Exile is a vision of revolution, Elba, not St Helena.” [3] After the revolution, the imam, like the actual Ayatollah, would cannibalize his own supporters. The death sentence handed to Rushdie was more than a vendetta for a fictional caricature. The Ayatollah was the mortal medium of a merciful and compassionate God. Of the religious crimes that Rushdie was found guilty of without trial, the one that rankled was apostasy, a sin for which the sentence was death. The verdict came in the form of a fatwa, which, in the words of Martin Amis, “obliged [Rushdie] to become world-historical.” [4] The fatwa confined Rushdie to virtual imprisonment in Britain for almost a decade, made his case a cause célèbre, and transformed the author into a staunch advocate of freedom of expression.

Almost three and a half decades after the fatwa made worldwide news, the origins of the anti-Rushdie campaign and the substance of the controversies over The Satanic Verses are buried in the sediment of an antediluvian era, so much so that even Rushdie apparently had tired of the subject. Thus, in 2012, he sought to close the book on the fatwa by penning a memoir about his stretch on the run; and on the thirtieth anniversary of the fatwa, in 2019, a commentator for Al Jazeera remarked, “Who still remembers, or cares to remember, or care at all about ‘the Salman Rushdie affair’?” [5] Instead of novels about the complexities of life in Britain after the collapse of empire and the failings of the rulers of India and Pakistan to deliver on the pledges made at independence, authors from the subcontinent now indulged their readers with novels such as The Last White Man, reifying the very categories of race and privilege that Rushdie had sought to explode. The fatwa, although never revoked, had shown itself to be toothless, and the concerns of the author were seemingly outdated. Indeed, when a would-be assassin fell on the author unexpectedly in the summer of 2022, even the FBI apparently had trouble identifying the motive. [6]

Just after eleven o?clock, on August 12, 2022, in an amphitheater on the estate of the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, Hadi Matar, age 24, leapt onto the stage and lunged at Rushdie with a knife. A TikTok video of the chaotic scenes on stage filled a couple of news cycles, but no one reporting on the attack was particularly interested in inquiring why a young millennial, someone who was raised in California and New Jersey as well as with no direct connection to any Islamist group, had vented his murderous rage at the author, presumably over a book that was written before his own lifetime. It was insinuated that the crime was politically motivated, although precisely what made it so, other than that Matar apparently had a fascination with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was left to surmise. Of all news outlets, the Daily Mail, the tabloid that had tormented Rushdie throughout the decade that he lived underground, and the conservative New York Post, took the investigative lead. A couple of days after the attack, Silvana Fardos informed the Daily Mail that she had noticed a change in her son Hadi, a reclusive discount-store clerk, after his brief sojourn in 2018 to see his father, a shepherd in Yaroun, Lebanon, where Hezbollah is active. [7] Meanwhile, when interviewed from Chautauqua County Jail by the New York Post, Matar spoke about how he had learned about the Rushdie Affair from YouTube videos. [8]

Little news has trickled out about Rushdie since the attack. Although his agent Andrew Wylie reports that Rushdie has left the hospital, where he was on a ventilator and underwent emergency surgery, his whereabouts presently remain unknown. [9] It is now clear that, in a cruel twist of fate for an author, Rushdie has lost vision in one eye and will require a lot of physiotherapy to regain the use of his right hand. It had been a miracle of sorts that Rushdie continued to write novels with the madness that surrounded him after the fatwa in 1989. Word that Rushdie is set to release a new book, Victory City, offers everyone who has ever lost themselves in one of his novels the hope that he will continue to ply his craft. [10] That said, Rushdie, an ardent campaigner for freedom of expression, would doubtless regard the release of his new book as a minor consolation in an era in which self-censorship, ruinous cancellations, and de-platforming are commonplace.

Back in 1989, the late Christopher Hitchens, a steadfast comrade to Rushdie throughout the “affair,” wrote that, while the fatwa drew comparisons to the assassination of Trotsky and the excommunication of Elizabeth I by the Catholic Church, the fact was that “the Salman Rushdie case has no analogue.” [11] And, indeed, the Rushdie case was a first of sorts, but this now hard to recognize, since the politically insidious rhetoric of “hurt” sentiments and the menacingly ominous talk of “respect” by the anti-Rushdie campaigners is now entrenched everywhere from corporate retreats to universities. The fatwa has been internalized; [12] the absence of a Je suis Salman campaign in the wake of the August attack is conspicuous; [13] as is the fact that no publishing outfit today would back a book such as The Satanic Verses. [14] Yet what accounts for this deplorable state of affairs?

It may be, as Rushdie suggested in his allegorical novella, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (written to explain his awful situation after the fatwa to his young son), that history unfolds by P2C2E—Processes Too Complicated to Explain. Indeed, why is it that liberal norms have buckled, if not faltered completely, in the present day? The Left is at odds to offer an adequate answer. Even before the attack last August, sections of the Left, especially, but not only, those who trumpeted the rise of the mullahs in 1979 as a win for anti-imperialism, had vacillated on whether to side with Rushdie or the anti-Rushdie campaigners. Instead of rallying to the side of Rushdie in 1989 there were calls by the Left to censor The Satanic Verses in the name of anti-racism and anti-imperialism. In pitting tolerance and sensitivity of religious sentiments over the exercise of liberal rights, the Left belied the consequences of its still undigested Stalinism, which makes a revolutionary virtue of a contempt for liberal values; this section of the Left celebrates the retreat from liberal freedom as a sign of democratic progress. Yet even those on the Left who mustered a defense of Rushdie in 1989 are at odds to adequately explain the abject condition we find ourselves in presently. The Rushdie Affair seems in hindsight bound up with a slew of deeply ambivalent historical developments—the end-stage of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the emergence of a new religious extremism. If “the failure of the left” is itself responsible for the growing divide between “anemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists,” as Slavoj Žižek suggests, the issue is why the Left failed? [15] It is difficult to attribute the failure of the Left to the rise of Thatcherism or the collapse of the Soviet Union. The regression we see today, which can express itself as a growing rift between liberal norms and fundamentalism, is, at least from a Marxist vantage-point, the result of the deepening antinomy between liberalism and democracy in an age of capitalist disintegration. Illiberal views on freedom of speech can express themselves as progressive and can be articulated in the idiom of democratic rights. Moreover, the liberal-left as much as conservatives appeal to the imperialist, or Bonapartist state to intervene on their behalf in disputes that ought to be settled politically in society. The illiberalism at the heart of the anti-Rushdie campaign was neither the result of neo-conservativism nor atavistic religious beliefs. Loath though anyone on the Left is to admit the fact, in the final analysis, the illiberalism at the heart of the anti-Rushdie campaign was itself a species of a transmogrified leftism.


It is impossible to address the substance of the Rushdie Affair without a review of its origins. The clamor over The Satanic Verses in fact started well before the fatwa was issued over Radio Tehran and at a distance from the streets of Bradford where the novel was set alight. How and where the anti-Rushdie campaign took shape set the trajectory of the controversies that later followed. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was launched neither in Britain, where Salman Rushdie lived and wrote, nor in the Middle East, but in India?the ?imaginary homeland? that the author sought to reclaim in his novels. Indeed, the reaction of the Indian authorities to the release of The Satanic Verses was improbably swift: On October 5, 1988, a mere week after its launch in Britain, the novel, or, more precisely, its importation into India was banned by the Ministry of Finance on orders from above. [16] A group of conservative Muslim MPs had heard about the book and were insistent that the state intervene. Faced with the task of garnering the Muslim vote (even as his party toyed with anti-Muslim rhetoric to win over the assertive Hindu majoritarians who were then gaining strength politically) the prime minister bowed to the calls to block the sale of The Satanic Verses. It no doubt made it easier for Rajiv Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that had led India since independence, that Rushdie had run afoul of the Gandhis before. His mother Indira Gandhi had won an apology from Rushdie through the British courts for his caustic sketch of her in Midnight?s Children (1981) as the Widow who imprisons and sterilizes the impoverished citizens in whose name she ruled. [17] Had Rajiv Gandhi read The Satanic Verses, he would have found a censure of his own administration, particularly his weak stance against the US-based conglomerate Union Carbide, whose subsidiary in Bhopal had billowed a lethal mix of methyl isocyanate and other chemicals into the night air on the third of December, 1984, poisoning thousands. [18] ?Your Government has much to be ashamed about,? Rushdie publicly chastised the prime minster in an open letter written after his book was banned. [19] Although, in truth, the orders proscribing The Satanic Verses came as a surprise since, as Rushdie admits in his memoirs, he tended to overestimate the robustness of the commitment to liberal values in India. [20] While Rushdie fumed that the Prime Minister was proscribing a work of fiction and giving fundamentalists control of the agenda in New Delhi, the latter turned a deaf ear to the criticism that liberal society is founded on the right to freedom of expression. The Left in India was predictably split, with the Old Left worrying about the authorities ?slipping into the abyss of communalism,? pointing to Rajiv Gandhi and the Muslim MP Syed Shahbuddin as ?typical colonials in their attitudes.? [21] Had the book been written by anyone other than an Indo-British author, ran the implication, the state would have been reluctant to take action.

At the center of the storm in India was Syed Shahbuddin, an MP and a member of the opposition Janata Party, but more importantly a proxy for the Islamist organization, Jama’at-e-Islami. Shahbuddin had mobilized the resources of the Jama’at, a Muslim revivalist group founded in 1941 in India by Sayyid Abul ‘Ala Maududi that was now financed by the Saudis, to amplify to his call for the book to be banned. Though he lacked direct access to a copy of The Satanic Verses, he still felt himself licensed to take offense, and to offer the prime minister advice on the matter. He was also kind enough to summarize its sins for others: “For me, the synopsis, the review, the excerpts, the opinions of those who had read [the book],” Shahbuddin proudly remarked, “were enough [to form a judgement].” “You depict the Prophet as an imposter,” he ranted in the pages of the Times of India, and “had the nerve to situate the wives of the Prophet in a brothel.” Even the title of the book, he interjected, “is suggestively derogatory.” [22] Shahbuddin invoked a colonial-era statute (Article 295 A) that makes it an imprisonable offense to insult the religious beliefs of anyone else by words, either spoken or written. The preposterously capacious article of the Indian legal code, which dates to the 1920s, was enacted after an anonymous novel, Rangila Rasool (The Colorful Prophet [1924]), a satirical look at the sex life of the Prophet, roiled conservative Muslims in the state of Punjab and was condemned by none other than Gandhi in Young India. Throughout his campaign, Shahbuddin impishly referred to the work as Satanic Verses, dropping the use of the definite article as is often the habit of speakers of Indian English, but also implying that the book was written by none other than Satan himself. It made no difference to Shahbuddin that The Satanic Verses was, as he acknowledged, a work of fiction.

It was partly through the extensive connections of the Jama’at-e-Islami that the localized row over The Satanic Verses became the international L’affair Rushdie. Alerted to the row in India, Syed Faiyazuddin Ahmed of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester and a Jama’at sympathizer, bought a copy of the book, xeroxed selections, and then mailed and faxed them to embassies and other organizations worldwide. [23] The Jama’at-e-Islami in Pakistan had already targeted Rushdie when he wrote Shame (1983), which unflinchingly criticized the Pakistani army for its conduct in the Bangladesh War and included an unsympathetic depiction of the Islamization drive led by the unctuous dictator General Zia-ul-Haq; so the Jama’at was only too eager to call the The Satanic Verses to be banned. Late in October, on the night that The Satanic Verses fell short of garnering the Booker Prize, Rushdie received an ominous telephone message from a cleric in South Africa that sought to dissuade him from appearing at an upcoming conference in Johannesburg. South African Muslims of Indian origin in the anti-apartheid coalition had heard about the events in India and were angry that Rushdie had been invited to speak to the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) on the topic of apartheid and censorship. Meanwhile, the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress were also pressing the organizers, the editors of the anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail and Nadine Gordimer of COSAW, to revoke their invitation to the author. Unsurprisingly, the apartheid state gladly obliged the calls to censor the book. Its official statement proscribing the book claimed to rest on a report by experts, when in fact it had borrowed phrasing from a statement by the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, a Saudi-funded and Jama’at-influenced group set up to find ways to suppress the book in Britain—a testament to the increasingly tentacular reach of the anti-Rushdie campaign.

Meanwhile, the Grand Sheikh Gad el-Haq Ali Gad el-Haq of the venerable Al-Azhar in Egypt took the opportunity to condemn The Satanic Verses, as well as to renew an allegation against Naguib Mahfouz, whose 1959 novel Children of Gabelawi he judged to be heretical. Another cleric in Egypt, Omar Abdel-Rahman, “the blind sheikh” later indicted for his involvement in the 1994 attack on the World Trade Center, remarked that had Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1988, been made an example of properly, Salman Rushdie would never have had the temerity to write his book. [24] (And in an echo of that earlier statement, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, remarked, in a 2006 appearance on Al Jazeera, had someone made an example of Rushdie by carrying out the wishes of the Ayatollah, the Danish newspaper editor of Jyllands-Posten would not have dared to run cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. [25]) A zealot eventually knifed an aged Mahfouz in the neck—a sign of things to come.

Despite the growing list of countries that hastened to halt the sales of The Satanic Verses, the anti-Rushdie campaign was relatively muted until the month of December 1988, when major street demonstrations were held in the gritty mill towns of northern England. It was there that, in a display of free speech, the book was first publicly set alight. The scenes from the demonstrations split Britain into rivalrous camps; each criticized the other as intolerant and so only hardened the views of the other. The first demonstration in Bolton, the site of historic labor confrontations, brought out close to seven thousand marchers. It was led by the Deoband, that is, rivals to the Jama’at-e-Islami. A stronger turnout was evident a couple of days later in Bradford—“Islamabad”—in Yorkshire; soon thereafter the offices of Penguin Viking in London were inundated with minacious calls. The start of 1989 brought about more, albeit smaller, rallies. But then, on January 14, at another demonstration in Bradford, this one led by the Labour councilor and erstwhile Lord Mayor of the city, Mohammed Ajeeb, a copy of The Satanic Verses was nailed to a stake and burned on camera. At once, the bookstore chain WH Smith took the book off the shelves at all its 430 stores, supposedly on account of its disappointing sales. [26] After the events in Bradford, the jury for the Whitbread Book Awards flip-flopped on whether to confer the title of Book of the Year on The Satanic Verses, although the book did win the Best Novel category. A fortnight later, almost eight thousand anti-Rushdie demonstrators marched on Hyde Park in London, where there were clashes with the counter-protesting Rushdie supporters.

Apart from signaling the rise of a new Islamist ideology, the Rushdie Affair revealed a major realignment politically within Britain, in which Labour fell in behind the anti-Rushdie campaigners. A number of Labour MPs, such as Max Madden of Bradford West, sided with the demonstrators, while Jack Straw, who was to become an important figure in the Blairite ministries of the 1990s, suggested that the anachronistic anti-blasphemy laws in Britain should be widened beyond the Church of England to include all religions. Keith Vaz, the British-Indian MP for Leicester East, first telephoned Rushdie to deplore the appalling fatwa, only to lead thousands of Muslims days later on a march at which he called for The Satanic Verses to be banned. Although Neil Kinnock, the head of the party, privately confided his support to Rushdie, he was reluctant to say much publicly. [27] Only Tony Benn and a small band of left-Labour MPs stood on the other side of the issue. [28] Margaret Thatcher and her ministers were also seen on television sympathizing with the insulted. Yet, when it mattered, Margaret Torture, as she was referred to in The Satanic Verses, tapped the resources of the British state to shield the author. It was all enough to lead Rushdie, a Labour supporter all his life, to conclude “the true conservatives of Britain are now in the Labour Party, while the radicals are all in blue [with the Tories].” [29]

The Bradford auto-da-f� marked an escalation in the anti-Rushdie campaign that reached its apex with the death sentence from Tehran. On the February 12, 1989, the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, chastened but still venomous after a recent electoral defeat, mobilized an enormous anti-Rushdie demonstration in the capital, Islamabad (despite the fact that the book had already been banned). The Jama?at bused in demonstrators to Islamabad and, seemingly inexplicably targeted the American Cultural Center, where the Stars and Stripes was stripped from the flagpole and torched together with a Rushdie effigy?all to chants of ?Allahu Akbar.? Guards on the scene fired at the rioters?the first fatal casualties of the Rushdie Affair. Meanwhile, in neighboring Iran, the demonstration caught attention of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who swiftly issued his fatwa against the book and its author, putting the resources of the state behind his edict. The unromantic valentine to Rushdie from the Ayatollah, was broadcast over the radio from Tehran on February 14, 1989. About a week later, the Ayattolah labeled Rushdie an unconscious tool of an imperialist and Zionist conspiracy to halt the advance of the Islamic revolution. Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, the head of the 15 Khordad Foundation, raised the ante by proffering two million dollars to a successful assassin. And the fatwa reverberated globally. Sunni-led states across the Middle East, East Asia, and North Africa suddenly found themselves supporting the Shia clerics. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya threw in his support for the actions of the ayatollahs with the concise declaration ?Islam does not forgive apostasy.?

At the height of the Rushdie Affair, mosques in England were targeted specifically by neo-fascist thugs, who had also started to hurl “Muslim” as an epithet at immigrants. Yet the Left had no need of the category of Islamophobia to make sense of those events. It was well-understood that the right always acts opportunistically. The issue then is what has the Left either won or lost by applying the rubric of Islamophobia to contemporary events? Tariq Ali tried to explain in an article titled “Islamophobia Exposed” that “Islamophobia is something that has been artificially engendered, especially in the Western world, against what is regarded as the new enemy.” [72] On this view, paradoxically, Islamophobia is not an irrational hatred of someone because of their religion, but an ideology that can be turned on and off like a switch by western imperialists. Such a claim makes Ali a useful idiot for the fundamentalists insofar as, from the outset, he concedes to the conservative Islamist view. Indeed, when radicalized Muslims in Britain attack non-Muslims they do so to rally Muslims behind them, splitting the entire world into the faithful and the non-believers. The use of the category “Islamophobia” readily advances this claim on behalf of the terrorists who recycle vague cliches about Islam and West. It should be obvious, but is probably still worth pointing out, that Muslims come in all (ethnic) stripes and colors (races); there is no form of racism capacious enough to cover such a broad swathe. The category of Islamophobia is slippery. Has there been an actual demonization of those of a certain religious background or those with fervent anti-secular views? Why should someone from the Middle East or South Asia be mobilized around their identity as Muslims, rather than politically, on the basis of fighting for their liberal rights against racism? And why should the Left abandon the tenents of secular society or concede that secularism is a Eurocentric or western value? Does the Left care to overcome ascriptive identities or to embrace them? The Left neither needs to defend Islam as a religion nor Islamic fundamentalism politically, beyond supporting the elementary defense of the civil rights of individuals, families, and communities, which of course includes freedom of religion.

Without going over to the side of the “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who polemically argue that religion as such is an issue, why should any leftist hesitate to critique religious extremism and theocratic states? The Marxist Left, Rosa Luxemburg clarified in 1905, “in no way fights against religious beliefs. On the contrary, it demands complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest conceivable toleration for every faith and every opinion.” [73] Yet, in pressing her case, she was not reinterpreting the Marxist critique of religion, but rather pressing the insight found in “On the Jewish Question” that the essence of religion is transformed when it is turned into a purely private affair, and that accomplishing this would be an achievement for both religion and politics. The historical Left thus fought to maintain the liberal achievement of separating church and state. While Luxemburg was arguing that that socialism would transfigure the importance of religion, Hassan Mahamdaille of the SWP perversely contends the opposite: that by self-identifying as Muslim, the anti-Rushdie campaigners came to be not only self-confident but filled with a sense that Muslims could join others to oppose Islamophobia “but also war and other injustice.” [74] Or, in short, self-identifying as Muslim is tantamount to joining the fight for socialism.

A voracious reader, Rushdie once remarked to a room full of other writers that a book is not justified by the worthiness of its author, but the quality of what has been written. [75] The facile critiques against him therefore have always taken the form of aesthetic verdicts: The Satanic Verses is bad fiction, a poorly written tale, a self-indulgent exercise. [76] Such criticisms (even if valid) were only ever a mask to hide behind. Though those on the Left can cozen themselves (in their view the worthiness of Rushdie was always tied to parsing whether, or to what degree, he himself was a leftist), the quality of what he wrote simply was not a factor. Gareth Jenkins of the SWP proudly remembers what it was like once to “interview a novelist whose works were imbued with anti-racism and mockery of imperialism and class prejudice.” After he read the robust defense of liberal values and the Enlightenment in Joseph Anton, Jenkins concluded that “the Rushdie who sided with the oppressed in 1989 does not appear in the Rushdie of the memoir. And that is a tragedy for all of us.” However, so as not to be appear boorish, Jenkins tried to interject some artful nuance into his review by positing that the offense of The Satanic Verses amounts to novelistic irreverence is incomparable to the “gratuitous[ly] racist ‘offense’” of the 2005 Danish and 2012 French “anti-Mohammed cartoons.” [77] The implication, since repeated without reflection, is that Rushdie was someone who, like his close and steadfast friend Christopher Hitchens, had shifted rightward, [78] when in fact it is the Left that had abandoned its erstwhile commitments to freedom in favor of mawkish appeals to relativism and a new tribalism. [79] After the fatwa, conservatives of all stripes rallied against the book by deploring its author as a heretical scribbler; nowadays, it is the Left that objects to the book by portraying its author as an apostate leftist. As it was for the mullahs, so it is today for many leftists: The sin of apostasy is not to be forgiven—and culpability is established merely by accusation.


The ire of the Left always flummoxed Salman Rushdie who saw himself as a soixante-huitard. Although painfully aware of attacks from the Left, especially from other left-liberal writers, Rushdie was at odds to explain them. From the outset of the “affair,” he was genuinely astonished that, “in spite of a lifetime of anticolonialism [he had been] transformed into an oppressor.” Indeed, it was Fatima Meer, a well-known anti-apartheid campaigner, who was among the first to attack the author, arguing that his invitation to address the Congress of South African Writers in the autumn of 1988 should be rescinded since “in the final analysis it is the Third World that Rushdie attacks.” [80] When the leftist cultural critic Paul Gilroy, author of the classic work of post-colonial theory There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, implied that Rushdie had invited tragedy by misjudging the reaction of millions of Muslims, the author was left almost speechless by how quickly the tide had turned. “As depressing as the Islamic campaign,” he later remarked, “were the attacks from the left.” [81] Later, in the autumn of 1993, shortly after the head of the publishing company responsible for the Norwegian edition of The Satanic Verses, was shot in Oslo, an ominous letter from a “D. Ali of the ‘Manchester Socialist Workers Party and Anti-Racist League’” cautioned the author that there were like-minded members everywhere from Liverpool to Bradford, and all across London, ready to kill the author for Allah. [82] For a certain kind of leftist, to stand against Rushdie and on the side of the Muslim extremists was ipso facto an anti-imperialist stance. From the standpoint of Old Left, as Christopher Hitchens noted in 1989, it was also more than a little ironic that, in an era in which the Afghan mujahidin was in lock step with the imperialist West, the Rushdie Affair would lead a number of liberals and leftists to identify Islam, “with the cry of the oppressed and with anti-imperialism.” [83] Added to this, in a final twist, was the fact that Rushdie in substantial measure shared the nationalist Third-Worldist views of his leftist critics who conflated socialism with anti-Westernism. The West, Rushdie once wrote, had failed to deliver progress and therefore “lost the future.” Of course this was the same Rushdie who had written a glowing account of the Sandinistas and the like. [84] The bind for Rushdie was that, although he himself was an “anti-imperialist” and “anti-racist” who believed the sorts of curbs on freedom of expression found in the British Race Relations Act were well-founded, [85] he still had a liberal allergy to cultural relativism and explicit calls for censorship. [86]

If the established Left failed to adequately address racism in Britain before the Rushdie Affair, its embrace of the rhetoric of multiculturalism and Islamophobia, has only further weakened its ability to do so. The apparent intractability of race in the present day might be best understood as a symptomatic expression of regression, rather than advance, in (and through) social political progress. The elaborate legal structure of segregation and discrimination has long collapsed. Ever since the 1960s, Britain has witnessed the decline of legal segregation, but also the simultaneous rise of a new kind of de facto segregation, such as separate religious schools, ethnic constituencies, and isolated neighborhoods, measures enacted in the name of multiculturalism. The policy of multiculturalism may have made sense to Labour and the Tories in the era of violent street clashes between the National Front and the AYM, especially against the backdrop of the prolonged economic crisis of the 1970s, but it has by now shown itself to be altogether chimerical as a means of grappling with racism. Multiculturalism was in this sense exemplary of the rise and fall of neoliberalism, nostalgia for which was especially evident in the 2015 campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, whose stint as the leader of Labour supposedly marked a return to “socialism.” Corbyn was of course committed to the idea of Britain as a multicultural community of communities and the remnants of the Left in Britain threw their support behind his campaign, at least until it was racked by controversies over anti-Semitism, in which one could detect the faint echoes of the undigested legacy of the Rushdie Affair. Unwittingly, multiculturalism has contributed to the rise of new fundamentalisms that are modern and metropolitan. The origins of the anti-Rushdie campaign owe more to the collapse and transformation of the Left, in Britain as well as globally, than to religious tradition or fundamentalist ideas that were imported from the ex-colonies. If nationalism revealed the failure of socialism after World War I, the new tribalism evident everywhere, since the Rushdie Affair, expresses the failure of capitalism in our own era.

The Rushdie Affair was a late manifestation of the crisis of the New Left. And the failure to digest the history of Rushdie Affair has meant that contemporary Left is fated to a form of repetition compulsion. “The exhortation to submit to events,” Rushdie once remarked, “is an essentially conservative one.” [87] Though Rushdie intended the statement as a critique of authors who sought to remain apolitical, or “inside the whale,” his description better suits the contemporary Left, which is hesitant, or possibly unable, to defend the freedom of speech once considered vital by the Left. Much less could leftists today offer a dialectical critique of liberalism; instead, the Left celebrates illiberal and reactionary views as forms of “resistance.” With civil rights generally, but the freedom of speech particularly, under assault from all sides, the contemporary Left may well get what it has wished for: an end to the freedoms it neither uses nor even seems to want.

[1] Peter Martagh, ?Rushdie in Hiding after Ayatollah?s Death Threat,? Guardian, February 15, 1989,

[2] BBC World Broadcast, February 24, 1989, in Lisa Appignanesi and Sarah Maitland (eds.), The Rushdie File, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 75.

[3] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, (London: Viking, 1988), 205.

[4] Martin Amis, “Rendezvous with Rushdie,” Vanity Fair, December 1990, 162.

[5] Hamid Dabashi, ?The Salman Rushdie Affair: Thirty Years and a Novelist Later,? Al Jazeera, February 19, 2019,

[6] Chelsia Rose Marcius, Tracey Tully and Ana Facio-Krajcer, ??I?m Done With Him?: A Mother?s Anger Over Rushdie Attack,? New York Times, August 17, 2022,

[7] Ben Ashford,, August 14, 2022, The Daily Mail story was recirculated by other news agencies.

[8] Steven Vago and Ben Kesslen, ?Salman Rushdie Attacker Praises Iran?s Ayatollah, Surprised Author Survived: Jailhouse Interview,? New York Post, August 17, 2022,

[9] Guillermo Altares, ?Andrew Wylie, ?The Jackal? of Books,? El Pais, October 22, 2022,

[10] An excerpt from the novel, ?A Sackful of Seeds,? appeared in the New Yorker, December 12, 2022,

[11] Christopher Hitchens, ?Siding with Rushdie,? London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 20, October 26, 1989.

[12] Kenan Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, (London: Atlantic Books, 2009), 145.

[13] Mick Hume and Brendan O?Neill, ?Where is the ?Je suis Salman? Movement?? The Brendan O?Neill Show, August 18, 2022,

[14] Jake Kettridge, ?Why The Satanic Verses Would Bever be Published Today,? Telegraph, August 15, 2022,

[15] Slavoj Žižek, “Islamic Fascism and the Failure of the Left,” New Statesman, January 16-25, 2015, 14-15.

[16] The move to halt the importation of the book was an empty threat of sorts, since, in the absence of a cheaply available Indian edition, imported, hardback copies ofThe Satanic Verses were prohibitively expensive. The representatives of Penguin India had tabled the idea of publishing an Indian edition of The Satanic Verses after an unfavorable reader review by writer Khushwant Singh. Rushdie recounts the episode in Joseph Anton (New York: Random House, 2012), 113. Khushwant Singh offers his version of events in the BBC documentary, The Satanic Verses Affair (2009), directed by Janice Sutherland,

[17] Rushdie himself made use of the libel courts in 2008 to suppress a tell-all book by an ex-bodyguard. Helene Goldberg, ?The Shame of Salman Rushdie?s Secular Fatwa,? Spiked, August 27, 2008.

[18] Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, 52, 56.

[19] Rushdie, ?India Bans a Book for its own Good,? New York Times, October 19, 1988.

[20] Rushdie, Joseph Anton, 117.

[21] GPD, ?Blackmail Works,? Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 23, no. 43, October 22, 1988, 2199.

[22] Syed Shahabuddin, “You did this with Satanic Forethought, Mr. Rushdie,” in The Rushdie File, 37.

[23] Tim Black, ?The Fatwa and the Birth of Muslim Identity Politics,? Spiked, August 22, 2022,

[24] Mary Ann Weaver, ?The Novelist and the Sheikh,? New Yorker, January 30, 1995.

[25] See Tariq Ali, ?It didn?t need to be done,? London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 3, February 5, 2015.

[26] Johnathan C. Randal, ?Rushdies?s Book Burned in Britain,? Washington Post, January 18, 1989.

[27] See Salman Rushdie, ?The Book Burning,? New York Review of Books, vol. XXXVI, no. 3, March 2, 1989; also see the comments on Kinnock in Joseph Anton, 180.

[28] Matt Cooper, ?Thirty Years since The Satanic Verses,? August 8, 2022, originally run in 2018,

[29] Rushdie, “Charter 88,” in Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta Books, [1988] 1991), 164; also, Joseph Anton, 131.

[30] Rushdie, Joseph Anton, 145.

[31] Tariq Ali, “Smoked Salman’s Fishy Flavour,” Literary Review, March 1991: 12-13.

[32] Eric Malling, Salman Rushdie, The Fifth Estate, March 7, 1989,

[24] Mary Ann Weaver, ?The Novelist and the Sheikh,? New Yorker, January 30, 1995.

[25] See Tariq Ali, ?It didn?t need to be done,? London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 3, February 5, 2015.

[26] Johnathan C. Randal, ?Rushdies?s Book Burned in Britain,? Washington Post, January 18, 1989.

[27] See Salman Rushdie, ?The Book Burning,? New York Review of Books, vol. XXXVI, no. 3, March 2, 1989; also see the comments on Kinnock in Joseph Anton, 180.

[28] Matt Cooper, ?Thirty Years since The Satanic Verses,? August 8, 2022, originally run in 2018,

[29] Rushdie, “Charter 88,” in Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta Books, [1988] 1991), 164; also, Joseph Anton, 131.

[30] Rushdie, Joseph Anton, 145.

[31] Tariq Ali, “Smoked Salman’s Fishy Flavour,” Literary Review, March 1991: 12-13.

[32] Eric Malling, Salman Rushdie, The Fifth Estate, March 7, 1989,

[33] Later, in the 1990s, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was killed and would-be assassins targeted the Italian translator and the head of a publishing outfit in Oslo linked to book.

[34] The Satanic Verses Affair (2009), directed by Janice Sutherland, Also see

[35] Hanif Kursehi addresses this in his fictionalized account of the Rushdie Affair in his novel The Black Album (Lonon: Farber and Farber, 1995).

[36] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad, xxi.

[37] Ibid., 95.

[38] Ibid., 22.

[39] While some critics, such as Homi Bhabha celebrated Rushdie as giving voice to the concerns of cultural hybridity, alterity, and translation, others such as Aijaz Ahmed were critical of Rushdie, see Bhabha, “The Power of the Text,” Artforum International, vol. 27, no. 9, May 1989, and Ahmed, “Salman Rushdie’s Shame: Postmodern Migrancy and Representation of Women, in In Theory (London: Verso, 1992).

[40] Well before the tragedy of Grenfell Tower in 2017, Rushdie wrote of the squalid conditions, rife with fire hazards in which migrants were housed by Camden Council. See “An Unimportant Fire,” in Imaginary Homelands, 139 – 142.

[41] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 130 – 131.

[42] Ibid., 138.

[43] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 137.

[44] BA Hepple, “The British Race Relations Acts, 1965 and 1968,” The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1969: 257

[45] Roy Jenkins and Anthony Lester (Eds.), Essays and Speeches by Roy Jenkins (London: Collins, 1967), 267.

[46] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad, 59.

[47] Ibid., 76.

[48] Ibid., 57.

[49] Ibid., 59.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 63.

[52] James and the Trotskyists originally took an integrationist stance, whereas the official American Communist Party continued pushing their “Black Belt” thesis of the 1930s, the view that black citizens formed an oppressed nationality within the United States that had to be liberated. The view that the struggle for socialism was distinct from the fight against racism was thus a well-established view on the Stalinist Left, when it was taken up by radicals in the Civil Rights Movement in the late-1960s, under the slogan of Black Power; as was the idea that fight against racism was akin to struggles for national liberation and anti-imperialism. See Max Shachtman, Race and Revolution [originally titled Communism and the Negro], (London: Verso, 2003 [1933]).

[53] Lenin quoted by CLR James, “Black Power,”

[54] John Rose, “The Southall Asian Youth Movement,” Notes of the Month, no. 91, September 1976: 5-6, For more attempts by the International Socialists to reach South Asian workers in Britain see their Punjabi and Urdu newspaper Chingari and the tract The Black Worker (1977).

[55] The history of the IWA is recounted in the 2016 film Indian Workers’ Association, directed by Sav Kyriacou & Matthew Rosenberg, On the rise of the AYM, see Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad, Chapter 2, “From Street-fighters to Book-burners.”

[56] The party recounts its own background and fight against the National Front on its website,

[57] Talat Ahmed, Avtar Singh Jouhl, Rahul Patel, “Lessons in Division,” Socialist Worker Review, no. 119 (April, 1989): 12 – 13.

[58] See Marx’s comments in 1871 to the IWMA.

[59] Chris Myant, Morning Star, 25 June 1982 quoted in Ihab Shabana, ?From an Understanding to a Securitizing Discourse: The British Left?s Encounter with the Emergence of Political Islam, 1978?2001,? Religions, no. 13 (2022): 206.

[60] Tony Coughlin, ?Labour, Rushdie, and Separate Education,? The Leninist, August 23, 1989,

[61] Ibid.

[62] See Yasmin Alibhai, “A Member no More,” Marxism Today, December, 1989, and Jeffery Weeks, “Value for Many,” Marxism Today, December, 1989, 13,

[63] Rahul Patel, “A Burning Issue,” Socialist Worker Review, no. 117, February, 1989, 24-45.

[64] Gareth Jenkins, “The Devil’s Prose?” Socialist Worker Review, no. 118, March, 1989, 15.

[65] Alex Callinicos, “In a Heartless World,” Socialist Worker Review, no. 119, April, 1989, 14-15.

[66] “Rushdie: Defend the Right to be Offensive,” Living Marxism, no 6. April 1989, 4-5.

[67] Editorial, ?Satanic Flames Ignite British Racism,? The Next Step, no. 7, February 24, 1989, 2.

[68] Workers Hammer, no. 106, April 1989, 1; 3.

[69] See Chris Cutrone, “Class Consciousness (from a Marxist Perspective) Today,” Platypus Review, no. 51, November 2012,

[70] Zizek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism, London: Allen Lane, 2014, 99.

[71] SWP chief theorist Alex Callinicos wrote in 2006 that, since 9/11, “Islamophobia has become the most visible—and ‘respectable’—form of racism in the Western world.”

[72] Tariq Ali, “Islamophobia Exposed,” Socialist Worker, no. 2209, July 6, 2010, .

[73] Rosa Luxemburg, Socialism and Churches, 1905, <>.

[74] Hassan Mahamdaille, ?Islamophobia, Free Speech and Salman Rushdie?s The Satanic Verses,? Socialist Worker, no. 2623, Friday 21 September 2018.

[75] Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” in Imaginary Homelands, 14.

[76] Kushwant Singh referred to scenes in the book as “sheer bad taste,” Hesham El Essawy remarked that the book was “hard going,” while Boris Johnson called Rushdie’s novels “impenetrable.”

[77] Years earlier, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had run cartoons of the Muhammad, Alex Callinicos of the SWP lamented, “If there are no limits to free speech, would it be okay for newspapers to publish child pornography on their front pages?” Such moralism is best suited to a clergyman rather than to a Marxist. The cartoons, as Callinicos had explained previously in the Socialist Worker, were but “crude attempts to insult Muslims, whereas The Satanic Verses ‘was a complex work of art by an author of Indian Muslim origins.’”

[78] See Charlie Kimber and Alfie Steer. Gareth Jenkins, ?The Tragedy of Salman Rushdie,? Socialist Review, November 1, 2012,

On Hitchens and the Left, see, Spencer A. Leonard, “Going it alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left,” Platypus Review, no. 11 (March, 2009). The argument that Rushdie and Hitchens shifted rightward together is made explicitly by Richard Seymour in Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, (London: Verso, 2013).

[79] When Rushdie was knighted in 2007, the critic Terry Eagleton remarked on the pages of the Guardian that the novelist had been rewarded for his self-transformation from a remorseless satirist of the west into a cheerleader for its misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terry Eagleton, ?Only Pinter Remains,? The Guardian, July 7, 2007,

[80] Rushdie, Joseph Anton 121.

[81] Ibid., 179.

[82] Ibid., 396.

[83] Hitchens, “Siding with Rushdie.”

[84] Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 388.

[85] ?Salman Rushdie on Writing, Political Correctness, Censorship, First Amendment, Chicago Tribune, November 9, 2015.

[86] Rushdie, Joseph Anton, 187.

[87] Rushdie, “Outside the Whale,” in Imaginary Homelands, 97.

[12] Kenan Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, (London: Atlantic Books, 2009), 145.

[13] Mick Hume and Brendan O?Neill, ?Where is the ?Je suis Salman? Movement?? The Brendan O?Neill Show, August 18, 2022,

[14] Jake Kettridge, ?Why The Satanic Verses Would Bever be