Novelist Salman Rushdie (Picture: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The appalling stabbing of novelist Salman Rushdie in New York is certain to unleash a renewed tide of Islamophobia, whatever the details of his attacker. This reaction has to be opposed.

Rushdie was attacked on stage at the end of a literary event on Friday. According to his literary agent, on Saturday morning Rushdie was on a ventilator and unable to speak. He added that the author may lose one eye.

Rushdie catapulted to fame with Midnight’s Children in 1981, which went on to sell over one million copies in Britain alone. Rushdie, who had grown up in India and then moved to Britain, was well known for his criticism of colonialism and Western imperialism. And for siding with black and Asian people who faced racism in Britain. 

But his fourth book, published in 1988—The Satanic Verses—saw him go into hiding for fear of his life.

It includes a Prophet Muhammad-like figure who is depicted as lecherous, unscrupulous and a false prophet. Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushdie and all those associated with the book to be put to death for blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed. 

Many millions of Muslims across the world saw the book as a conscious slur just as the tide of anti-Muslim hatred worldwide was growing.

Rushdie said he wasn’t attacking Muslims and his novel was a work of fiction. That didn’t stop opposition to the book becoming the focus for many Muslims in Britain. They faced mass job losses and brutal racism from a Tory government that had been waging class war for ten years. 

In the absence of a strong and united working class movement after the defeat of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, anger at Rushdie became a convenient but misplaced target. 

But it was never enough just to defend Rushdie. The “Rushdie affair” was used by sections of the right and liberals to step up a myth of  irrational and violent Muslims who were a threat to Western “civilisation”. They bayed for them to be repulsed by a battery of new laws in Europe and war abroad.

The offensive against Muslims in 1989 was a foretaste of what would be stepped up even more  during the War on Terror after 9/11. 

The Daily Mail newspaper raged, “Who asked Muslims to run our lives?” The Daily Star’s editorial against the secretary of the Bradford Council of Mosques was headlined, “Clear Off.” The Sun said there was “no place for murderers.” In less strident but equally poisonous tones, The Independent said there were “limits to mutual tolerance”.

That wasn’t what Rushdie wanted. In his last interview before he went into hiding, he told Socialist Worker, “In England, the most reactionary elements within the Asian community have fed stereotypes present in the most reactionary elements within white society.

“So it’s no pleasure to me to be supported by the Sun when it’s referring to Asians as rats. I’m not on the Sun’s side in that. I’d sooner be with the rats.”

Influential sections of the right sympathised with those who wanted to shut Rushdie up. They didn’t like an anti-imperialist, even if he was now targeted by Muslims. 

“We have known in our own religion people doing things which are deeply offensive to some of us. We feel it very much. And that is what is happening to Islam,” said Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She added that “great religions” would “endure long after the names of the people who criticised them have been forgotten”.

Her hatchet man Norman Tebbit said Rushdie’s life was “a record of despicable acts of betrayal to his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality”. 

In subsequent years Rushdie was a long way from anti-imperialism. He supported the 1999 Nato bombing of Yugoslavia and the US-led invasion in Afghanistan. However, he didn’t line up with the B52 liberals’ wholehearted backing for the British and US war in Iraq. He later said veils worn by Muslim women “suck” as they were a symbol of the “limitation of women”. Rushdie was certainly safe enough to be knighted in 2007 under the Tony Blair warmongers’ government.

Socialist Worker consistently argued, “No to censorship, no to racism”. In February 1989 its front page defended Rushdie’s right to criticise religion. But it also defended “the right of everyone to practise their religion “ and for Asians to “be defended against sickening racist intolerance”. 

As the right gears up for a wave of Islamophobia, it’s crucial that this socialist message from 1989 rings out clearly again.

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