Thirty-three years ago, when I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was a book burner. The year was 1989, the year of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and I was seduced by the rising tide of Islamism. I greeted the fatwa with glee.
I rarely burnt actual books: we were too poor to afford a copy of The Satanic Verses. Instead, we wrote the title of the offending novel and the name of its author on cardboard and paper and set them alight. It was comical and pathetic. But we were deadly serious. We thought Ayatollah Khomeini was standing up for Islam against the infidels, bringing down the righteous fury of Allah upon a vile apostate. Had Rushdie been attacked then, I would have celebrated.
In the decades since, I have been a refugee, an atheist and a convert to the highest ideals and values of the West: free speech, freedom of conscience, the emancipation of women, and a free press. When I fled from a forced marriage and made a life in Europe, I was bewitched by the culture of freedom. But I still remember with a shudder my time as a pious believer on the verge of fanaticism. I know all too well how righteousness in the name of Islam motivates those who inflict violence on supposed infidels.
I have always viewed the fatwa against Salman Rushdie as a strange conflict between two very different figures. On the one hand, a novelist, raised in what was once secular Bombay and living in the England of Monty Python’s Life of Brian; a man in love with literature and language, who spent many years on a quest to become a published writer. Salman is an intellectual, a lover of stories, and a teller of tales. When he wrote The Satanic Verses, he was more interested in the theme of migration than in satirising Islam. He was certainly not apolitical, but he resided in the world of books and the imagination, engaging with the real world through fantasy. He did not set out to offend Muslims but simply assumed that supposedly holy events and texts were fair game for artists to play with, just as Western writers engaged freely, both positively and negatively, with Christianity.
And then there was the Ayatollah, a fundamentalist figure who had spent long years of exile in the West before returning to Iran to overthrow the despotic regime of the Shah in 1979. Whenever I read about Khomeini, I get the impression that he fancied himself a successor to the Prophet. He was both deeply arrogant and fanatically fundamentalist: a very dangerous combination. He was also a writer, though his subject matter was the Qur’an and Islamic law. Not for him the freely roaming imagination; his interest in literature was constrained by Islam.