The Satanic Verses was published in 1988. So one would have had to have been ten years old at the time, say, to have any real memory of the controversy about it then – and about its author, Salman Rushdie.
In other words, one would have to be about 40 years old now to remember reports of copies of book being burnt here in Britain – of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie, and of the killings and bombings that followed (the latter both here and abroad).
Even some of those who recall the fatwa may be confused about its standing today. Didn’t a later Iranian government say that it no longer called for the murder of Rushie? Though didn’t a later Iranian Supreme Leader also say that the fatwa stood? But even so, Rushie was alive and well, wasn’t he – so what was all the fuss about?
The lesson of the reported attempt last week on the author’s life, in which he suffered a damaged liver and is apparently likely to lose an eye, is that Islamist extremism “hasn’t gone away, you know”, as Gerry Adams once said of the IRA. It is said by some that such extremism is hard to define and problematic to counter (not entirely untruthfully).
A common sense response is that it is extreme to seek to murder a writer because one doesn’t like what he writes – and regressive to seek to blur the boundaries between the sacred and the secular. And dangerous to assume that Islamist extremism – to be more precise, pre-modern thinking about religion and society – is no longer a threat to modern Britain.
The horrible murder of David Amess was a reminder that it is: that’s to say, that the terrorism that springs from it is a terrible symptom of a wider problem: that the habits, worldview and beliefs that underpin western liberal democracy and British parliamentary government are rejected by a powerful current within our second-largest religion.
The difficulty would not be resolved by a different foreign policy (which it would be wrong to change in any event because of violence against those seen to stand for it). The most alarming conversation I had in my nine years as MP for Wycombe, then the Conservative seat with the largest number of Muslim voters, was not about Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel – and the rest of it.
Rather, it was about the then Government’s response to the Danish cartoons which satirised Islam’s prophet. It was clear to me within five minutes of meeting a delegation of my Muslim constituents about it that they and I were talking past each other on the matter. And that foreign policy was not the only reason for some Muslim alienation from the mainstream parties.
To me, satire of religion is part of a free society (even and perhaps especially when it is “irreverant”). To them, it had no place in Denmark, Britain, or anywhere else. I should add that they were all opposed to violence and in religious terms would have been regarded as moderate.
Polling unsurprisingly suggests that a proportion of British Muslims have the same view about free speech as other citizens of other faiths and none (though the size of that percentage is argued back and forth). But no significant organisation claiming to represent British Muslims has unambiguously projected that take during the years since The Satanic Verses row first happened.
Much has been said before and will be said again now about the creeping effect on free expression of fear of Islamist violence. And truthfully: after all, where is the fearless satire from those artists, comedians and writers when reverance for Islam rather than, say, Christianity might be the butt of “irreverance”?
What is less recognised is the way in which David Cameron’s Government decided, not without risk to the Conservatives’ electoral prospects in some key marginals, to withhold patronage and money from some Muslim organisations that, fitfully, had gained both under Labour.
The Coalition Government and then and Conservative Governments since concluded that none were fully signed up to modern norms about faith and society. It is easy to argue that politicians should “speak out more”; harder for them to take and see through practical measures such as these.
The threat to Britain’s security posed by the Chinese state has been recognised in Parliament by the formation of the China Research Group. And there is no shortage of MPs willing to make a lot of noise about Putin’s Russia – at least now, for obvious reasons.
Islamist extremism gets less. The approach of those who indulge or promote it seems to be to wear the rest of us down – and not unsuccessfully. For who would risk writing a novel like Rushdie’s today? What happened to the Yorkshire teacher, say, who showed his class cartoons of the prophet of Islam?
Rishi Sunak says that Britain should now designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation, and Liz Truss, as Foreign Secretary, has been more forthright than some of her predecessors about threats from abroad.
Both should commit to hold Cameron’s line on extremism as Britain’s next Prime Minister if either is to rise more fully to the scale of the cultural as well as the economic challenges that confront us all.