In defence of « blasphemy ». Bloody Inquisition stalks Salman Rushdie

Article paru dans Workers Hammer, No 106, April 1989, p. 1-3

Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses for the Asian population of Britain. It is a scathing indictment of that experience in Mrs Torture’s nasty, racist society. It does not alibi, either, the hideous oppression in those societies from which the Asian immigrants came – products of British colonial rule and the Zias, Gandhis and the rest who then took over. A work of secular humanism, The Satanic Verses is not only anti-racist but also anti-sexist, unsparing in its criticism of the barbaric treatment of women under orthodox Hinduism and fundamentalist Islam. Rushdie is irreligious in a profound way, and thus has earned denunciation from all the forces of bourgeois/clerical reaction – not only the imams, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, the pope, the French cardinal Decourtray have denounced this « blasphemy ». Meanwhile, the race-hating fascistic scum moved in on the backlash afforded by the Muslim fundamentalist book burners to step up attacks on Asians: National Front graffiti daubed on shops and homes now add an obscenely incongruous slogan for these race-hate terrorists: « Leave Rushdie in peace ».

What has transpired since the publication of The Satanic Verses throws
the social reality of not only Britain, but the entire decaying imperialist world into harsh relief. Recent events sometimes seem as if they come out of the « magic realism » of Rushdie’s fiction. On 14 January 1500 Muslim fanatics in Bradford, West Yorkshire ceremonially torched a copy of The Satanic Verses, uttering death threats to Rushdie. On 14 February Ayatollah Khomeini – the butcher of untold thousands of young men and boys sent to death « for allah » in a senseless bloody war with Iraq, of imprisoned leftist opponents in the recent postwar massacres – seized the The Satanic Verses issue as a new diversion for the war-weary Iranian masses from their oppression at home into another « holy war » abroad. He offered heaven and up to $5.2 million to anyone who would kill Rushdie and « all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents ».

The « democratic » bourgeoisie has equivocated even on the simple defence of Rushdie. While leaving their vital trade links intact, the British government made a show of withdrawing their diplomats from Teheran, expelled the Iranian charge d’affaires and his crew from London and started carrying out their threat to deport 30 other « known supporters of Khomeini ». The US’ « CIA president » of Iran/Contragate fame, George Bush, lectured Khomeini on the « norms of civilised behaviour ». Almost exactly a month after the 20 February decision by assorted EEC members to pull out their diplomats, several (Greece, Ireland and Italy) sent theirs back to Teheran. Earlier the Vatican mouthpiece L’Osservatore Romano condemned Rushdie’s novel as blasphemous. The Bishop of St Albans called on the publishers Viking Penguin to withdraw the book « because of the social harm that has been caused to the people of Britain ».

Coming from the imperialists who wilfully turned a blind eye to Khomeini’s mass executions while trying to cash in on the ravaged Iranian economy after the war with Iraq, such « equivocation » should not be surprising. And they have their own axe to grind at home. Thus, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe pontificated: « It goes without saying that we are not in sympathy with the book, or in support of it. The book is extremely critical and rude about us and compares Britain to Hitler’s Germany’; (Guardian, 3 March). Margaret Thatcher intones « We have known in our own religion people doing things which are deeply offensive to some of us… and we felt it very much. And that is what has happened in Islam » (Independent, 4 March). It was reported that Rushdie has expressed, for obvious reasons, his concern « about the consistency of commitment of the British Government to supporting him (Independent, 4 March).

On the evening of 29 March in Brussels’ main mosque, two of Belgium’s most prominent Muslims lay dead, shot in the head at point-blank range with a 7:65 mm pistol. Thirty-five-year-old Ahdel was the Saudi Arabian imam and director of the Islamic Centre, a declared « moderate » in the jihad against Rushdie. His fellow victim was a Tunisian. Imam Ahdel had 24 hours earlier received a death threat apparently for opposing a Belgian ban on the novel and pointedly refused to back Khomeini’s sentence. As a huge crowd gathered, one member simply observed: « Here we have two people dead because of the death sentence passed on Salman Rushdie » (Independent, 30 March).

Soon after Khomeini’s deadly edict, the headquarters of the Bradford Council of Mosques was broken into and vandalised; a firebomb was thrown at London’s Regent’s Park Mosque, the headquarters of the Islamic Cultural Centre for Britain’s million-and-a-half Muslims. In mid-March racist thugs rampaged through the heavily Asian Darnell area of Sheffield, attacking a mosque and homes and smashing windows. « They also sprayed racist slogans and abuse. Some slogans read ‘Pakis die' » (Asian Times, 31 March). A new word of intended racist abuse has entered the vocabulary: « Muslim ». Ian McEwan summed it up: « Muslims who have spoken out against book burning or book banning or author murdering, even while deploring the book’s contents, have been threatened by those of more straightforward convictions. Muslims of all shades of opinion have been threatened by white racists. Violence is in the air » (New Statesman & Society, 3 March).

The Islamic book burners are indeed playing with fire in Thatcher’s Britain. In an 18 March statement Anti-Fascist Action pointed to the « growth of neo-nazism in Britain, the 70,000 racist attacks that occur each year » (Asian Times, 31 March). The black and Asian working masses have been subjected to virulently racist immigration laws – pushed by Labour and Tory governments alike, police and fascist terror on the streets, the general fabric of the decaying seat of former Empire which lorded it over the dark-skinned peoples of the world for decades. From the racist Labour Party, which presided over the British-engineered partition blood-bath in India, introduced virginity tests for Asian women seeking immigration, unleashed the police against the people of Southall, sent the troops into Northern Ireland – the oppressed will find no champions of their cause. Even over the Rushdie affair, the Labour Party has shown its bankruptcy. While Kinnock & Co restrict themselves to a few « hear, hears » to Thatcher’s hypocritical lectures on « freedom of expression », other Labourites like Keith Vaz and Max Madden have hopped on the Islamic fundamentalist bandwagon. Vaz joined a Muslim demonstration against the book in Leicester and demanded it be withdrawn from publication.

The hostility of the Labour Party to social struggle, its backstabbing and impotent « community » organising has helped drive sections of the Asian population into the waiting clutches of the mullahs and the mosques. Recently in Spitalfields, east London, some 1000 Bengali youths have joined the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islam (Bangladesh)-backed Young Muslim Organisation. But religious obscurantism of every kind is a death-trap for the workers and oppressed. Ideologically preaching submission on earth in return for paradise after death, organised religion is materially linked to the very exploiters, despots and demagogues who live off the misery of the toilers. The priests, the mullahs, the ministers, the reverends of the Anglican church: these serve capitalist masters on earth.


The bourgeoisie, in its mission to maintain the rule of a system that long-since ceased to be historically progressive, has greatly retrogressed from its own revolutionary period. Against the absolute monarchy, the « divine right of kings » and against the religious obscurantism which was its ideological pillar, the revolutionary bourgeoisies of Europe and North America in the 17th and 18th centuries established and defended the freedom of religious conscience. The Enlightenment thinkers fought for the abolition of censorship and the medieval laws punishing « blasphemy », « apostasy » and « heresy ». Today, from the Moral Majority bigots in the US to the French Catholic fundamentalists, the bourgeoisie openly invites clerical reaction as a social prop to its rule. That Reagan, while top imperialist cop, sincerely believed in Armageddon is an index of how far along this road they’ve gone. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz put it in his defence of Rushdie: « We are seeing a disappearance of the modern values that came with the Enlightenment… We are facing a historical contradiction in our century » (New Statesman & Society, 31 March). The fact is that only those dedicated to the destruction of the bourgeois order, revolutionary Marxists, consistently defend even the separation of church and state today.

England’s incomplete bourgeois revolution did not do away with the established Church, that institution which has been called the Tory Party at prayer. Now, under the « Education Reform Act », school worship must be « wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character », religious education must « reflect the fact that the religious traditions of Britain are mainly Christian » (Guardian, 13 December 1988). And seizing on « parental choice », the Dewsbury racists organised to prevent their children from attending a mostly Asian school; this same argument will be used not only to enforce racist and religious segregation but increase class-bias in the already horribly class-biased educational system. In other words, it is particularly bad news for workers and the oppressed.

Various bourgeois mouthpieces have deployed the existing interference of religion into education to back segregationists of all sorts. As the Independent (10 September, 1987) editorialised: « a nation which accepts Anglican, Roman Catholic and Jewish schools would be hard pressed to deny Muslims the option ». But the answer is not more state-supported religious schools, any more than it is extending the blasphemy laws to include Islam! The Church of England is hardly concerned with the « cultural rights » of the Muslim (or for that matter Hindu) Asians. It is very concerned with maintaining its own state privileges and continued interference in various forms of social life. Disestablish the Churches of England and Scotland! For free secular education for all, including the teaching of minority languages such as Bengali and Urdu. Keep the churches and mosques out of the schools! It will take victorious proletarian revolution on these isles to rid England, Scotland and Wales of the monarchy, the established church, House of Lords and licensing hours.

The multi-racial working class of this country will find the road to emancipation from all forms of oppression and exploitation in joint class struggle against the material conditions which breed poverty, backwardness and despair and give rise to all manner of religious obscurantism, the racist reaction and national chauvinism it serves. The Asian and black workers of Britain will form a vital component of a genuine revolutionary workers party, a tribune of all the oppressed. Such a party will take the best of all the cultures and traditions and battle irreconcilably against all forms of discrimination and privilege, its apologists from the Tories to « her majesty’s » church-ridden Labour traitors.


Rushdie’s books deal with the abrupt and inescapable confrontation
which occurs when people from backward, peasant societies dominated by religious beliefs are suddenly inserted with no transition into a modern capitalist society. In The Satanic Verses he is dealing with immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent where religious sectarianism and communalism were fostered by the « divide and rule » policy of British imperialism. The results: Partition, when millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were made homeless and hundreds of thousands butchered while the likes of Lord Mountbatten sipped gin and discussed the twilight of Empire. Every backward institution – the caste system, religious fundamentalism, the degradation of women – was entrenched and exacerbated by colonial rule.

One of the key differences between these countries which experienced a bourgeois revolution and those stifled under the enforced backwardness of colonial rule and its local henchmen is the condition of women. Look at Afghanistan, where the imperialist-backed mullah cutthroats have waged bloody civil war in defence of the bride price, the veil, the forced seclusion of women. School teachers combatting massive illiteracy among women were among the Afghan mullahs’ foremost victims of barbaric slaughter. Khomeini’s Iran is another horrible example of the subjugation of women beneath the chadori, a society which stones « adulterers » and executes homosexuals. A defender of Rushdie, Muslim writer Fadia Faqir recounted in a letter to the Independent (l March) the story. of an 11-year-old Jordanian girl and her mother being « silenced » with an iron bar by the « master of the house », to prevent the daughter from attending school.

Today, the fake-left defend Rushdie not too taxing given that nominally
even the Thatcher government claims to do so. It’s even cheaper considering that virtually without exception, these so-called « socialists » shamelessly hailed Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution as « anti-imperialist » denying or prettifying the medieval backwardness and vicious repression the mullahs would impose on the Iranian masses. Bowing to the Cold War outcry over the Soviet Union’s intervention on the side of social progress in Afghanistan, many of these same « leftists » howled for withdrawal of the Red Army. Revolutionary Marxists do not believe the road to the liberation of the Iranian or Afghan masses lies in the imposition of the mores of the 7th century A D, any more than that Islamic fanaticism should be hailed when turned against a « heretical » author. This should be elementary, but in fact it is uniquely the international Spartacist tendency which from the beginning demanded « Down with the shah! Down with the mullahs! For workers revolution in Iran! » and said « Hail Red Army in Afghanistan! »

Against both the bourgeois hypocrites and the queasy liberals, Marxists are not « cultural relativists »: we oppose female circumcision, the veil, suttee, binding of feet, blasphemy laws of all descriptions, proscriptions against abortion, divorce, pornography, etc. The clerical states not only of Iran, but of the Zionist bunker in Israel or the Republic of Ireland, are hellholes of reaction and oppression. To liberate humankind from all the old crap is the task of the socialist revolution in our epoch. Neither the imperialist bourgeoisie nor the weak bourgeoisies of the backward countries can solve or defend even elementary bourgeois tasks, let alone lay the social basis for genuine freedom.

In sweeping away the tsars, landlords and capitalists, the October Revolution of 1917 also broke the stranglehold of the Russian Orthodox church, a bulwark of the old regime. The church’s huge landholdings were expropriated and distributed to the peasantry; religious teaching was eliminated from the schools; strict separation of church and state was rigorously enforced. Revolutionary measures to liberate women from feudal oppression in Soviet Central Asia created powerful allies against Islamic reaction. The programme of the Russian Communist Party noted that religious prejudice – fundamentally born of poverty, oppression and despair – would only be completely eliminated when the material basis for it was destroyed: « The Russian Communist Party is guided by the conviction that nothing but the realisation of purposiveness and full awareness in all the social and economic activities of the masses can lead to the complete disappearance of religious prejudices » (Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism). Thus, the struggle to put an end to religious obscurantism and superstition is firmly interlinked with the struggle to establish a genuine world socialist order, in which man truly becomes the master of his own fate.

4 réponses sur « In defence of « blasphemy ». Bloody Inquisition stalks Salman Rushdie »

C’est la première fois que je trouve, dans un journal d’extrême gauche, une position aussi juste, de mon point de vue, sur l’héritage politique de l’humanisme de la Renaissance, des lumières et des révolutions dites « bourgeoises », ainsi que de la façon dont les bourgeoisies contemporaines, n’ayant plus qu’un rôle conservateur à jouer, piétinent leur propre héritage historique (voir par exemple la politique de Macron, qui prétend réagir au fanatisme des islamistes, mais qui va bien dans le sens inverse de la séparation des églises et de l’état). En effet, aujourd’hui, seule une gauche communiste libertaire digne de ce nom pourrait défendre jusqu’au bout la séparation de l’église et de l’état et l’universalité des droits humains. Mais globalement, elle ne le fait pas. Ceux qui s’y collent sont disséminés ici et là, parfois dans des organisations à la limite de la secte… Concernant l’intervention soviétique en Afghanistan, j’aurais besoin de rafraîchir mes connaissances, mais a priori le soutien de ce journal à l’intervention soviétique me paraît tout de même un peu trop inconditionnel.

Comme quoi, il est toujours intéressant de revenir sur des controverses passées, ce qui permet de redécouvrir les positionnements des uns et des autres, avec quelques surprises ici ou là. Je pense qu’on pouvait retrouver, jusqu’à une période récente, ce rapport dialectique à l’humanisme chez de nombreux groupes trotskistes ou marxistes. Quant à la question afghane, je rejoins tes réserves (c’est sans doute la limite principale de l’article). D’ailleurs, ton commentaire va probablement orienter mes prochaines publications. Merci encore !

Merci à toi ! Je complète mon commentaire avec une idée qui m’est venue après. En fait, cette gauche que nous critiquons confond l’héritage révolutionnaire en partie imputable à la bourgeoisie et la bourgeoisie elle-même. En rejetant cet héritage, elle croit s’opposer à la bourgeoisie en tant que classe dominante. Et par une seconde réduction, elle assimile cet héritage à la « blanchité », à l’esclavagisme et au colonialisme, tandis que le prolétariat international devient une « race » dominée. Mais comme le faisait remarquer Stéphanie Roza, il s’agit là d’une aporie, car si l’on considère que « les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits » est l’expression d’une idéologie intrinsèquement bourgeoise et blanche, au nom de quels principes pourrait-on s’opposer au néo-colonialisme, au racisme ou au capitalisme? Dans la pratique, la gauche que nous critiquons arrive très bien à sortir de cette impasse, mais c’est au prix de ce qui devrait être sa raison d’être, à savoir l’émancipation : elle s’oppose bien à certaines manifestations oppressives de nos sociétés capitalistes, mais elle le fait en faisant la promotion d’une alternative tout aussi oppressive : néo-stalinienne, patriarcale, traditionaliste, islamiste, nationaliste, dictatoriale, etc… s’accommodant souvent du capitalisme dans sa globalité (et même quand ce n’est pas le cas, ce n’est pas plus défendable pour autant du point de vue de l’émancipation: voir l’exemple maoïste).
Il me semble que Marx a sa part de responsabilité dans ce problème. Dans la Question juive, j’ai trouvé sa critique des droits de l’homme très abstraite, très théorique, très intuitive et très proche du procès d’intention, alors même que Marx affiche sa volonté de se démarquer de l’idéalisme (il est vrai qu’il s’agit d’un texte de jeunesse). Sa critique était nécessaire et comporte une part de vérité, mais si on la prend pour argent comptant, on perd pied avec la complexité du réel. La discussion que nous avons rejoint le débat liturgique sur La Marseillaise, ce chant universaliste chanté par tous les révolutionnaires, depuis les plus radicaux de 1793-1794 jusqu’à Ho-chi Minh, en passant par Louise Michel, Lénine et Trotsky. Un chant aujourd’hui globalement honni par l’extrême gauche. Je suis à peu près sûr que la trajectoire de la Marseillaise dans le mouvement ouvrier et révolutionnaire correspond à l’évolution dont nous parlons. Enfin, puisque tu apprécies mes commentaires, je n’hésiterai pas à en faire d’autres s’il me vient d’autres idées. Sur ce, je te souhaite une très bonne fête bourgeoise et obscurantiste de noël 🙂 !

Merci encore ! Du coup, je vais rechercher pour la prochaine période des textes qui abordent la question de l’humanisme… J’ai commencé aujourd’hui par Paul Mattick. On verra bien ce que je trouverai par la suite.

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