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Thirty Years of the Fatwa

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In late 1988, Muslim protestors in Bolton and Bradford, two poor and ethnically divided northern hotspots, were encouraged by television reporters to burn Salman Rushdie’s allegedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. Soon afterwards, on 14 February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and his publishers had dramatic impact in the UK, as well as on global geopolitics. Thirty years ago today, Iran cut its diplomatic ties with Britain in the course of the controversy. Following Rushdie’s ‘bloody Valentine’, the spotlight fell on Muslims. Previously they had been a virtually invisible minority group in Britain, subsumed within the broader category of ‘Asians’.

In this post we want to discuss the Rushdie affair in the context of a tide of rising Islamophobia and stereotyping. Since 1989, and accelerating after 9/11, Britain has seen a clash of fundamentalisms between extremism in the name of Islam on the one hand, and Western neoliberalism or state extremism on the other.

The Satanic Verses is about South Asian (mostly Muslim) and other migration to the UK, and the loss of religious faith. It contains a notoriously intangible section in which a character, Gibreel, who is psychotic, has a dream about someone called ‘Mahound’ (an insulting Orientalist term for the Prophet Mohammed). Rushdie, or Gibreel, or Gibreel’s disturbed subconscious, imagines Mahound as a paedophilic libertine who is also a ruthless businessman. Drawing on the now much-discredited satanic verses myth, the narrator suggests that sections of the Qur’an were dictated by the devil.  Prostitutes give themselves names of Mahound’s wives to excite their clients, and these names just happen to be those of the historical spouses of the Prophet Mohammed. There are countless other jabs at Islam, and religion more broadly.

This section of the book caused great offence to many, though not all Muslims. Particularly offended were Muslims who, like Rushdie, hailed from the Indian subcontinent, where the Prophet and his family are held in especially high veneration.  As the controversy spread, the novel was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. This culminated with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa (a legal opinion rather than a binding law) in February 1989 against Rushdie and his publishers. He followed this up by offering a million-pound bounty for the person who could kill Rushdie.

The fatwa was abhorrent and indefensible, but the dominant liberal reaction to the Satanic Verses protests was also questionable. Rushdie was positioned by commentators such as Fay Weldon and Malise Ruthven as one of their own. A pale-skinned, Cambridge-educated exponent of free speech, Rushdie’s Voltairean upholding of debate and democracy was juxtaposed with the supposedly barbaric and alien values of the protestors.

A reductive binary of liberating freedom of expression versus repressive religious culture emerged repeatedly in responses to the controversy by writers, publishers and journalists, as well as members of the cultural commentariat in Britain and elsewhere. Rushdie’s backers typically based their support for him on an absolutist defence of free speech. In this way, they echoed Rushdie’s own self-construction – expressed in essays such as ‘In Good Faith’ and ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ as well as his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton – as a courageous artist fighting against reactionary forces and speaking truth to power.

The reality was, and remains, much more complex than this. Freedom of speech is not a neutral concept or principle, and religious offence is always shaped by context. The majority of Rushdie’s British Muslim dissenters were far from powerful. Their protest was influenced by their social, racial and religious marginalization, and largely dismissed or vilified by privileged members of a liberal, secular arts establishment.

In the years following the publication of the novel and the subsequent furore, a number of controversies involving a clash between creative freedom and religious offence have grabbed media headlines. In Britain, the staging in 2004 of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti at the Birmingham Rep angered some British Sikhs. Then in 2006 small-scale protests erupted in London’s East End in response to the filming there of the adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane. Nearby, in the Netherlands, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s controversial depiction of Islam in their 2004 film Submission led to van Gogh’s murder. The following year saw global protests erupt in response to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Meanwhile the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo has been in the eye of a similar storm on several occasions and with devastating consequences.

Responses to these disputes by liberal commentators have remained hamstrung by a black-and-white worldview. Free speech is seen as a transcendental and absolute good, and religion – most often Islam – as censoring and censorious. Yet, there have been glimpses of a more gradated understanding in recent years. In 2015, for example, acclaimed writers including Peter Carey, Taiye Selasi and Michael Ondaatje objected to PEN’s decision to award their Freedom of Expression Courage prize to Charlie Hebdo because of the magazine’s offensive depictions of Muslims and other disenfranchised groups.

It is crucial to reflect on the events of thirty years ago and their legacy to ask how we might move forwards in a context that is deeply divided and plagued by Islamophobia. As Anshuman Mondal shows, any artwork intended for the public domain has a transactional dimension, and speech is a social and communicative act. Thus, creativity isn’t just about self-expression, and freedom of speech might work to forge understanding across differences. We must all recognize that some people are freer to speak than others. Also important, we suggest, is the imperative to speak – and listen – with social responsibility.

Rehana Ahmed is a senior lecturer in postcolonial and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her most recent book is Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism.

Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of four books including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays.

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Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives

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At death, we enter myth—our lives and work become the subject of stories told by others.

Charlotte Brontë was one of the myth-makers. Shortly after her sisters’ deaths in 1848-49, she penned a ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’. In this preface, she revealed the names behind the pseudonyms—Emily and Anne—and performed the first public telling of their lives, shaping her sisters’ posthumous legacies: Emily was “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child”; Anne was reserved, enigmatic, “[covering] her mind, and especially her feelings, with a nun-like veil.”

Charlotte did not, however, reveal her own name. She continued to published under her pseudonym, Currer Bell, and no authorial portrait was permitted to circulate in the press or accompany her work. She preferred to “walk invisible’ (as she put it in a letter to W.S. Williams).

But Charlotte too must enter myth. She died in 1855, and after a first flurry of obituaries and memorials, her story was told by Elizabeth Gaskell in what would become one of the nineteenth century’s most famous biographies. The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) transformed its subject into an icon. Currer Bell’s bestselling works were tied irrevocably to Charlotte’s name, and for the very first time, general readers could gaze upon her face: an engraving of the only professional portrait taken from life was printed next to the title-page.

Charlotte’s ‘Notice’ and Gaskell’s biography instituted what Lucasta Miller has called “the Brontë myth.” Think isolation, think windswept moors, think three untamed intellects fuelled by repressed desire, think a small parsonage cut off from the outside world. (And yes, think Kate Bush in a red or white dress, arms flailing.) Myth is not the same as falsehood; rather, these are the stories we tell to make sense of the world and ourselves. Myth can be a justification, a rationalisation, a dream or wish-fulfilment.

History and myth sometimes agree, sometimes not. But the history of myth is something that can be traced, teased out, turned to account: myth’s origins and uses; myth’s revolutions and evolutions. Anniversaries provide a convenient and memorable occasion upon which to follow the threads of these posthumous stories.

In 2016 Charlotte Brontë turned 200—cue new editions and adaptations of her work (cf. Linda Marshall-Griffith’s stage-play, Villette), and new tellings of her life (cf. Sally Wainwright’s television drama, To Walk Invisible). For my colleague Prof Deborah Wynne and myself, the bicentenary provided a further opportunity: a chance to look anew at our persistent fascination with Charlotte’s plots and characters, poetry and fictions, letters and essays.

Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives (2017) is the fruit of this labour: a new collection of essays by a range of Brontë experts from across the UK and Europe. The book is divided into two sections. The first, entitled ‘Ghostly afterlives: cults, literary tourism and staging the life’, explores the history of biographical myth-making, from the first Brontë pilgrims at Haworth to the founding of the Brontë Society and Parsonage Museum, from Charlotte as Gothic revenant in commemorative poetry and fiction, to her role as the butt of on-stage jokes that satirise pilgrims and idols alike.

The second section, entitled ‘Textual legacies: influences and adaptation’, explores the survival of Charlotte’s work across the 162 years since her death. What are the ethics of adapting this material? What is involved, for example, in bringing Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre before a twenty-first-century audience? What are the financial imperatives? The Brontës are traded across a variety of cultural industries: publishing; heritage and tourism; stage, television and film production. But just who, or what, is being bought and sold?

In our introduction to the book, Deborah Wynne and I explore the contested iconography of Brontë portraiture, where Charlotte’s changing face provides a clue to the twists and turns of her posthumous reputation. On Monday 9th October, as part of Sheffield’s annual Off The Shelf Festival, I’ll be delivering an illustrated talk on this very subject. I hope you can join me there to scrutinise the brushstrokes that fashion Charlotte into myth.

Amber Regis is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is the editor of The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and has published essays and reviews in Life Writing, English Studies, Journal of Victorian Culture, and the Times Literary Supplement. Amber and Deborah Wynne’s new book Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives  is published by Manchester University Press. History Matters readers are able to take advantage of a 50% discount using the code OTH774. ‘Charlotte Brontë’s Face’, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, Monday 9th October, 7pm. Tickets available from Off The Shelf. You can find Amber on Twitter @AmberRegis.

Contents of Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives :

Introduction: ‘Picturing Charlotte Brontë’, Amber K. Regis and Deborah Wynne

Chapter 1: ‘The “Charlotte” cult: writing the literary pilgrimage, from Gaskell to Woolf’, Deborah Wynne

Chapter 2: ‘The path out of Haworth: mobility, migration, and the global in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and the writings of Mary Taylor’, Jude Piesse

Chapter 3: ‘Brontë countries: nation, gender and place in the literary landscapes of Haworth and Brussels’, Charlotte Mathieson

Chapter 4: ‘Reading the revenant in Charlotte Brontë’s literary afterlives: charting the path from the “silent country” to the séance’, Amber Pouliot

Chapter 5: ‘Charlotte Brontë on stage: 1930s biodrama and the archive/museum performed’, Amber K. Regis

Chapter 6: ‘“Poetry as I comprehend the word”: Charlotte Brontë’s lyric afterlife’, Anna Barton

Chapter 7: ‘The legacy of Lucy Snowe: reconfiguring spinsterhood and the Victorian family in inter-war women’s writing’, Emma Liggins

Chapter 8: ‘Hunger, rebellion and rage: adapting Villette, Benjamin Poore

Chapter 9: ‘The ethics of appropriation; or, the “mere spectre” of Jane Eyre: Emma Tennant’s Thornfield Hall, Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and Gail Jones’s Sixty Lights, Alexandra Lewis

Chapter 10: ‘“The insane Creole”: the afterlife of Bertha Mason’, Jessica Cox

Chapter 11: Jane Eyre’s transmedia lives’, Monika Pietrzak-Franger

Chapter 12: ‘“Reader, I [shagged/beat/whipped/f****d/rewrote] him”: the sexual and financial afterlives of Jane Eyre, Louisa Yates

 

Image: Cover image from  Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives [Provided by the author].

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