#LitChat: Fatwa and Free Speech by Julia Whitmore

As a former educator, book censorship and banning books is a topic near and dear to my heart. In the past, I’ve celebrated Banned Books Week in September by inviting guest posts and also chiming in on topics such as What is Age Appropriate Literature? I’m pleased to be able to add today’s guest post that discusses fatwa and free speech. If you aren’t familiar with the term, fatwa is a legal opinion or decree made by an Islamic scholar. It’s not necessarily a death sentence as was the case with Rushdie.


Offical Bio: Julia Whitmore writes and teaches yoga in Eugene, Oregon. A quarter century ago she chose that most zen of professions, running a household, over a career in law, and hasn’t looked back since. She is a member of the Oregon Writers Colony, has been published in Oregon Quarterly magazine, and is editing her first novel.


“We live in a time of discovery about how we function,” she writes, “and how often we are misled by our brains.” She explores this theme in her writing, her blog “Scribbler’s Playhouse,” and in life. She teaches yoga to kids in jail, skis, plays music with friends in a hobby band, gardens, volunteers for the public library and other causes that promote education. Writing, she says, brings joy and structure to a fast-changing world, and she loves connecting with and learning from other writers online.


Picture of author Julia Whitmore


Fatwa and Free Speech

In November, 1997, Salman Rushdie called spy novelist John le Carré a “pompous ass.” Le Carré shot back in a letter in a British daily newspaper that Rushdie’s “way with the truth is as self-serving as ever.” Essayist Christopher Hitchens joined the fray, writing that Le Carré, “having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head.”[1]


The issue? Free speech.


Eight years earlier, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had declared Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses blasphemy and issued a fatwa, ordering Rushdie’s death. Instead of joining the chorus of condemnation of the fatwa, le Carré wrote, “I was more concerned about the girl at Penguin books who might get her hands blown off … than I was about Rushdie’s royalties.” Fast forward to 1997. Le Carré is labeled an anti-Semite in The New York Times, and complains that this is unfair. Rushdie responds that it would be easier to sympathize if le Carré had been more sympathetic to Rushdie in 1989.


Thus the row.


Thus, too, the kernel of our debates today about free expression. When is the risk of offending worth writing what you believe to be true, or even writing simply to entertain? What if that writing brings bombings and murder?


I haven’t read The Satanic Verses. It didn’t sound as interesting as Midnight’s Children, the novel that won the Booker prize twice, and vaulted Rushdie to international fame. Maybe I also feared a fatwa on my own head. That’s the trouble with censorship. It warps the way you think.


In any event, Midnight’s Children hit me like a train. I couldn’t put it down.


Midnight Children's Book Cover


I read it just after setting out to learn the basics of fiction writing. Here I was studying four-act structure, how every story follows a formula; and here was this rambling tome with eighty-seven fictional characters. It was like being handed the keys to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity while trying to absorb Newton’s Laws of Gravity. For awhile, as a pre-daily-writing exercise, I typed out the text, hoping not only for inspiration but also to help myself remember at least a bit of this six hundred page masterpiece.


“Midnight’s children” (the characters) are 1,001 Indians born the day India gains its independence. These children have magical powers, which are destroyed when Indira Ghandi—spoiler alert—arranges to have them sterilized. It’s a confusing, stunningly beautiful book, covering seventy years. The story wanders like Indian myths, not always easy to tease out the point, but drawing you on and on.


More important here, it exposes fault lines of law, politics, history, memory, culture, and religion at a time of rapid change. The country’s leader “sterilizes” those who represent the new, and declares an “emergency” as an excuse to shut down civil liberties. “Sacred cows eat anything,” the protagonist laments; and ”from the moment of my conception … I have been public property.” It seems to point straight to the fracas eight years later, when The Satanic Verses is published.


According to friends, Rushdie knew  The Satanic Verses would anger hardline Muslims. He had no idea how bad it would be though, nor how wide the repercussions would reach. Muslims in Britain filed suit to apply seventeenth century anti-blasphemy law “protecting” Christianity, to twenty-first century Islam. Who knew Britain even had anti-blasphemy laws? The ensuing fatwa severed diplomatic ties between Britain and Iran for a decade. The Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death. Bookstores carrying the book were firebombed. The Italian translator was knifed, and the Norwegian publisher was shot and left for dead. Rushdie adopted another name and for fifteen years, lived a narrow, secretive, guarded existence. It was a heavy price to pay, as journalist Lala Lalami writes, for “a writer who has been put on trial for his imagination”[2]


Eventually a new law against racial and religious hatred was passed in Britain in 2006, and the anti-blasphemy laws were retired. The Iranian government disavowed the fatwa and Rushdie came out of hiding. The controversy did not die, however. Iranian news outlets recently raised $600,000 to fund the still-outstanding reward for Rushdie’s assassination.


Through everything, Rushdie has not retreated. He was asked in 2012 if, in retrospect, he would leave out the controversial passages of the book. “Of course not,” he said. “I think they are among the best bits.”[3]


We censor ourselves all the time. Child pornography, for instance, is not protected by free speech laws. We fire teachers who use bad words in the classroom. The issue then is where to draw the line. Was le Carré right to chide Rushdie for putting so many people’s lives at risk?


Words can spark wars. Writing fiction, however, is not a crime. It is unthinkable that it should be punishable by death, or that we should allow other countries to impose censorship laws across international boundaries. Rushdie and many others suffered deeply because of The Satanic Verses. Maybe that is the price we pay as old ideas clash with new. Because of Britain’s commitment to free speech, however, Rushdie is alive today, and speaking out for other artists.



It took fifteen years, but Rushdie and le Carré eventually made their peace. Rushdie apologized and praised le Carré as a writer. Le Carré apologized as well, but remains unrepentant. “I am a little proud, in retrospect, that I spoke against the easy trend, reckoning with the wrath of outraged western intellectuals, and suffering it in all its righteous glory.”[4]


So it should be. Long live free speech.


You can connect with Julia Whitmore via her website and blog Scribbler’s Playhouse.


Do you agree with Julia? Does censorship warp the way people think? Have you read any of Rushdie’s books?




[1] http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/burning/le-carre-vs-rushdie.html

[2] http://www.thenation.com/article/among-blasphemers-salman-rushdie/

[3] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/salman-rushdie-speaks-about-his-time-in-hiding-and-his-new-book-a-857034-2.html

[4] http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/literary_icons_rushdie_and_le_carreacute_end_15-year_feud_20121113

Author: JeriWB Guest

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  1. Well written piece! And I completely agree with Julia in that censorship indeed warps the way we think. It’s what drove me to read the “Satanic Verses” at the time. It was my first exposure to magical realism and I was completely taken with it. It seems that censorship is quite often good for exposure, yes?

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    • Maybe I’ll have to read it now. I loved Midnight’s Children. Yes, censorship is good for exposure, but having to live in hiding for fifteen years as a trade-off? Hmm. Thanks for the comment. Cheers—

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  2. Very interesting discussion about censorship, freedom of speech and fiction. I do think censorship can warp thinking. Censorship often occurs in an atmosphere of misunderstanding. In looking at past protests against books, I was surprised to find out that some protesters had never read the book in question. We don’t have to agree with everything written.I think we should encourage critical reading and thinking. Where things get a bit fuzzy for me is the line where freedom of speech turns into inciting hate crimes.

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    • I bet that happens a lot of time: people react to what they think a writer says, rather than what they actually say. And yes, you’re right. There are boundaries that even the most free thinkers believe shouldn’t be crossed. It’s complicated, isn’t it? Critical thinking is key.

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  3. Thanks Jeri for publishing new authors, and for taking on censorship, is a sensitive issue, to say the least. Cheers—!

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  4. Nicely explained, Julia. I recall the controversy surrounding the book at the time but honestly, had no understanding of it. I find it disturbing that a fatwa simply being “a legal opinion or decree of a Islamic scholar” could justify a death sentence.

    As for the authors’ banter, I think Hitchins won that one when he referred to Le Carre as — “having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head.” What a great quote!

    I’m against censorship of books. If writing (especially FICTION) causes that much outrage, it must be too close to the truth. I think censorship makes us want to read the book even more. Is that warped thinking? Maybe but we tend to want what we can’t have. 🙂

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  5. ****He was asked in 2012 if, in retrospect, he would leave out the controversial passages of the book. “Of course not,” he said. “I think they are among the best bits.”****

    I respect that!

    Great piece.



    I despise the fact of ANYBODY at ALL making that choice for me, telling me what to think, believe, feel, or placing their moral values upon me.

    Obviously, I’m not alone in my beliefs!

    As always, Jeri, you kick butt. x

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    • Thank you for adding that quote. I really, really wanted to slip it in somewhere, but kept pushing over the 1000 word limit, the point at which I generally start snoozing. Looking forward to reading more from you.

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  6. A super article, and how timely a subject to raise post Charlie Hebdo, and the rise of the Far Right in Europe which currently foments. Such a shame we no longer have Hitch’s acerbic polemic to counterbalance the timidity so rife in debating such contentious subjects. And no, Le Carré was not right, as Rushdie exposed no one to risk. He is an artist doing what artists must; he paid a heavy price for doing just that. His publishers made a judgement about the content, and the bookstores did the same. Rushdie would have threatened no one had the marketeers refused to take up the text, which thankfully, they did not.

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    • Yeah Haitch. I’m with you. Fiction can blow the lid off simmering resentment, and it should. There is no stopping the changes that incite fear, conflict and violence. Bravo to writers who aren’t afraid to write about difficult subjects, and who are intelligent enough to speak to millions in a way that changes us for the better.

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  7. Great piece, Julia.

    I think the Fatwa, if anything, made Rushdie into the international celebrity he is today, though at a high cost. The ‘controversial’ aspects of the book where he ridicules and criticizes the Islamic faith, is perhaps only offensive to the more hardline Muslims. For everyone else, especially in open societies, not so much. It’s only fiction. What’s banned in one country is an open read in another.

    The former Soviet Union banned many books, which was horrible, but it’s fascinating to see how censorship there also gave rise to a very distinct use of satire and black humor.

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  8. I haven’t read any of Rushdie’s works unfortunately. I do agree with Julia – censorship does warp public perception. Often it’s based on a wave of fear which the texts don’t warrant.

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    • Yes! Remember (are you old enough to remember?) Solzhenitsyn’s “Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” and Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita? After Solzhenitsyn left Russia for the U.S., he isolated himself. Because he was disappointed in us. Did we censor him? I can’t remember. Repression can bring out the best in writers and artists. I still prefer living my more-open, vanilla life, where repression is so subtle I mostly don’t acknowledge it. Cheers—

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  9. Excellent post and discussion here, Julia… thanks so much for sharing, dear Jeri
    I have read `The Satanic Verses´and I didn´t find it ws that rad… but, once again, I know little about Islam …. and on the other side,the western civilization is quite more broad-minded when it comes to certain things… well, at least from certain point of views…
    After S-11 and all what came after in Europe, I guess the fact that Le Carré and Rushdie made peace seem quite logical… Words might have powerful effects on people…but as strong, polemics and blasphemous as they could be they would never kill people… and Rushdie,- who wrote those words-. was not an exception.
    When it comes censorship I would dare to say that most times it is the hermeneutics on words as much as subtext, interpretation which might lead to cross out something as reproachable… Hence it is the reader who defines it…
    In this particular case, religion is the greatest veil… and being such a sensitive topic, the criterion of reproof or approval is as demanding as fanaticisms and taboos are.
    All my best wishes. Aquileana 😉

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    • Hermeneutics. A word wizard’s word.

      What’s tricky is that interpretations themselves spring from somewhere murky in our brains, and insist that they are truth, worth fighting to the death for.

      It is astonishing that words, those narrow approximations for the much richer real, can provoke the same physical reactions that, say, an attacking grizzly can. And, as you point out, the desire to win approving words can be as strong as the desire to eat, or… well maybe not that.


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  10. Wonderful article! I’m aware Rushdie and the fatwa against him, but haven’t read any of his books – yet. Free speech is definitely one of my hot buttons, it’s a shame so many people miss the point. Far too many interpret it to be free as long as you agree with me. I will definitely visit your website and guess what, I’m moving to Eugene at the end of this month! Thanks for the great read and inspiration.

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    • Welcome to Eugene!

      Yes, it’s hard for all of us to be open-minded. I find myself often looking for articles or essays that support my opinion, rather than for the most unbiased sources.

      Hope the move goes smoothly and quickly, and that we have a nice, long summer, so you get to enjoy it after unpacking. Best—

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  11. Well written piece. I heard about Rushdie’s book and the situation but haven’t read his book. I hope the children growing up today remember all the struggles of the previous generations had to deal with when it came to freedom of speech and censorship to truly appreciate their freedom. Thank you for sharing.

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    • I hope they do, too. We are always much closer to slipping back to repressive cultures than we like to think.

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  12. Wow, Julia, so many details here about Rushdie and The Satanic Verses that I didn’t now. It’s fascinating. And I started Midnight’s Children back about 20 years ago and never finished it. It’s one of those that I probably should have given a fairer shot, but I was in a phase where I barely read at all, so tackling Rushdie was perhaps ill timed.

    Thanks for a great post, and nice to meet you here!

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    • I tried to read Rushdie many years ago, too, and set him aside. Maybe magical realism is easier to tolerate now that there is so much of it in our daily politics. Nice to meet you!

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  13. Unfortunately very few countries truly have free speech. Fatwas are horrendous. Have lived and worked in many countries with censorship and it’s tricky. You even have to be careful what you write in sms’s and say on the phone. Websites with a woma in a bathingsuit are blocked in Saudi and the Gulf.

    Most likely the worst censor ever was Stalin. He personally controlled the intelligencia in the Soviet Union. Read their books, listen to their composures and so forth. If their creations didn’t comply with Soviet values they got into trouble. Lists were given to him with the names of authors, composers and so forth that had produced something deemed inappropriate. He then wrote next to their names what he wanted done. Boris Pasternak he for instance spared from the Gulag or execution by writing next to his name: “leave him alone”. Most likely he liked his writing even though he disapproved of the values.

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    • It took a long time for the truth about Stalin to be acknowledged, didn’t it? Americans saw those iconic pictures of Stalin with Churchill and Eisenhower, that big, happy mustache, and shut their eyes to what was happening to his people. We in the U.S. tend to be too forgiving of the repressive activities of allies.

      Sounds like you living a fascinating life, one that takes a fair amount of courage. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

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  14. I don’t know any writers who support censorship or book banning. We can censor ourselves (meaning I can’t stand reality TV, so I don’t watch it). I had missed parts of Rushie’s story, so I’m glad that I got a fuller picture of what all happened. There is no doubt that censorship impacts the way we view a book. Did I avoid reading “The Satanic Verses” because it was banned or because everyone else was reading it because it was banned? Either way, I didn’t make my own decision about it, if that makes sense.
    Good discussion.

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    • Or you did make your own decision about it, but it happened somewhere in your head that speaks a language that predates English? Anyway, funny! You put your finger on something that is hard to describe. Censorship is kind of a crude method of dealing with things we are uncomfortable with. We are full of complexities, and try to deal with them with words, rules, fatwas, protests, and the results never quite get to the root of the problems. If that makes any sense! Thanks for the comment—

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  15. This is a big issue, which many countries have battle with internally for decades, if not longer. Free speech is a right, but so is not making others angry.
    At what point does saying something, cause an issue with others? Where do we draw the line, do we allow people to spew out anger on others because of racism, or hatred toward others?
    Reminds me of an old line, “Just because you have free speech, doesn’t mean you have to say something”
    I think free speech deals more with what is appropriate at the time. What we think as normal today, would be outrageous back in the 1950’s.

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    • True. And what we consider outrageous can shift, becoming broader or narrower over time. I fear we in the US are in danger of becoming a less tolerant culture, which I think would be a terrible development. With so many of us on earth, we need to be more tolerant, and more cooperative. Maybe the two will work together. As we cooperate more, we will become more tolerant? That would be nice. Thanks for the comment.

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  16. I knew the name of Salman Rushdie, but knew nothing specific of his story. That is a crazy price someone could pay for a story. Freedom of speech is a complicated topic. We approve of it when someone agrees with our views. But things become difficult when people say things we don’t agree with. And I look at a book like Mien Kampf and find it so disturbing that people want to read it in the year 2016. However, Salman Rushdie did indeed pay a high price for his imagination as did many people who worked on the translations.

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    • Yes. It is challenging to read something that goes against what I believe. Neuropsychologists have demonstrated that we tend to think of people who agree with us as part of our “tribe,” and unconsciously classify them as more intelligent, interesting and creative than people who don’t agree with us. Really, really hard to argue with our unconscious! It is so sneaky.

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  17. The discussion about the Ayotollah’s fatwa on Rushdie reminds be of the cartoonists at Charles Hebdo in France who in fact were killed because they created cartoon likenesses of Mohammed, which they surely must of known would have been offensive to fundamentalist Muslims. No one thinks the attack on Cahrlie Hebdo was deserved. But in the aftermath it raised an interesting editorial debate at many publications about whether to republish the offending likenesses, because it legitimately was news, or whether to sandbag it because it was offensive to some people.

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    • The Charlie Hebo tragedy is a good comparison. Were the cartoonists baiting the fundamentalists? Is there a better way to bring change? Were they trying to promote change? I honestly don’t know the answer to those questions, but the way things developed is heartbreaking.

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  18. Very interesting article, free speech is indeed a touchy subject. I never thought to link free ‘speech’ to fictions and writings; when I hear ‘speech’ I immediately think of spoken words. But I guess words are words, whether spoken or written. 15 years in hiding seem like a pretty steep price to pay though, and I kind of think it’s a little unfair. After all, if you find a certain book offensive, all you have to do is not read it; no need to blame or punish the author for it. Well, at least that’s my opinion…

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  19. You make a good point and I think there are some political leaders/reactionaries who don’t know where to draw that line. We’re too quick to dictate what’s wrong before taking into account what can be useful and informative. I read Satanic Verses as part of a Book Club a few years back and aside from struggling through the rambling prose, I think Rushdie’s story was more a commentary on British immigrants during the 1970s. Of course, you can’t fault the Prophet in any way but isn’t shock value one of the biggest drivers behind book sales? I think Le Carré should’ve realized (before speaking out) that book publishers are always going to be in that tricky spot of sales vs. morals. Satanic Verses was hardly the first or last book that will put people’s lives in danger.

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  20. What an interesting review. The background helped. Without it I don’t think most people (or at least I couldn’t) could even begin to understand the summary. BTW on a different topic, I used to live in Cottage Grove and went to community college in Eugene. It is kind of a zen place to live, and I loved it. Thanks for visiting my blog. Hope you enjoyed it enough to come back . 🙂

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