Salman Rushdie and the long shadow of ‘The Satanic Verses’

Salman Rushdie is that rare – very rare – writer better known than his writing. Millions who know his name have never read his books – including people who wanted him killed for writing a particular book, The Satanic Verses.

On Valentine’s Day 1989, the fundamentalist leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran promulgated a fatwa, a religious decree, calling on “all the brave Muslims of the world” to “kill forthwith” the author of the 1988 novel along with his. Editors and publishers for the book’s “insult” to “the holy faith of Muslims.”

Rushdie had anticipated some inconvenience, telling an interviewer years later, “I expected that a couple of mullahs would be offended, verbally abuse me, and then I could publicly defend myself.”

However, this was a death sentence, and Rushdie became a hunted man. The Japanese translator of his book was stabbed. Another translator was attacked and wounded, as was the novel’s Norwegian publisher. Rushdie traveled with security protection, often using the name Joseph Anton, which he later used as the title of a book about that part of his life.

It was a changed life, but it was still a life, magnified for his fellow authors and for the readers to know that this was a man who could literally die for the words he had written.

And he almost did when he was stabbed repeatedly during an Aug. 14 lecture in western New York, leaving him with a damaged liver, severed nerves in one arm and the prospect of losing an eye.

According to the fatwa, his prestige rose at a time when literary fame in general was on the wane – so ordinary people asked about a famous writer might have said “rushdie” for a few rounds of the news cycle, so they’d be referring to the answer the same question to a scientist with “Einstein” or to a painter with “Picasso”.

I’ve interviewed Rushdie three or four times in about 25 years. The first time, in the 1990’s, the fatwa was still very much in force, so I was taken to a safe house in Los Angeles that turned out to be the home of a mutual acquaintance of Rushdie and I. We agreed that was kind of amusing, as were the Mickey Mouse socks he was wearing.

Mickey is an unmistakably Western icon, and if there is such a thing as divination through clothing, I concluded that these socks made Mickey an expression of Rushdie’s personal insouciance, perhaps even defiance, even in the small things.

A few years later, in 2001, Rushdie was accepted as a guest on my book interview program. As far as I remember he was touring about New York City for his novel Fury. But September 11, 2001, the terrorist attack by Islamist extremists in 2001, paralleled and paradoxically grounded Rushdie. For a time, even after commercial flights resumed, Rushdie was considered too high-risk a passenger to board. He was his own one-man no-fly list — not for what he could do, but for what others might do to him.

Salman Rushdie at an awards ceremony in New York in 2017.

Salman Rushdie at an awards ceremony in New York in 2017.

(Evan Agostini / Evan Agostini/invision/ap)

Rushdie has adopted an almost double job description: as an author of works of literary fiction, not all of which are critically acclaimed, and as a standard-bearer for freedom of expression who takes to the barricades. Just as no book has as much power as a banned book or a burned one – and “The Satanic Verses” has lit many pyres – no writer has the moral authority of a writer with a bounty on his head or a sword hanging over it.

This also involved a double check: Is he up to the role? And writers wondered would i be

He has earned an excellent resume that goes beyond book honoraria and book reviews and the august Booker Prize: a past president of the author group PEN America; a friend of Carrie Fisher; Hangouts with Larry David; briefly husband of actress and author Padma Lakshmi; Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to literature.

Rushdie’s shining armor did not remain undeformed. He and novelist John le Carré hurled insults at the press – Le Carré was a “pompous ass” and Rushdie was guilty of “self-sanctification”. Both regretted bumping into each other.

A celebrity himself, Rushdie brought the cachet of literature and heroics to Vanity Fair’s Oscar party and other name-checking events. There were sneering murmurs that he had been caught by ‘red carpet fever’ and relishing the acclaim that came with his stature as a writer under the death penalty – a punishment we all seemed to be convinced could be commuted had been, although this was not the case.

And then a man jumped onto the stage at a literary gathering and angrily cut the knife, reminding the world why Rushdie is more than an accomplished novelist. He embodies the very real relentlessness of tyranny. While repressive forces are determined to win debates by stopping debates, Rushdie – a confused seventy-year-old devastated by a knife and an equally vicious ideology – once again makes us think, not in the abstract, but in blood and pain, of all that’s going on The stakes are world and in our own lives.

President Joe Biden, whose White House may be trying to chart a path back to a nuclear deal with Iran, said a day later that Rushdie “stands for essential, universal ideals. Truth. Courage. resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear. These are the building blocks of any free and open society.”

Over the weekend, The Satanic Verses hit #1 on Amazon as people bought copies of the nearly 35-year-old novel to show their solidarity with Rushdie and what he stands for.

It was always clear what he stood for, even if his critical reputation was tarnished. Rushdie was born in India into a non-practicing Muslim family but is now a staunch atheist. Once asked if he was Muslim, he replied, “I’m happy to say I’m not.”

His 1981 novel Midnight’s Children won the prestigious Booker Prize and has sold a million copies in the UK alone. Elaborated in the magical realism that permeates so many of Rushdie’s books, it takes as inspiration India’s independence from Britain at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – 75 years ago this week. The event also set in motion the division of the subcontinent along religious lines dividing Pakistan and India.

From his dangerous platform, Rushdie has consistently demanded that we not be afraid to criticize and mock religion just to avoid offending believers. This, he believes, applies to everyone, not just writers. Among his better-known remarks about religion in general is: “’Respect for religion’ has become a code word meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire and, yes, our fearless irreverence.”

The book’s title, The Satanic Verses, comes from a very old religious debate over historical evidence that the prophet Muhammad was fallible – allegedly briefly enticed by Satan to endorse some female pagan influences as part of his theology. This interpretation was largely dismissed as heresy by Muslim scholars for centuries, hence the angry reaction when Rushdie revived it as a literary device – in a way that one scholar called a “desacralizing treatment of the Qur’an”.

Less than a year after the original fatwa, Rushdie tried to take some of the heat off. He publicly denounced portions of the “Satanic Verses,” particularly statements “uttered by any of the figures that insult the Prophet Muhammad or slander Islam or the authenticity of the Holy Quran.” Islamic extremists did not believe in his walk-back; His name is said to be on an al-Qaeda hit list as late as 2010.

In later years, Rushdie called this recantation the “biggest mistake of my life”.

Rushdie then acquitted and was about to speak for the umpteenth time when the sword finally fell after 30 years – an attack allegedly by a 24-year-old man who was not even born when the fatwa was decreed.

Rushdie, left, and director Deepa Mehta before a screening of

Rushdie, left, and director Deepa Mehta before a screening of “Midnight’s Children” at a cinema in New Delhi, India, in 2013.

(Mustafa Quraishi/AP)

It happened in Chautauqua, an American institution founded as a college under canvas, a itinerant tent road show that started as part of the late 19th-century better citizen movement.

Rushdie became a US citizen in 2016, just before the presidential election. I asked him about it in 2019 while speaking for my Times podcast and at Writers Bloc in Santa Monica. “I voted for it,” he said smugly. “That went well.” We talked about his latest book, Quixote, starring a Quixote-in-a-Chevy Cruze — an American picaresque novel that spans opioids, reality TV, and father-son relationships.

“I think there’s something about Quichotte,” he mused, “that kind of refusal to give up hope, a refusal to give up optimism.”

He never got his Quixote all the way to the Los Angeles city limits. The problem with writing about LA, he told me, is this big black hole vortex known as movies. “Everyone writes about movies, and everyone writes the same book about movies. I spent quite a bit of time here for a while years ago and I thought if you forget Hollywood this is a really interesting city.”

And yet there is a glamor to Rushdie’s work, a luster that completes the portrait of this modern-day Quixote, whose struggles with immovable objects can seem both ruthless and essentially heroic. Dark as his novels are at times, a silvery thread of moodiness runs through them, one that is brighter and broader in Rushdie, the interlocutor. His sense of comic timing when speaking to a live audience can be onstage.

However, when speaking about censorship and threats to free speech, Rushdie delivers with profound bites like this: “Free societies… are societies in motion, and with movement comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people make sparks, and those sparks are the best proof of the existence of freedom.”

Nothing in his immense and resonant body of work is likely to be quoted more often, now or later, than some of his remarks on freedom of expression, such as these:

“No one has the right not to be offended. This right does not exist in any statement I have ever read. If you’re offended, that’s your problem, and frankly, a lot of things offend a lot of people. I can walk into a bookstore and point out a number of books that I find very unattractive. But it doesn’t occur to me to burn down the bookstore. If you don’t like a book, read another book.” Salman Rushdie and the long shadow of ‘The Satanic Verses’

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