In February 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence -or fatwa- against the British author Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s crime was to have written a book -The Satanic Verses- that was perceived to have been overly critical of Islam. As a result, he had to be given round-the-clock police protection and was forced to go into hiding. He currently lives in North America, but the fatwa has been re-affirmed several times and, as recently as 2016, more money was added to the bounty on offer for killing him.
At the height of the book burnings and riots, some commentators felt that a vigorous response from the western authorities would have been not just appropriate, but necessary. Instead of apologising for this author’s ‘blasphemy’ and waiting for the heat to die down, I thought that we should have printed thousands of copies of The Satanic Verses (a rather dreary book, it has to be said) and distributed them free in schools, libraries and health centre waiting rooms. We should have filled huge skips with the offending books and left them in every town centre, just to make a point. We should, at the very least, have been confident and assertive enough to have made it clear that intellectual freedom was the bedrock of our civilisation. We should, at the very least, have given this message to the medievalists: Feel free to practise whichever religion you want, believe whichever ancient fairy stories you like, but do it in peace; do not seek to impose your rules on people who do not share your beliefs. If we’d made our position clear at the time, we might have saved ourselves a whole heap of trouble.
The fact that our political and cultural leaders have continually shirked from their responsibilities to protect ideals we’re supposed to hold dear is not the fault of crazy fundamentalists like the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi. Contrary to what some people appear to believe, crazy fundamentalists have been around for centuries; Islamists were at it long before there was any such thing as British and American foreign policy to be outraged by, long before there was any such thing as the United States of America. In a world in which history books are readily available, it is, therefore, puzzling to explain the desire to interpret the actions of murderous Islamists as anything other than what they are. Some folk will use anything -literally anything- as a stick with which to beat the capitalist world; others may be in denial about their fear, preferring to disguise it as social conscience. There is too, somewhere in this unholy mix, a generous dollop of good old-fashioned condescension of the kind that denies agency to the terrorists. To claim that we don’t know why they do such things is to ignore the fact that they always tell us exactly why they do such things. Instead of imagining and ascribing a range of politically palatable motives, we should perhaps accept the obvious ones: That they want to kill us because they hate us and our way of life; that they want to kill us because they are members of a barbaric medieval death cult.
But for all their shortcomings, crazy fundamentalists do tend to notice when people cave in to pressure and they will have noticed that, since 1989, we have been doing quite a lot of caving in. In the post-‘Satanic Verses’ landscape, who knows how many authors and journalists have excised characters, themes or lines from their stories and articles because they feared reprisals from Islamists? You might argue that it is impossible to quantify things that only might have existed, but we have clear evidence that our cultural landscape has been altered to accommodate certain cultural ‘sensitivities’. In the world that existed on the day before the fatwa was issued against Rushdie, it would not have been considered controversial or dangerous for a British citizen to have, say, published an image of the prophet Mohammed. But in 2017, how many mainstream newspapers or TV stations would publish or broadcast a cartoon of the prophet? That’s not a difficult question to answer, because it was revealed to us two years ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, when nobody had the guts to publish some cartoons and say: ’This is what all the fuss is about’. Of course, lots of folk composed eloquent editorials declaring their abhorrence of intimidation and violence and their ‘unshakeable belief’ in our rights to freedom of speech, but -for the sake of not offending sensibilities- they decided against publishing the cartoons. David Dimbleby revealed that it was official BBC policy that: “the prophet Mohammed should not be represented in any shape or form” and even a right-leaning newspaper like The Telegraph only printed a pixelated image of one cartoon in order to avoid causing offence.
Consider, therefore, the enormity of the cultural shift that has taken place since 1989: In the 21st century, western atheists now choose to adhere to rules previously only imposed upon folk who, through an accident of birth, are guided by the revelations of a man who (according to legend) was visited by an angel in his cave in the desert some 1400 years ago. If western atheists can’t bring themselves to blaspheme, what hope is there for those in the Muslim community who believe that Islam’s reformation is long overdue? Wouldn’t just a modicum of bravery on our part light a torch for those who hope to reform that religion from within?
But instead of showing bravery, we’ve been busy drawing and re-drawing our lines in the sand. Having first got ourselves acclimatised to the idea that a British author might have to go into hiding because of the ‘actions’ of one of his fictional characters, we then got acclimatised to the reality that a secular European film maker (Theo van Gogh) could be murdered for making a film critical of the treatment of women within Islam. But don’t worry, we were told. The terrorists won’t win; we’ll get on with business as usual. And when some French journalists got slaughtered, we got acclimatised to the notion that we shouldn’t publish ‘offensive’ cartoons. But don’t worry, we were told. The terrorists won’t win; we’ll get on with business as usual. Now we’re acclimatising to the idea (recently articulated by the Mayor of London) that terrorist attacks are just a part of modern life. But don’t worry. The terrorists won’t win; we’ll get on with business as usual.
Then, sooner or later, we’ll hear the initial reports of ‘an incident’ and we’ll know in our gut exactly what is going on and who will be responsible. Details will be sketchy and the official news sources won’t want us jumping to conclusions, but –gradually- the bloody details will begin to emerge. Until the moment of awful confirmation, we’ll pray that the body count won’t be that high. Then, once it has become impossible to deny that it is what we knew it would be, the all-too-familiar dance will begin. We’ll pretend once more to speculate about the motives. Did the assailant act alone? Did he have links to any known terrorist groups? Was he part of a bigger network? What could have driven him to this? And before they have even finished scraping up the body parts, some commentators will issue warnings about how this ‘might provoke a backlash’, fantasising about imagined nastiness as opposed to absorbing the actual reality of murder. The ‘might provoke a backlash’ commentators will believe, contrary to the available evidence, that we are pitchfork-wielding savages, ready to burn stuff down and string people up at the drop of a hat; in these circumstances, we are told, we shouldn’t get angry, because that’s what the terrorists want. Yes, how terribly unsophisticated we must be to get angry about, for example, a bunch of silly teenagers getting blown up at a pop concert.
Then we'll go to our candlelit vigils, we’ll have our observed silences, we’ll change our avatars and hashtags and we’ll do a bit of community singing (and maybe that guy with the blue piano will be there to play ‘Imagine’). And while all of this is going on, some people will get more worked up about a professional polemicist like Katie Hopkins than they will about bodies being scraped off a pavement.
And our leaders will say: Don’t worry. We’ll get on with business as usual. The terrorists won’t win.
But to people like Salman Abedi, what exactly is there to be won? And what does winning look like?
That's easy: it looks like business as usual.