From freedom of expression group Article 19:
Twenty years ago this month, on 14 February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa on the British writer, Salman Rushdie, after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses. Two decades later, ARTICLE 19 –which co-ordinated and led the International Rushdie Defence Campaign – believes that the subsequent events involving Rushdie remain highly relevant to free expression today.
The publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 was immediately controversial as a wave of bannings, public protests and accusations of blasphemy reverberated around the world. Violent clashes between protestors and authorities led to injuries and deaths in several countries, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, while many publishers, booksellers and translators were also targeted for attack.
The human rights and literary communities mobilised in defence of Rushdie, who had been forced into hiding. ARTICLE 19, under the leadership of Kevin Boyle and Frances D’Souza, initiated the decade-long campaign to support Mr Rushdie, lobbying governments and the United Nations (UN) to uphold the principles of free expression on his behalf.
In 2009, it is worthwhile reflecting on the current challenges for freedom of expression. One of the most contentious issues currently on the agenda of institutions within the UN system is that of defamation of religion. Starting in 1999, a strategic voting bloc of countries led by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has been steadily pushing through a series of critical resolutions that limit the rights of individuals and groups to criticise religions.
These resolutions, with the most recent passed in 2008, go against the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
ARTICLE 19 has been vocal in calling for restraint on these limits to free expression. In December 2008, a joint declaration stating that defamation of religion does not conform to accepted international standards for defamation was issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, alongside various counterparts in regional bodies in Africa, Europe and the Americas, under the auspices of ARTICLE 19.
“We believe that limits to freedom of expression should only address issues of religious hatred that lead to discrimination or violence,” comments Dr Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. “These limits should never be used to target individuals and protect institutions or belief systems.”
Kevin Boyle, former ARTICLE 19 Director says: “Twenty years on from the fatwa, the threat to freedom of expression and artistic freedom remains. The abolition of the crime of blasphemy last year in the UK was one positive development. But the current campaign at the UN over defamation of religion is in essence an effort to legislate an international blasphemy law. It must be resisted.”
There is no doubt that the Ayatollah’s fatwa took an immense personal toll on Rushdie, in fear for his life for nearly a decade. This was an issue that mobilised and polarised the international community in an unprecedented fashion. The international community, together with national governments and citizens, needs to remain vigilant to continuing threats to freedom of expression and artistic freedom.
“If Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses today, he may, likely, not only be subjected to street protests and the outrage of religious leaders,” says Callamard. “He would also, under the provisions of defamation of religion, be censored by new intergovernmental frameworks which would suppress his creative expression. The fatwa has moved off the streets into the offices and conference rooms of governments, and their international gatherings.”
First posted: Sunday, February 8th, 2009.