sat 01/11/2014

Imagine: The Fatwa - Salman's Story, BBC One | TV reviews, news & interviews

Imagine: The Fatwa - Salman's Story, BBC One

The author of The Satanic Verses gets the Alan Yentob treatment

Salman Rushdie with Cambridge historian Arthur Hibbert, who inspired the writing of The Satanic VersesCredit: BBC/Daniel Meyers

There’s nothing like having a fatwa hanging over you to find out who your friends are, for those who might be taken for natural allies may surprise you. And so it was when Salman Rushdie received his death warrant 23 years ago on St Valentine’s Day: there were those who proved their mettle, or at least found common cause with the imperilled writer. And then there were those whose instincts did not lie in the advocacy of free speech but in maintaining, as they saw it, a diplomatic pragmatism. Their principles, it seems, were flexible enough to allow them to spill ink for the British press in order to tell the world that Rushdie had only himself to blame.

It may have disappointed those who would maintain the freedom to roam of the imagination as an over-riding principle, that there were those who, if you will, all but sided with the book-burners, if not by positively embracing them than by refusing to condemn them. Writers like John Le Carré had, in their eyes, become apologists, which was not a nice thing to be – a traitor to the cause of liberty? – for what better principle is worth fighting for than the one that Rushdie was testing? Had they forgotten their JS Mill, that “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered”?

He told us that he was not allowed to go to the toilet alone for the first four years

Le Carré may have disappointed, but the vicious words of the late historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, recalled in last night’s Imagine, were perhaps somewhat more predictable: "I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude,” he’d opined, just months after the fatwa was issued. “Not too comfortably I hope ... I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”

These were surely thuggish, brutish sentiments, and it would not be too unkind to suggest that perhaps the embittered Trevor-Roper was still smarting over his part in the Hitler Diaries, though by all accounts viciousness ran through him like the lettering in a stick of Brighton rock.

But whether friend or foe, one might still baulk at Paul Theroux’s display of gallows’ humour, expressed aptly or inaptly depending on your point of view, at the funeral of a mutual friend. On the morning Rushdie first learned that his life would never be the same he attended the funeral of Bruce Chatwin and here he recalled Theroux’s quip – it would hardly be easy to forget it – as the American writer leaned over in his pew to say, “I suppose we’ll be here for you next week.” At the time Rushdie was 41 and did not believe he would live to see 42.

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