Remembering the Irishman who campaigned for Salman Rushdie after the fatwa

Signatories to Kevin Boyle’s statement included Samuel Beckett, Joan Didion, Kazuo Ishiguro, Allen Ginsberg, Edna O’Brien, Chinua Achebe, Iris Murdoch, Toni Morrison and Ian McEwan

The chairman of International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and His Publishers was an Irishman.

Formed on February 20th, 1989 at a meeting in London attended by writers, publishers, booksellers, journalists and human rights groups, the committee worked to bring the case for Rushdie’s defence to global attention under the chairmanship of academic and barrister Kevin Boyle.

Born in Newry, Co Down in 1943, Boyle was prominent during the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. He became Professor of Law at University College Galway in 1978 and later Director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex. He died in 2010.

Back in 1986, Boyle became the founding Director of the international NGO, Article 19, based in London. The organisation drew its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right to the freedom of opinion and expression. On March 2nd, 1989, the “Rushdie Defence Committee” as it became commonly known, published a statement signed by more than 1,000 of the world’s leading literary figures, including many Muslim writers, and six Nobel Prize winners, from 46 countries, in response to the fatwa issued upon Rushdie by Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

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The statement was carried in 60 publications across the world, in 10 languages, in what Boyle described as “a unique event in the history of publishing and of human rights campaigning”. Signatories included Samuel Beckett, Joan Didion, Kazuo Ishiguro, Allen Ginsberg, Edna O’Brien, Chinua Achebe, Iris Murdoch, Toni Morrison and Ian McEwan.

In May 1989, Boyle and the Committee published “The Crime of Blasphemy — Why It Should be Abolished”, citing that instead of extending blasphemy laws in the UK to reflect Islam — the UK law then protected Christianity alone — blasphemy laws should be abolished altogether. “Tolerance”, Boyle wrote, “understanding, acceptance and respect for the diversity of faiths and beliefs ... cannot be secured by the threat of criminal prosecution or punishment”.

By July, the statement had attracted a further 12,000 signatories from writers, readers, librarians and organisations around the world. Boyle, recognising the geo-cultural and political risks of the situation, also wrote to the president of the UN Security Council, Absa Claude Diallo, seeking the Security Council’s help in “preventing the escalation of the situation, which carries great hazards for international peace and security”. As Boyle outlined, no other document of such nature in history attracted such international solidarity of writers and freedom of speech.

Rushdie’s first public statement since going into hiding came in July 1989, five months after the fatwa was decreed. It was telephoned to Kevin Boyle and issued through the Committee to coincide with the publication of the statement.

The Prof Kevin Boyle Archive at NUI Galway Library comprises more than 120 boxes of materials from Boyle’s wide-ranging career in the defence of international human rights. The series of files relating to Rushdie and Article 19 provide a detailed insight into Boyle’s legal arguing and human-rights-based research into Rushdie’s perilous case and status at the time. The breadth of international support for the campaign, before an era of global instant communication, is testament to Boyle’s indefatigable energy and skill as a mediator and leader.

Files within the archive include Boyle’s manuscript research notes into the complex legalities of censorship and freedom of expression/religious belief, drafts of public talks and lectures on the Rushdie campaign, and press files of coverage and rare periodicals from all over the world. Working files of the Committee include correspondence to and from Boyle regarding public statements, minutes of Committee meetings — attended by Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Kazuo Ishiguro, and representatives of various literary organisations such as International PEN — strategy and campaign planning, fundraising and funding, as well as draft translations of statements, from Farsi to Bengali.

Dr Barry Houlihan is an Archivist at NUI Galway. The Professor Kevin Boyle Archive is available to consult at NUI Galway Library Archives.