Thirty years ago, I was a young law student at Southampton University. I was in my second year of study and was beginning to be ‘radicalised’, as it were.
University was my first experience of politics. Student politics is an odd beast. Most people – normal people, that is – don’t really spend their time fussing about Great Issues of Principle, or even day-to-day politics. They go to university to study, fall in love, and play sport.
That was not my university experience. I spend most of my days sitting in the “Other Officers Office” in the students’ union, hacking away, and trying to persuade people to argue about politics with me. These were the days before Twitter and Facebook, and it was necessary to seek people out if you wanted to engage in political debate.
The moment which radicalised me were various attempts by the far Left factions in the union to enforce a “no platform” policy, not against people who incited hatred or violence, but ordinary mainstream politicians with whom they disagreed. I realised that, unless we stood up against censors, we would lose freedom of expression on campus. So I stood for the committee of the students’ union on a free speech platform. My election slogan, by the way, was Tou-be or not Tou-be. Not fantastically original: but I won.
Then along came the Satanic Verses controversy. I read, with horror, the responses of John Le Carré and Roald Dahl. I also noted the failure of British politicians to come out to defend the author, whose freedom and life were in peril.
So I ordered the novel and read it.
What I found, was a book that explored the gap where faith fails: the ‘God-shaped hole’ that remains within us, when religion no longer convinces. I could not find evidence for the calumnies which were levelled against the novel by those calling for the death of the author. In some ways, it reminded me of the Boethian-inspired writing of Chaucer in The Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde: where loss of faith leads to spiritual degradation, and debasement to the condition of animals. Although I was not religious, the book struck me as profoundly steeped in the suppositions of faith. It was spiritually moving.
It is generally accepted that few of those who called for the death of Salman Rushdie had actually read the book. In the many countries in which it was banned, it would have been impossible to do so in any case. These were the days before the internet.
I was editing a student magazine for the law faculty at the time, and decided to run a ‘two sides of the debate’ feature. I wrote the pro-Freedom of Expression article. I tried to get a friend, Anjem – at that time Andy – Choudary to write the other side. Anjem, an easy going amiable waster, had surprised me by the strength of his feeling of insult, and I had tried to explain to him what the book actually said: but he was so angry that he wasn’t prepared even to engage with the issue. So I persuaded a young lecturer, Jonathan Montgomery – now a Professor at UCL – who had suggested that he understood the insult that Muslims felt, to write the other side.
Looking back on those days, I can see that my response to the Satanic Verses controversy shaped my future politics, profoundly. I am still suspicious of the rush to judgement. I understand how the cynical use of religious outrage can be used to bolster political movements. I continue to believe that freedom of expression, particularly in the face of violence, matters.
Were it not for Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, I probably would not now be working at Quilliam.