When friends asked what they could do to help, he pleaded, “Defend the text.” The attack was very specific, yet the defense was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, felt that he needed, a more particular defense, like those made in the case of other assaulted books, such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Ulysses,” or “Lolita”—because this was a violent attack not on the novel in general, or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together.
“Blasphemy” is a broad category. It includes some things that, however much I might agree that they also deserve rights under “the mighty principle of freedom of speech,” I’d also find stupid and pointless, that I don’t think the world would miss if they should vanish, not because the government chose to suppress them, but because people stopped being silly enough to keep creating them. And it includes things like The Satanic Verses.
I bought and read The Satanic Verses at the time of the fatwa. I bought it because of the fatwa, but I’d have to say that if I’d read it with no knowledge of the fatwa, “insulting to Islam,” or, for that matter, “insulting” at all, isn’t what would have struck me about the book. Rather, it feels, to me, like a book I read more recently, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, in that both books have other, more dramatic elements (a certain magical realism in The Satanic Verses, the hermaphroditism in Middlesex, but wind up really mostly portraying the varieties of immigrant experience.
In the end, The Satanic Verses makes the short list of blasphemy I’d be sorry to have missed, alongside The Life of Brian, with its marvelous scenes like “What have the Romans done for us”, and the mishearing of the Sermon on the Mount, and the ungrateful ex-leper.