British-Australian lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson was a friend of Salman Rushdie even before the publication of the Satanic Verses, the book that caused Ayatollah Khomeini, then Iranian religious leader, to issue a fatwa in February 1989 against the writer. This specialist in freedom of expression and blasphemy issues then defended Salman Rushdie when a lawsuit was brought against him in the United Kingdom. He also took the writer home regularly during this period. Presenter of a talk show on Australian television, Hypotheticalshe was reached in Sydney by telephone.
Le Temps: What is your reaction to the attack in New York on Friday against Salman Rushdie?
Geoffrey Robertson: I’m horrified that they finally caught him, while happy that Salman has had about 25 years of freedom since that call for murder. I also, of course, wish Salman a speedy recovery. [Cette fatwa] was a monstrous act of international terrorism, perpetrated by Ayatollah Khomeini who was then dying of cancer [il est décédé quatre mois plus tard, en juin 1989]. This attack once again shows Iran’s incompatibility with our values. We have to ostracize this country, remove it from the United Nations. It is an unacceptable country. We must also remember the historical context. A few months before [la fatwa]several thousand prisoners had been executed in Iranian prisons [Amnesty International parlait à l’époque “d’au moins” deux mille exécutions dans la deuxième moitié de l’année 1988, mais des estimations sur la base d’archives déclassifiées parlent aujourd’hui de 30 000 exécutions]. The Iranian government managed to cover it up, lied to the UN, it hid the evidence.
In 1989, after the fatwa, Salman Rushdie is under police protection, he never stays long in one place, and you sometimes receive him at home…
He sometimes stayed in our attic room when we hosted dinner parties and meetings for him. We were determined that this act of state terrorism would not succeed. So did Mrs. Thatcher’s government, as well as her friends and the police. So we tried to make Salman’s life as adaptable and happy as possible so that he would be housed by different people. We would go away for the weekend and have literary and political discussions. We tried to make her life as normal as possible. But he was of course worried, especially for his wife and his son. It was obviously a very difficult time for him.
At the same time, British Muslim lawyers attempted to sue the “Satanic Verses” for blasphemy. Tell us about the trial.
For three days, we analyzed the satanic verses before the High Court of England, which ultimately ruled that the book was not blasphemous. But of course, none of the people attacking the book had bothered to read it. This book is in fact in line with the Koran and the court accepted my analysis. The people who were using this case as a way of playing politics were just using it as some kind of “fake news”. Those who were Islamic extremists could claim it was blasphemous. Even fairly intelligent people were of this opinion. Cat Stevens, singer Yusuf Islam, came on one of my TV shows and said he wanted to kill Salman Rushdie.
About the book and the fatwa:
You won this legal battle, but don’t you fear you lost the war? Would any author or publisher dare to publish such a book today?
We have certainly won the battle with liberal and intelligent people. But the battle continues because there is still a lot of fear. You are absolutely right to say that people, writers, are hesitant to criticize Islam and they are particularly hesitant to criticize it satirically or to make fun of it, which should be the fate of all religions . They will say what they want about Christ, but they will not be able, for fear, to say anything about Mahomet.
Isn’t it a failure?
Yes, I think so. That’s why Salman spends his time supporting writers who are under attack, and doing his best to help people who are victimized simply because of their writing. He feels he must maintain the anger against these people who want to put an end to all criticism of their religion.
An unintended consequence of the fatwa was the removal of the crime of blasphemy from English law…
It was one of the positive consequences of Ayatollah Khomeini’s stupidity. In 1977, I had defended Gay News, which was sued for blasphemy, and I had already said that this old law was dangerous for the freedom of expression [le magazine homosexuel avait été condamné pour la publication d’un poème évoquant homme séduit par le Christ sur la croix, dans la première affaire de blasphème en 50 ans]. The Rushdie case showed again how dangerous it was to have a blasphemy law, protecting religion from criticism. And it was eventually deleted.
A discussion with the writer in 2016: