Salman Rushdie Was Once on the Left. What Happened?

9/11, that's what.

by Alfie Steer

25 August 2022

A bald man with black-grey sideburns and glasses seen close up in profile, with his hand raised by his face
Luiz Munhoz/Wikimedia Commons

In January 1989, two weeks before Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa that sent him into hiding and ultimately led to his stabbing in Chautauqua, New York earlier this month, Salman Rushdie was auctioning a signed copy of The Satanic Verses at a small fundraiser in Highgate. The event was no gathering of the literary elites but instead organised by sociologist, and soon-to-be editor of the socialist magazine Red Pepper, Hilary Wainwright, to raise funds for the third annual socialist conference in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. The winner of the signed copy was Caroline Benn, wife of Tony.

Rushdie’s appearance at this fundraiser was typical of his longstanding association with the anti-imperialist left. His novels’ engagement with colonialism, migration, race and diaspora implied his sympathy with such politics. In his journalism, such sympathies were more explicit: in the run-up to the 1983 election, Rushdie had penned for the New Statesman a bitter condemnation of the “strait-laced Victorian values” and “thin-lipped jingoism” of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party. He also condemned in his journalism US interventions in Libya and Nicaragua. By the end of the 80s, Rushdie was a signatory of Charter 88, which called for a constitutional overhaul of Britain’s parliamentary system.

It was therefore of little surprise that when the ayatollah called for Rushdie’s head on Valentine’s Day 1989, his supporters included the leading lights of the British left, among them the playwright Harold Pinter and former Labour leader Michael Foot. People like Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, the socialist-feminist writer Lynne Segal and the American Marxist Mike Marqusee formed Voices for Rushdie, an umbrella organisation to express solidarity with Rushdie, defend his civil liberties and demand his protection. The front page of the leftwing newspaper Labour Briefing demanded “unequivocal solidarity with Rushdie”, while radical bookshops around the country jointly committed to stocking his book.

While many on the left have voiced their support for Rushdie in light of the knife attack, figures of the right have increasingly joined in – among them Norman Tebbit, who famously condemned Rushdie’s book as an act of “betrayal to his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality”, and champion of the hostile environment Priti Patel. How and why has such a transformation come about? The answer lies largely in the fatwa and the divisive decades that followed it.

As openDemocracy co-founder Anthony Barnett recently argued, 1989 was a year of epochal change for the left, facing as it was a new world defined by globalising capitalism and the end of Soviet communism. The so-called Rushdie affair contributed to this recalibration: age-old commitments to civil liberties and secularism were restated, with calls for the repeal of blasphemy laws, the separation of church and state and an end to state aid for religious schools. New groups formed by Black and Asian writers, scholars and activists emerged to express solidarity with Rushdie; the voices of feminist women of colour, organised around Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism, were amplified, bringing greater attention to the unique oppressions of fundamentalist religion and uniting feminists across ethnic and religious lines.

Alongside the left’s support for Rushdie’s freedom of speech and its refusal of extremist religion was an equally firm condemnation of racism and Islamophobia, in particular the weaponisation of the Rushdie affair for reactionary ends. While Women Against Fundamentalism fiercely opposed the oppression of women by reactionary fundamentalism, they equally challenged the racist opportunism of the National Front, who briefly sought to hijack pro-Rushdie counter-protests; Voices for Rushdie sought to challenge the tendency to treat the Muslim communities of Britain as monolithic, disloyal and prone to extremism.

Yet while Voices for Rushdie rejected attempts to turn the controversy into what they called “a crude ‘eastern vs western’ conflict”, for many this was exactly what happened. For some British Muslims, the controversy collapsed historic divisions between communities based on national or regional origin in favour of a common Muslim identity. Meanwhile, as the controversy encouraged public discourse about the meaning of “British” or “western” values, however ahistorical or problematic, British national identity became increasingly defined against an Islamic other, deepening public perceptions of division between Britain’s Muslim and non-Muslim population. The left ultimately failed to avoid this toxic bifurcation infecting public political discourse, and often found itself increasingly, and absurdly, accused of siding with reactionary Islamism over western liberalism.

The Gulf War, 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror – as well as the personal ordeal of the fatwa – made the lure of binary thinking irresistible to Rushdie. According to literary scholar Rachel Trousdale, Rushdie’s post-1989 writings demonstrated a clear shift from a belief in the possibility of a pluralist Islam to an uncompromising hostility to it, even a dismissal of Islamophobia as a meaningful concept. For Sabina and Simona Sawhney, Rushdie’s shift in thinking grew more pronounced post-9/11, his writings in the aftermath of the attack echoing the mainstream conflation of Islam with extremism and the assumption of incompatibility of Islam with western values.

Rushdie would go on to support the 1999 Nato interventions in Yugoslavia and America’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. In 2006, he supported Jack Straw’s criticism of the niqab, saying that veils “suck”. He even found warm wards for the late Margaret Thatcher, a politician he once parodied as Mrs Torture in The Satanic Verses. While Rushdie and Edward Said would speak and write on the nature of Palestinian identity in the 1980s, their response to Israel has varied significantly. While Said would famously throw stones at an Israeli military post, Rushdie has toed a diplomatic line on the subject; despite previous mild criticisms of Benjamin Netanyahu and the bombing of Gaza, Rushdie now enjoys the support of the Israeli government.

Yet Rushdie’s trajectory from left-wing internationalist to liberal interventionist was nowhere near as extreme as others’. Unlike Christopher Hitchens, he actively opposed the US’s unilateral invasion of Iraq, despite support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And while other writers, politicians and academics on the liberal-left came to embrace wholeheartedly the US-led policy of Middle Eastern interventionism by signing the Euston Manifesto, Rushdie refrained. In fact, he continued to support progressive causes, including Obama’s 2008 campaign and the 2011 Occupy protests. Nevertheless, Rushdie clearly has become alienated from his comrades since 1989, and particularly since the war on terror.

As Trousdale points out, Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton “reserves its greatest ire not for the Iranian regime […] but for British and American observers […] concerned with their countries’ responses to Islamism […] and who want to examine the west’s complicity in the growth of extremist violence.” Paradoxically, such observers included figures of the left who were among the first to support Rushdie’s right to criticise organised religion.

Shifts in Rushdie’s outlook reflect changes in the discourse around free speech itself. In the 1980s, the left defended Rushdie based on the principle, best articulated by the late American writer and activist Mike Marqusee, that “novelists, artists, indeed citizens of any kind, have the right to attack and satirise […] establishment institutions, including organised religions.” Today, the defence of free speech is so often appropriated by the populist right, framed not in terms of the right to challenge power but the right of reactionaries to voice bigoted opinions free from challenge by sensitive snowflakes. In this selective defence of free speech, Rushdie has become a useful case in point.

The Rushdie affair raised questions about free speech, and the nature of religious, ethnic and national identities in a multicultural society; before the Gulf War and long before 9/11, it created wider public awareness of Islamic fundamentalism, and so helped birth a toxic political discourse which conflated Islam with extremism and so called into question its compatibility with western liberal democracy. Yet despite leftists’ best efforts to both defend Rushdie’s civil liberties and challenge Islamophobia, Rushdie slowly detached from the left, finding favour with liberal interventionists prone to embracing the binary divisions that have shaped foreign policy over the last 30 years.

Alfie Steer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, researching the history of the Labour left from the late 1980s to 2015.


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