Twenty-five years on, the Rushdie affair is still having a stifling effect on academic freedom, argues Dennis Hayes

In the shadow of fear cast by fatwa, academic freedom has been stifled and the battle of ideas pacified, observes Dennis Hayes

September 26, 2013

It is now 25 years since the publication of The Satanic Verses, an event that sparked protests, book burnings and threats to the life of its author – yet the affair still casts a shadow over academic life.

Despite the thousands of articles written about the book and a knighthood for Salman Rushdie, the fear that spread from the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day 1989 has not dissipated: rather, it has been internalised.

Its effects on writing are most obvious with explicit calls to ban books and plays. The novel The Jewel of Medina (2008), dropped by Random House amid fears that it might prompt violent reactions, and the play Behzti – cancelled in 2004 after protests in Birmingham – are high-profile examples, but many more (and frequent) incidents of self-censorship go unrecorded.

How fear spreads from a global political issue to individual academic practice may be intangible, but it is everywhere in the academy and affects all disciplines.

The impact of The Satanic Verses is best understood through the contemporary social and cultural concern with the avoidance of “offence”. Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair And Its Legacy (2010), gives this account of the cultural shift: “The critics of…Rushdie lost the battle but they have largely won the war. They never managed to prevent the publication of The Satanic Verses. But the claim at the heart of the anti-Rushdie campaign – that it is morally wrong to offend deeply held cultural or religious sensibilities – has become incorporated into mainstream liberal thinking. From publishing to academia, from broadcasting to theatre, there is a great reluctance to give offence. In effect we have internalised the fatwa.”

The new authoritarian culture demands that academics adopt a sentimental vision of a world where everyone is inoffensive and no beliefs conflict

The culture of fear in which academics live is dominated by the fear of giving offence. This can be traced in the codes of conduct of universities that expect academics and students to write and discuss and debate and criticise in inoffensive ways. Codes supposedly devised to defend academic freedom now make distinctions between the content of ideas and the way they are expressed. To protect academic freedom you must only give offence politely. Offence is held to be a matter of form, of the mode and manner of expression rather than what is expressed.

This distinction is nonsense: saying “there is no God” in a gentle way with the most kindly expression will still cause offence to the devout. The etiquette of inoffensiveness means that differing beliefs are not being taken seriously. Taking them seriously means recognising that they may come into conflict.

What is seldom noticed is that these policies are exacerbating the problem. “You can’t publish or say that” has become a claim for attention and action from the powerful in universities on behalf of “offended” groups of staff or students. The cry “It’s offensive!” allows students’ unions and universities to ban speakers and reinforce the notion that you do not need to argue about different ideas and beliefs. This is an attack on academic freedom by student leaders and university managers who think they have a role as the morally superior “thought police” in both stamping out the wrong views and keeping out – or kicking out – those who hold them.

This is the negative impact of the Rushdie affair: “do not”. The “positive” impact comes from the diversity managers and multiculturalists whose policies demand that academics and students conform in the name of diversity.

Many universities have a self-righteous, authoritarian indifference to academic freedom and make the holding of certain views about diversity and equality mandatory. Such policies ban academics from defending the universal, the things that constitute our common humanity, and require them to celebrate the often trivial differences that divide us. Under these policies, academics are banned from adopting a Marxist perspective that looks beyond bourgeois equality to a better society based on the slogan: “From each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs!” These policies fail to see diverse views as matters that can be argued about in serious academic ways. Instead, they try to contain them within a sentimental, feel-good mix.

A “culture of fear”? Really, you ask? It does not feel like that. Academics are not shaking in their shoes. But this is because the new authoritarian culture of fear has taken a therapeutic turn. It demands that academics be “nice” and adopt a sentimental vision of a world where everyone is inoffensive and no beliefs conflict. This makes the new authoritarianism harder to recognise and even harder to challenge. After all, who does not want to be nice?

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