The attack came more than 30 years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini declared a death sentence against the novelist. The fatwa came after Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, which featured scenes deemed blasphemous of Muhammad.
Rushdie lived in hiding for more than a decade afterward. His experience was like the witness protection program but with secret service agents. He wrote a memoir about those years titled after his pseudonym, Joseph Anton. I read it at the time and, despite not recommending it to subscribers of my email newsletter, I recently took a second look at my highlights in the wake of the assassination attempt.
Rushdie uses an odd literary device in this book by referring to himself as “he,” to drive home how he couldn’t live as himself. But for clarity, I’m changing all the relevant hes, hims and his to I, me, myself, my, etc. Below is an oft-repeated scene that captures what his life was like.
As [I] crouched there listening to [security detail] get rid of his man as quickly as possible [I] felt a sense of deep shame. To hide in this way was to be stripped of all self-respect. To be told to hide was a humiliation. Maybe, [I] thought, to live like this would be worse than death. In my novel Shame [I] had written about the workings of Muslim “honor culture,” at the poles of whose moral axis were honor and shame, very different from the Christian narrative of guilt and redemption. [I] came from that culture even though [I] was not religious, and had been raised to care deeply about questions of pride. To skulk and hide was to lead a dishonorable life.
Rushdie couldn’t risk being recognized in Britain, a country with a large Muslim population. They moved a lot.
In those years [I] became aware that people imagined [me] living in some sort of isolation ward, or inside a giant safe with a peephole through which his protectors watched [me], alone, always alone; in that solitary confinement, people asked themselves, would not this most gregarious of writers inevitably lose his grip on reality, his literary talent, his sanity? The truth was that [I] was less alone now than [I] had ever been. Like all writers [I] was familiar with solitude, used to spending several hours a day by [myself]. The people [I] had lived with had grown accustomed to his need for such silence. But now [I] was living with four enormous armed men, men unused to inactivity, the polar opposites of bookish, indoorsy types. They clattered and banged and laughed loud laughs and the thump of their presence in [my] vicinity was hard to ignore. [I] shut doors inside the house; they left them open. [I] retreated; they advanced. It wasn’t their fault. They assumed [I] would like, and need, a little company. So isolation was the thing [I] had to work hardest to re-create around [myself], so that [I] could hear [myself] think, so [I] could work.
We see he’s a nerd, not a person for whom physicality is a value. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t brave.
[This was] the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system that boasted over one billion followers worldwide. One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be the ones foaming at the mouth. When, he wanted to know, did it become irrational to dislike religion, any religion, even to dislike it vehemently? When did reason get redescribed as unreason? When were the fairy stories of the superstitious placed above criticism, beyond satire? A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent. “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill,” wrote Edmund Burke. “Our antagonist is our helper.” Only the weak and the authoritarian turned away from their opponents and called them names and sometimes wished to do them harm. It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviors, and things. In those years and in the years that followed Islamic voices in this or that part of the world—Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan—anathematized theater, film and music, and musicians and performers were mutilated and killed. Representational art was evil, and so the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban. There were Islamist attacks on socialists and unionists, cartoonists and journalists, prostitutes and homosexuals, women in skirts and beardless men, and also, surreally, on such evils as frozen chickens and samosas.
Ridiculing “Islamophobia” was a bold stance at the time, especially among his world of literary academics and pointy-headed intellectuals.
During the worst excesses of Soviet Communism, [I] argued, Western Marxists had tried to distance “actually existing Socialism” from the True Faith, Karl Marx’s vision of equality and justice. But when the USSR collapsed, and it became plain that “actually existing Socialism” had fatally polluted Marxism in the eyes of all those who had helped bring the despots down, it was no longer possible to believe in a True Faith untainted by the crimes of the real world.
TANGENT: After Venezuela’s decline, we heard similar arguments re: Chavez and Maduro.
Now, as Islamic states forged new tyrannies, and justified many horrors in the name of God, a similar separation was being made by Muslims; so there was the “actually existing Islam” of the bloody theocracies and then there was the True Faith of peace and love. [I] found this hard to swallow, and tried to find the right words to say why. [I] could easily understand the defenders of Muslim culture; when the Babri Masjid fell it hurt [me] as it did them. And [I] too was moved by the many kindnesses of Muslim society, its charitable spirit, the beauty of its architecture, painting and poetry, its contributions to philosophy and science, its arabesques, its mystics, and the gentle wisdom of open-minded Muslims like [my] grandfather, [my] mother’s father, Dr. Ataullah Butt. Dr. Butt of Aligarh, who worked as a family physician and was also involved with the Tibbya College of Aligarh Muslim University, where Western medicine was studied side by side with traditional Indian herbal treatments, went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, said his prayers five times a day every day of his life—and was one of the most tolerant men [I] ever met, gruffly good-natured, open to every sort of childish and adolescent rebellious thought, even to the idea of the nonexistence of God, a damn fool idea, he would say, but one that should be talked through. If Islam was what Dr. Butt believed, there wasn’t much wrong with that. But something was eating away at the faith of [my] grandfather, corroding and corrupting it, making it an ideology of narrowness and intolerance, banning books, persecuting thinkers, erecting absolutisms, turning dogma into a weapon with which to beat the undogmatic. That thing needed to be fought and to fight it one had to name it and the only name that fit was Islam. Actually existing Islam had become its own poison and Muslims were dying of it and that needed to be said, in Finland, Spain, America, Denmark, Norway and everywhere else. [I] would say it, if nobody else would. [I] wanted to speak, too, for the idea that liberty was everyone’s heritage and not, as Samuel Huntington argued, a Western notion alien to the cultures of the East. As “respect for Islam,” which was fear of Islamist violence cloaked in Tartuffe-like hypocrisy, gained legitimacy in the West, the cancer of cultural relativism had begun to eat away at the rich multicultures of the modern world, and down that slippery slope they might all slide toward the Slough of Despond, John Bunyan’s swamp of despair. As [I] struggled from country to country, hammering on the doors of the mighty and trying to find small moments of freedom in the clutches of this or that security force, [I] tried to find the words [I] needed to be not only an advocate for [myself] but also of what [I] stood for, or wanted to stand for from now on.
At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses, [I] said, behind all the accusations and abuse, was a question of profound importance: Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third. As a creative artist [I] knew that the only answer to the question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power. We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirize them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society.
Rushdie received renewed media interest in the wake of 9/11 attacks.
[I] was being asked to write something—the news agenda had certainly come around to [me] now—but [I] didn’t do so for two weeks after the attacks. Many of the first think pieces felt redundant to [me]. Everyone had seen the horror and didn’t need to be told how to feel about it. Then slowly [my] thoughts coalesced. “The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings,” [I] wrote. “Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex. … The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his worldview, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”
By standing up for what’s right in the face of physical danger, Rushdie is an inspiration. I read Joseph Anton, Satanic Verses and Shalimar the Clown. I’m putting Midnight’s Children, his most esteemed novel, on the shortlist.
David Remnick argues he should get the Nobel Prize for Literature. From that piece:
[N]o one in our era has been a more tireless champion of free speech. As an essayist and as the president of PEN America, Rushdie spoke up for artists, writers, and journalists everywhere who were under assault. He has been especially vigilant in recent years about threats to free expression in the two largest democracies: India, where he was born and raised, and the United States, his adopted home for the past two decades. His judgments could sting. When a group of six writers refused to attend a PEN gala, in 2015, because it was honoring the editors of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Rushdie said, “If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.” Of the writers who spurned the dinner, he said, “I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
As a literary artist, Rushdie is richly deserving of the Nobel, and the case is only augmented by his role as an uncompromising defender of freedom and a symbol of resiliency. No such gesture could reverse the wave of illiberalism that has engulfed so much of the world. But, after all its bewildering choices, the Swedish Academy has the opportunity, by answering the ugliness of a state-issued death sentence with the dignity of its highest award, to rebuke all the clerics, autocrats, and demagogues—including our own—who would galvanize their followers at the expense of human liberty. Freedom of expression, as Rushdie’s ordeal reminds us, has never come free, but the prize is worth the price.