Rushdie: Europe a cynical enterprise, not a civilization

The Guardian newspaper, London
02/14/97

On the eighth anniversary of the fatwa against him, Salman Rushdie castigates Europe's politicians for cynically abandoning the ideals of free expression and human rights:

EUROPE begins, as the Italian writer Roberto Calasso reminds us in The Marriage of Cadmus And Harmony, with a bull, and a rape. Europa was an Asian maiden abducted by a God (who changed himself, for the occasion, into a white bull), and was held captive in a new land that came, in time, to bear her name. The prisoner of Zeus's unending desire for mortal flesh, Europa has been avenged by history. Zeus is just a story now. He is powerless; but Europe is alive.

At the very dawn of the idea of Europe, then, is an unequal struggle between human beings and gods, and an encouraging lesson: that while the bull-god may win the first skirmish, it is the maiden-continent that triumphs, in time.

I, too, have been engaged in a skirmish with a latter-day Zeus, though his thunderbolts have thus far missed their mark. Many others - in Algeria and Egypt as well as Iran - have been less fortunate. Those of us engaged in this battle have long understood what it's about. It's about the right of human beings, their thoughts, their works of art, their lives, to survive those thunderbolts; and to prevail over the whimsical autocracy of whatever Olympus may presently be in vogue. It's about the right to make moral, intellectual and artistic judgments, without worrying about Judgment Day.

The Greek myths are Europe's southern roots. At the continent's other end, the old Norse creation-legends also bring news of the supplanting of the gods by the human race. The final battle between the Norse gods and their terrible enemies has already taken place. The gods have slain their foes and been slain by them. Now, we are told, it is time for us to take over. There are no more gods to help us. We're on our own. Or, to put it another way (for gods are tyrants, too): we're free. The loss of the divine places us at the centre of the stage, to build our own morality, our own communities; to make our own choices; to make our own way.

Once again, in the earliest ideas of Europe, we find an emphasis on what is human over and above what is, at one moment or another, held to be divine. Gods may come and gods may go, but we, with any luck, go on for ever.

This humanist emphasis is, to my mind, one of the most attractive aspects of European thought. It's easy, of course, to argue that Europe has also stood, during its long history, for conquest, pillage, exterminations and inquisitions. But now that we are being asked to join in the creation of a new Europe, it's helpful to remind ourselves of the best meanings of that resonant word. Because there is a Europe that many, if not most, of its citizens care about.

This is not a Europe of money, or bureaucracy. Since the word "culture" has been debased by over-use, I'd prefer not to use it. The Europe that is worth talking about, worth re-creating, is anyhow something broader than a "culture". It is a civilisation.

TODAY, I am listening to the melancholy echoes of one small, intellectually impoverished, pathetically violent assault on the values of that civilisation. I refer, I'm sorry to say, to the Khomeini fatwa whose eighth anniversary this is, and to the latest barbaric noises about "bounty money" emerging from the Iranian government's front organisation, the 15 Khordad Foundation.

I'm also sorry to say that the EU's response to such threats has been little more than tokenist. It has achieved, in one word, nothing. The Europe for which Europeans care would have done more than simply state that it found such an assault unacceptable. It would have sought to place maximum pressure on Iran while removing as much pressure as possible from the lives of those threatened. What has happened is the exact opposite. Iran is under very little (I would even say, no) pressure on this matter. But for eight years, some of us have been under a fair amount of stress.

During these eight years, I have come to understand the equivocations at the heart of the new Europe. I have heard Germany's foreign minister say, with a shrug, that "there is a limit" to what the EU is prepared to do for human rights. (A few months after this statement, Germany, then Iran's biggest trading partner, gave a red-carpet welcome to Iran's terrorist-in-chief, Intelligence Minister Fallahian. My Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot the week after Fallahian's triumphal tour.) I have heard Belgium's foreign minister tell me that the EU knows all about Iran's terrorist activities against its own dissidents on European soil. But as to action? Just a world-weary smile; just another shrug. During Italy's EU presidency, the Italian foreign ministry refused to answer - even to acknowledge - our letters on this issue. In Holland, I actually found myself obliged to explain to foreign-ministry officials why it would not be a good idea for the EU to accept the fatwa's validity on religious grounds.

I have been refused entry to Denmark, on the spurious grounds of a trumped-up "specific threat" against my life, a threat which mysteriously vanished in the face of a public outcry; but I know that Denmark, already a major exporter of feta cheese to Iran, is presently trying hard to increase its trade relations with that country.

During the just-concluded Irish presidency, I was offered a meeting by Dick Spring which then, oddly, took six months and a lot of pushing actually to arrange. In this meeting Mr Spring assured me that a strong statement about the fatwa would be included in the conclusions of the Dublin Summit. No such statement was made. (Ireland, too, is looking to expand its trade with Iran.)

This new Europe has not looked to me like a civilisation. It is an altogether more cynical enterprise.

EU leaders pay lip-service to the great European ideals - free expression, human rights, the Enlightenment, the right to dissent, the importance of the separation of church and state. But when these ideals come up against the powerful banalities of what is called "reality" - trade, money, guns, power - then it's freedom that takes a dive. When it's Danish feta cheese or Irish halal beef against the European Convention on Human Rights, don't expect free expression to win. Speaking as a committed European, it's enough to make a Euro-sceptic of you.

In a few months, the United Kingdom will enter the EU "troika", and will then, for a year and a half, have a real opportunity to resolve this problem. I hope - I think, after so long a wait, I have the right to expect - that the British government will, during this period, be a good deal more active than it has. So much of diplomacy, I've learned, is a matter of nods and winks. The extreme passivity of the Foreign Office has permitted the rest of the EU to go to sleep on this issue, and has given the Iranians the sign that there is really no need for them to do very much at all. I am of course pleased that the Foreign Office has condemned the new bounty offer, but a few stiff words once a year are no substitute for a policy.

LIKE so many of my fellow-Britons, I hope there will soon be a new Labour government. I have long been urging that government-in-waiting to understand the importance of the arts in conveying the sense of national renewal which Labour must seek swiftly to create. Today, on this tawdry anniversary, I ask Mr Blair to come to the aid of this one particular artist. As he knows, and has been good enough to tell me, the principles involved go far beyond the survival of a single individual.

I ask him to bring a new spirit of urgency to the fight against the Zeus of Iran and his attempt to kidnap our freedoms; and by doing so, to show New Labour's commitment to the true spirit of Europe - not just to an economic community, or to monetary union, but to European civilisation itself.

Salman Rushdie 1997.


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