THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

27 September 2017

Standing With Salman: Banned Books Week looks back at The Satanic Verses

Add_ms_88930_2_2_1989_death_penalty - Copy

Detail from Salman Rushdie campaign literature, 1991, Add MS 88930/2/2

As part of this year’s Banned Books Week programme we’re hosting an event on Thursday evening looking back at the controversy surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Lisa Appignanesi of the Royal Society of Literature will chair a panel discussion with freedom of speech campaigners Melvyn Bragg, Frances D’Souza and Caroline Michel, together with human rights activist Yasmin Rehman. There are still a few tickets left for Standing With Salman but they are running out fast so book now if you would like to come along.

The Rushdie controversy seemed an apt choice for our contribution to Banned Books Week as the British Library is home to the archive of the Salman Rushdie Campaign Group. The collection comprises the working papers of the campaigners who banded together to support Salman Rushdie as the fatwa imposed on him by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini neared its 1000th day. By 1991, two years on from the publication of The Satanic Verses, opposition to the novel had reached frightening proportions. The book’s Japanese translator had been murdered and the Italian translator badly beaten up, two imams had been shot in Brussels and there had been riots in Pakistan and India resulting in the deaths of seven people and hundreds of injuries. As the violence worsened and the prospect of Rushdie returning to a normal life seemed farther away than ever, literary agent Caroline Michel joined forces with broadcasters Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob and others to galvanize the literary world into standing up for freedom of speech. The plan was to gather support from 1000 writers to mark the 1000th day of Rushdie’s life under the fatwa on 11 November 1991.

Things didn’t turn out quite the way they had been planned. In preparation for Banned Books Week I have been looking back through the archive, reading my way through the letters, minutes, petitions and press releases that were generated by the campaign. What becomes clear is that the grand plan for a 1000th day event in Westminster Central Hall had to be scaled back at the Government’s request due to concerns that it might impact on negotiations for the release of British hostage Terry Waite. Despite the Foreign Office’s concerns, the writers gathered anyway – albeit in a less high-profile location - and speeches were given by Hanif Kureishi and Günter Grass among others. These can be read in the archive alongside Rushdie’s own statement condemning the Foreign Office which was read out on his behalf, a public appearance being far too dangerous due to the £1.5 million bounty on his head.

It is the statements of support from other writers and prominent figures that form the bulk of the archive and they make for interesting reading. When I opened the files I found it poignant to see a handwritten letter from the late Alan Rickman, lamenting the fact that Rushdie would still be in the care of Special Branch come November, his life ‘a bargaining point in our Government’s trade interests’. There’s also Kazuo Ishiguro’s warning that ‘History will not forgive today’s world leaders if for reasons of short-term expediency, the “death sentence” method of political terrorism is permitted to become to the nineties what hi-jacking and hostage-taking was to the seventies and eighties’. Graham Swift takes a different tack, reminding us of literature’s power to live in our imaginations and asking us to read this award-winning book before arguing against it.

Not all those petitioned by the campaigners were in support of Salman Rushdie: Dirk Bogarde's letter sets out his reasons for not supporting him (he calls Rushdie an ‘arrogant fool’). Another high profile critic of Rushdie at the time was Roald Dahl, who wrote to The Times arguing that ‘In a civilised world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech’. You can see the full range of responses from writers in the series of incoming correspondence (Add MS 88930/1/1-7).

Thirty years on from the writing of The Satanic Verses, the book remains just as relevant to us today for its critique of British society as much as its commentary on fundamentalism of all kinds. If you can’t join us on Thursday evening, celebrate your freedom to read by picking up a copy of this much-discussed but under-read book. And if you would like to read more about controversy, The Rushdie File (London: Fourth Estate, 1989) edited by Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland is a great place to start.

The Salman Rushdie Campaign Archive is available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room and the catalogue is searchable on Explore: Archives and Manuscripts. Check out our Sound & Moving Image Catalogue for recordings of Rushdie reading from and discussing the book.

This blog is published as part of Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September). 

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.

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