The Satanic Verses Revisited

Once upon a time in a bookshop

In August 2006, to prepare for a talk I was going to give the following month, I visited a local branch of Waterstones in Oxford, England to buy a book. As the title I wanted was classified under ‘Fiction’, which in the lexicon of booksellers at the time meant not so much the opposite of ‘non-fiction’ as the antithesis of ‘genre fiction’—not ‘Sci-fi’, say, or ‘Crime’ fiction—the book was located in a prime position on the ground-floor immediately behind the latest arrivals and 3 for 2 bargains. Given the marketing ingenuity chains put into designing their retail space, I knew this position signaled the continuing commercial success of ‘Fiction’ in the booksellers’ special sense. I found this reassuring, especially since the old chestnut about the death of literature was then going through one of its perennial revivals. As an object the book was familiar enough, though, as a reasonably diligent follower of book trade practices, I knew by its size, shape and feel that it was not quite the mere paper (pre-digital) thing it appears to be — remember this is 2006, the year before Kindle arrived on the scene. Measuring 130 mm by 190 mm, it wore its B-format paperback status as a badge of honour. These print-era markers indicated that it was published under a prestigious literary imprint and intended to be sold mainly in specialist bookshops, like Waterstones, not in supermarkets. In the unstable but still hierarchical literary marketplace of the early 2000s, B-format paperbacks upheld the distinction between books as culturally esteemed symbolic goods and books as disposable mass-market commodities, a fragile, paper-based order Kindle was about to disrupt.

The bibliographical details on the inside pages confirmed what the format suggested. The book was published by Vintage, then the specialist literary paperback imprint of The Random House Group in the UK, the multinational subsidiary of Random House Inc. in the US, which was in turn the trade publishing division of the German global media conglomerate Bertlesmann AG—it is now part of the Penguin Random House group. Vintage prided itself on the portability and literary quality of its books, which, as the publicity tag on the cover pointedly emphasised, allow you to ‘Take your imagination with you’. The elevated cultural status of my B-format Vintage Book was underscored by the laudatory endorsements on the cover from established authors—Nadine Gordimer and Angela Carter—and the Anglo-American broadsheet and literary press. Gordimer called it ‘a staggering achievement, brilliantly enjoyable’, while the New York Review of Books compared it to ‘Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide, and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy’. What all these material, institutional and textual markers indicated is that by all contemporary measures this was a work of serious literature, belonging to a canonical European tradition dating back to the great Enlightenment fictions of the eighteenth-century.

All these minor, seemingly extrinsic, details had a special hold over me because the book in question was the latest paperback edition of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. It was striking enough that the late-twentieth century’s most iconically controversial novel was now readily available in paperback under a mainstream literary imprint, as it had been since 1998. As the book’s dedication indicated, this was not always the case. Unlike the first hardback edition, which was published in the UK by Viking in 1988 and which bore a more personal inscription to Rushdie’s then wife (‘For Marianne’), this edition was dedicated ‘to the individuals and organisations who have supported this publication’. In 1992, ‘this publication’ referred to the first paperback edition, which was brought out, amid further controversy, by an anonymous company called ‘The Consortium’ that had been especially constituted in the US State of Delaware for that purpose. This was after Viking-Penguin, who were still the focus of a campaign of intimidation, ceded the rights back to Rushdie at his request. And ‘the individuals and organisations’ referred not just to the ‘International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers’, initiated in 1989 by Article 19, the London-based free expression advocacy group, but to the writers, journalists and politicians who began actively calling for the publication of the paperback after the first anniversary of the fatwa in February 1990. By 2006, the dedication had a different, perhaps less urgent, meaning, though the fact that it remained suggested that Rushdie still wished to record the novel’s tragic early publishing history and to acknowledge the ongoing support of publishers, like Vintage, who risked keeping the book in print.

So the fact that The Satanic Verses was by then widely available as a Vintage paperback was not merely of bibliographical interest. Yet what made my visit to Waterstones an especially sobering, even vertiginous experience was the realisation that my simple act of taking the book off the shelves was made possible not just by the publishers and booksellers who openly supported the novel’s publication, but by the more powerful guardians, in this case the British state and European human rights structures, who protected them. This is not just because both bodies uphold certain ideals without which modern European ideas of literature would not exist, notably the autonomy of the public sphere, the rights to intellectual property, to free expression, and, in the British case, the special cultural status of books (the UK, unlike most other European states, exempts books from VAT). It is, more particularly, because both bodies dismissed appeals by offended Muslims who attempted to bring a case against Rushdie and his then publishers Viking-Penguin under English and European law. Since these specific decisions had a part to play in my actions in Waterstones, I shall briefly describe some of the salient issues they raised. This will also set up the next part of my discussion, focussing on the history of The Satanic Verses in the world beyond Europe, particularly in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.

The English High Court

Early in 1990 two separate, though apparently concerted, cases were brought before the English High Court. The two applicants, who had previously failed to bring criminal prosecutions against Rushdie and his publishers in the Magistrate courts a year before, applied for a judicial review, partly to test the law, partly to have the earlier decisions overruled. The first case, which was brought by Abdul Choudhury, who was acting on behalf of the Muslim Action Front, attempted primarily to argue that English blasphemy laws covered all three major religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The second case, which was brought by Sayid Siadatan, an Iranian living in Britain, invoked the Public Order Act of 1986, focussing on the question of whether or not the distribution of The Satanic Verses would provoke unlawful violence. In both cases the High Court refused the application for review and upheld the Magistrates’ earlier rulings.

In the first, the court argued that, since the offence of blasphemy was, under English common law dating from the seventeenth century, inseparable from sedition it was exclusively and unequivocally linked to the Christian faith. For the courts this meant that a crime against God had to be treated as a crime against the state and, more specifically, the established Anglican Church. As The Satanic Verses did not constitute such a crime, it could not be deemed blasphemous under the law. The second case, which, the court admitted, was based on more secure grounds, failed largely because of a technicality. As the Magistrate had noted, the applicant had not produced evidence to show that immediate violence would follow if distribution continued. Significantly, in summing up the High Court’s ruling, the leading judge in the first case, who recognised the novel’s literary value and the offence it had caused, noted that the courts’ powers were limited, since, in this case, there was no uncertainty about the law. Even if the court felt that the laws of blasphemy might be considered ‘anomalous or even unjust’, or, as one key legal precedent eloquently put it, ‘shackled by the chains of history’, it could not reach any other determination. Any major review was, he insisted, the prerogative of Parliament alone. It is worth recalling that the Law Commission recommended that the offence of blasphemy be abolished in 1985 and that Tony Benn, the opposition Labour MP, presented a bill, which was not carried, to the House of Commons endorsing the Commission’s view four years later at the height of the ‘Rushdie Affair’—the common law offences of blasphemy in England and Wales were eventually abolished in 2008 with Scotland following in 2021.

The European Court

Having failed to make any headway at the national level—his application for leave to appeal to the House of Lords was refused in July 1990—Choudury exercised his rights as a British citizen by taking the case to the European Court in September. Developing his other key but ultimately unsuccessful arguments in the High Court hearing, which centred on Britain’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights (1950), he entered two formal complaints: the first, which fell under Article 9 of the Convention, was that ‘the United Kingdom has not given the Moslem religion protection against abuse or scurrilous attacks, and that without that protection there will inevitably be a limited enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion provided for by that Article’; the second, which fell under Article 14, was that the protection afforded exclusively to the Christian religion under English blasphemy law was discriminatory. The Commissioners, who were at the time responsible for deciding which cases could legitimately go before the Court, agreed with the English High Court and deemed both complaints inadmissible on related grounds. They noted that

the applicant sought to have criminal proceedings brought against the author and the publisher of the book “Satanic Verses” in order to vindicate his claim that the book amounted to a scurrilous attack on, inter alia, his religion. He does not claim, and it is clearly not the case, that any State authority, or any body of which the United Kingdom Government may be responsible under the Convention, directly interfered in the applicant’s freedom to manifest his religion or belief.

Seeking redress via the Convention, which applied to states only, was inappropriate, the Commissioners claimed, because its provisions could not be extended horizontally to guarantee a right, on the part of an individual or group, to bring a criminal case against an author or publisher for offending their religious ‘sensitivities’. This claim followed uncontentiously from Article 27 of the Convention. By contrast, the Commissioners’ claim that the Convention applied to states if and only if they ‘directly interfered’ in a citizen’s freedoms was a standard but disputed interpretation.

This summary account of a complex and closely-argued series of decisions, which, in turn, opens up the vast, tangled politico-legal histories that have shaped distinctively English and European modernities at least since the seventeenth century, might go some way towards justifying my sense of vertigo on an otherwise ordinary afternoon in Waterstones. It does not, however, explain why my feelings were fixated on the simple act of taking a copy of The Satanic Verses off the shelves. What made this an issue for me was the realisation that, at that point in 2006, I could not do the same thing in one of Cape Town’s branches of Exclusive Books, South Africa’s equivalent to Waterstones.

Once upon a time in another bookshop

Had I been talking about the contrast between South African and British bookshops around seventeen years earlier, say, in 1989, this would not have been so striking. After all, in late October 1988, apartheid South Africa, following India, Pakistan, and various countries across the Middle East, banned The Satanic Verses in its first hardback edition. This was two months before the book burnings in Bradford in the UK and the demonstrations in Hyde Park, and three months before the fatwa was proclaimed. As we shall see, this decision, which tested anti-apartheid solidarities and divided South Africa’s minority Muslim community, was not as predictable as it seemed at the time. It was, however, not inconsistent with the apartheid government’s disregard for basic freedoms. The same cannot, of course, be said for South Africa’s young democracy in 2006, which was underpinned by one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Given the terms of the European Convention it is worth noting that the South African Bill of Rights, which places as much emphasis on traditional freedoms as it does on more recent ideas of human dignity, is unconditionally binding on all organs of the state and conditionally binding on all ‘natural or juristic’ persons.

Why, then, could I not take a copy of The Satanic Verses off the shelves at Exclusive Books in Cape Town? The answer is compelling, particularly given the questions facing intercultural and multifaith democracies today, though, as you might expect, it is far from straightforward, in part because the novel’s status in the South Africa of 2006 was inseparable from the legacies of the past.

Rushdie and the Apartheid Censors

Just how The Satanic Verses fell into the hands of the apartheid censors is itself a knotty question. As it was not submitted by customs officials, the usual conduit for imported books, Nadine Gordimer suspected direct political interference. In an article, which appeared in the New York Times for 22 February 1989 and London’s Evening Standard a week later, she speculated that the local ‘Muslim extremists’, as she called them, who campaigned for the ban were aided by ‘a member of the Muslim community with influence in the House of Delegates’. This, as she explained, was ‘the segregated “house” of South African Indian collaborators in our apartheid tricameral parliament, which excludes Africans’. In the same article she also claimed that the censors banned the novel without reviewing it, as she had the only copy in the country at the time—proofs sent to her by Rushdie’s American publisher. The chief censor, Abraham Coetzee, refuted both these claims at the time, but the fact that he scribbled a note to his colleagues saying that ‘certain things’ on the censorship  file ‘must be removed’ suggests that his public version of events was at best partial. Based on the surviving documentary evidence, it is possible to say that the censors received a copy of the book, that it is extremely unlikely that they read it, and that the circumstances surrounding its submission were more convoluted than Gordimer’s simple, and narrowly local, story of ‘Muslim extremists’ and apartheid collaborators allowed.

A short week in late October 1988

Following the chain of correspondence in the archives, we can reconstruct the following sequence of events. For reasons that will become apparent in a moment I have to be precise about the dates:

*The novel is officially published in the UK on 26 September 1988.

*On 21 October the well-established Islamic Foundation in Leicester (UK), which has been co-ordinating an international protest since the beginning of the month, sends a fax to the African Muslim Agency in South Africa, which contains the Foundation’s general statement against the novel as well as annotated copies of the pages which it regards as especially offensive. The highly charged protest statement, which was also published in Impact International, an independent Muslim news magazine, for 14 to 27 October, states that ‘this work, thinly disguised as a piece of literature, not only grossly distorts Islamic history in general, but also portrays in the worst possible colours the very characters of the prophet Ibrahim and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on them).’ The annotations focus on thirteen passages from the novel. Many of these refer to the poet Salman’s subversive commentaries on, and manipulation of, Mahound’s teachings, the interpolated ‘satanic verses’, which, as Rushdie himself repeatedly insisted in his own defence, belong to the ‘dreams of a man [Gibreel] who is losing his mind’ as depicted in a work of fiction (Guardian, 19 Feb 2005). Rushdie’s various defences, some more convincing than others, require careful and detailed analysis. For now I’ll simply note that his appeal to the novel’s literariness, and fictionality in particular, is both indispensable and inadequate in part because it underestimates the inherent frailty of literary writing, as a discursive category, from which, paradoxically, so much of its power to intervene in the public domain derives.

*On 24 and 25 October prominent, mainstream Muslim organisations in South Africa, including the Muslim Judicial Council and the Council of Muslim Theologians, write to the censors demanding that the book be banned, giving detailed reasons and including the passages with the Leicester Foundation’s marginal annotations. Importantly, the latter include a reference to M. M. Ashan’s scholarly article ‘The “Satanic” Verses and the Orientalists’, which appeared in Hamdard Islamicus, V.1 (1982), 27-36. Ashan challenged the ‘unsympathetic and often hostile’ responses to the Qur’an by ‘scholars of the Occident’ who treated it ‘as the writing of the Prophet and not, as Muslims regard it, the word of God revealed through the angel Gabriel’ (27). The various local organisations also say they will shortly be able to make a copy of the novel available.

*On 26 October A. M. Bhorat sends a handwritten report, on one of the censors’ official forms, to the chief censor recommending that the novel be banned because it is ‘detrimental to the religious beliefs and convictions of the Muslim community.’ His ‘expert’s report’, as the censors call it, is, for the most part, a verbatim transcript of the Islamic Foundation’s general statement. Bohrat, a South African Muslim who works as a film censor, also appears to have submitted a copy of the novel at this point, which the chief censor returns on 2 November.

*On 28 October the chief censor, following the usual procedure, convenes an ad hoc committee chaired, in this case, by J. P. Jansen, an Afrikaans professor of politics and one of the main security censors during the late apartheid era. Significantly there are no literary censors among the members of this committee. It unanimously endorses Bohrat’s recommendation, and, in its own final report, it simply reproduces his version of the Islamic Foundation’s general statement and adds the more detailed remarks contained in the protest letters from local organisations. The only comments the committee itself adds focus on the novel’s status as literature:

In reaching its decision, the Committee has taken due consideration of the literary merit of the publication and of the author’s previously acclaimed works, literary distinctions, etc. It is however felt that these considerations do not outweigh the obvious offence which his latest work is likely to give to the strongly protesting Muslim community in South Africa who clearly regard the book as offensive to their religious convictions or feelings, and likely to bring them as a section of the inhabitants of the Republic into ridicule or contempt, a point of view with which the Committee concurs.

The legalistic final sentence incorporates phrasing from the provisions, covering blasphemy and community relations, of the relevant Publications Act (1974). The committee’s decision not to treat the literariness of the novel as a trumping value was consistent with apartheid censorship legislation, which never formally protected literature, and with the censors own highly equivocal practice. Throughout the apartheid era their capricious and often politically expedient literary judgements made decisions either for or against a specific publication particularly unpredictable. In this case, they agreed with the Islamic Foundation’s view that the novel was the ‘grossest sacrilege’, which was at best ‘thinly disguised as a piece of literature’.

*Consequently, The Satanic Verses is officially banned on 28 October 1988.

This meant that whole the process from complaint to banning was completed in four days, which was something of a record, since, as exasperated local booksellers and authors frequently noted, it generally took anything from a month to three months for a book to get through the apartheid censorship bureaucracy. Given the gaps in the record it is not possible to say if this remarkable efficiency was a direct result of political interference, whether from the House of Delegates, as Gordimer thought, or any other branch of the apartheid state. Yet it is difficult not to infer from the timing and the wider circumstances that pressures of some kind were brought to bear on the censors to respond promptly to genuine protests by respected Muslim organisations. After all, as the local press reported throughout that week, Rushdie was due to speak against censorship at a high-profile anti-apartheid literary festival in South Africa on 31 October 1988 at the invitation of the Congress of South African Writers, which was affiliated to the United Democratic Front and the ANC. At that moment, then, the government had obvious political reasons for ignoring its official commitment to the idea of South Africa as an exclusively Christian state, which was written into the terms of the Publications Act of 1974, and for being especially concerned about the depths of Muslim feeling. Rushdie, in the end, decided to cancel his trip—but that is another complex story (see the Whose Literature? Whose democracy? Which Public Space? post).

Annotated page from the fax dated 21 Oct 1988

June 2002: another decision

Whatever the truth about the precise extent to which the murky political manoeuvrings of the last apartheid government lay behind the banning of The Satanic Verses in 1988, the significance of the decision remains merely local and now historical. The same cannot be said for the subsequent ruling in the post-apartheid era. This decision speaks to the future of literature and its relation to the state in our globalised, multicultural era.

The novel remained technically banned in South Africa until February 2002, when it was removed from the list of restricted publications in terms of the new Film and Publication Act (1996). At that point many of the same local Muslim organisations that had campaigned against Rushdie in the apartheid era wrote to the new Film and Publication Board objecting in the strongest possible terms and requesting that a ban be re-imposed. As the Board, which classifies rather than censors—its motto is ‘We inform you choose’—has an obligation under the Act and the Constitution to be ‘attentive to the needs and values of every faith system and every cultural community in South Africa’, it convened a committee of experts to reconsider the case in June 2002. Representatives from among the principal complainants were invited to participate in the deliberations but none turned up.

The committee recognised that it faced a problem. For one thing, the option of outright banning was no longer available, except in very limited cases mainly to do with child pornography; for another, as it noted in its report, ‘it might be argued that in a secular state, questions of religious propriety have no place in governmental decision-making’. Moreover, under the new Constitution the committee was bound to uphold Rushdie’s right to ‘freedom of expression’, specifically including ‘freedom of artistic creation’, as well as his and his publishers’ property rights. True, the constitutional guarantees in the case of the right to free expression were not unlimited, as they did not extend to the ‘incitement of imminent violence’ or the ‘advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm’. Yet, even these limitations, did not apply to ‘bona fide literary publications’, which were specifically and additionally protected under the terms of the new Publication Act (1996). None the less the committee was ‘sympathetic to the charge of blasphemy and of severe hurt to the religious sensibilities of the Muslim community’ and felt an acute ‘sense of responsibility to the complainants, and to the public at large, to take these issues seriously.’

Summing up its three main findings, which were on this occasion based on a careful reading of the novel and its history, the committee noted that

although The Satanic Verses is considered profoundly blasphemous and injurious by the Muslim community, it does not in fact advocate hatred against Islam or indeed against any other religion or faith system. The material which is found to be injurious is a parodic literary deconstruction of ancient Islamic lore and belief, which is an unpacking of tenets of faith by an author, who, in the novel, questions the basis of his own belief. Salman Rushdie’s Rabelaisian scepticism may well be profoundly shocking and hurtful to many of the Islamic faith but it does not invite hatred towards Islam. It certainly does not argue, in its pages, any incitement to cause harm or civil violence. Third, The Satanic Verses is without argument a bona fide literary work by a leading international literary figure.

For these three reasons the committee felt it was not ‘legally possible’ to consider giving the novel an XX classification which would, in effect, ban it by ‘restricting all public access or possession’. Instead, it opted for an X18 classification, thereby limiting its distribution to adults only, and it recommended that the novel ‘should not be for sale in public in South African commercial booksellers or any other commercial outlet, nor should it be available for borrowing from any municipal or public library’ (the latter restriction did not apply to legal deposit or university libraries).

This is why I could not take a copy of the novel off the shelves at Exclusive Books in Cape Town in 2006, though, as the committee insisted, these restrictions did not prevent me from asking a local bookseller to order one for me, or, ‘given the transnational nature of the contemporary book trade’, buying one for myself over the internet.

Literature and Democracy tomorrow

It could be argued that The Satanic Verses does not make a very good test case for the post-apartheid legal framework in South Africa. For one thing, somewhat like D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the landmark trials of the 1960s, its status as a ‘bona fide literary work’ was, like Rushdie’s reputation, too securely established by 2002 (though it is, of course, still contested in some quarters). It is possible to imagine other kinds of writing, say, a parody of vicious racist thinking or of pornographic violence against children published by a previously unknown author on the internet, about which it might, in principle, be impossible for any committee of literary experts to reach a consensus. As the British philosopher Bernard Williams argued on several occasions this is an insuperable juridical difficulty for any law intended to ‘protect creative activity’ in so far as it ‘makes the deeply scholastic assumption that the merit of a given work must be recognizable to experts at the time of its publication.’ This kind of argument lay behind the recommendation, put forward by the 1979 UK Commission on censorship and obscenity, which Williams chaired, that all restrictions on the ‘printed word’ (what about the digital word today?) should be lifted, and, no doubt, similar arguments about the essentially contested nature of the literary, or of artistic merit more generally, could be made in defence of the abolition of blasphemy laws. To this extent The Satanic Verses decision in 2002 does not expose the potential pitfalls of the 1996 Publication Act, which does not lift all restrictions on the printed or digital word and does indeed make ‘deeply scholastic’ assumptions, partly for the well-intentioned purpose of redressing the legacies of apartheid censorship laws which did not protect creative activity.

Any claims about the international relevance of the 2002 decision rest, however, on the fact that the Board restricted the public display of the novel not under the Publications Act but under Section 36 of the 1996 Bill of Rights. This section, which raises the self-reflexive question about application of constitutionally guaranteed rights in unusually general terms, empowers the Board to restrict any right—in this case primarily Rushdie’s right to free expression—‘to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom’. Any such restriction was also dependent on other factors, including ‘the nature of the right’ and ‘the importance of the purpose of the limitation’. The committee took the view that its recommendations regarding the public display of the novel, which allowed the Board to ‘satisfy the theological and religious concerns of the South African Muslim community while also allowing for the crucial principle of right of access and freedom of expression’, represented a legitimate interpretation of this general constitutional provision. In the context of the controversies over the Danish cartoons in 2005, and the passing of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006) in England and Wales, this decision, which did in fact appear to satisfy the complainants, unsettles the predictable positions that tend too quickly to dominate public controversies about free expression. At the same time, it opens alternative, less Manichean ways of thinking about the future of literary writing today.

In response to Muslim calls for an apartheid-era ban to be re-imposed, it offered not censorship (nor a reinstatement of blasphemy law) but recognition, at the level of the state, of the offence many law-abiding Muslims feel the novel has caused them and their faith. In response to secularist, libertarian, or literary arguments against all forms of state censorship, it offers both a robust defence of Rushdie’s commitment to literature as a space in which, as he put it in an interview in September 1988, ‘there are no subjects which are off limits’, and a practical way of acknowledging, again at the level of the state, that understood in these terms literature has the power to produce shattering real-world effects.

In short, like the Constitution on which it is based, the SA Board’s decision goes beyond the disablingly emphatic either/or, in which an absolutely autonomous public sphere seems to be the only alternative to state censorship, or vice versa, while recognising that, in today’s unpredictable, connected, and heterogeneous world, states are judged and defined not just by the rights they regard as indispensable but by the ways in which they decide to apply and uphold them in particular cases.

Taking down a copy of The Satanic Verses from the shelves in Waterstones in Oxford in 2006, I was powerfully reminded of the modern, specifically European history in which as, Jacques Derrida once put it, literature tied its ‘destiny to a certain noncensure, to the space of democratic freedom’. Asking for a copy to be ordered for me in Exclusive Books in Cape Town, gave me a vividly visceral sense of just how valuable, fragile, and potentially incendiary that linkage continues to be.

(Coda, May 2022: though the SA Board’s 2002 decision is still technically in force, it appears local booksellers are no longer adhering to it, as the paperback edition of The Satanic Verses is now on display once again.)


This is the revised text of a talk originally given at Kapittel, the annual literary festival held in Stavanger, Norway in 2006. An edited version appeared in Norwegian as ‘Sataniske vers I Sor-Afrika’, Dagbladet, 26 September 2006, 51.

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