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Among the Blasphemers: On Salman Rushdie | The Nation

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Among the Blasphemers: On Salman Rushdie

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The name Salman Rushdie and the word fatwa entered my vocabulary on the same February day in 1989. I was standing in the living room of my parents’ house in Morocco; my uncle, a newspaper rolled under one arm, had just arrived for dinner; my grandmother was sitting on the orange divan, her prayer beads wound on her right hand. Then someone pointed to the television screen and we all turned to look. Young men in the small British city of Bradford were burning copies of a book; the footage was interwoven with photographs of a hunched and dour-looking Khomeini. The ayatollah had found something offensive about a novel—wait, what was it called? Satanic something?—and had decreed that Muslims everywhere were duty-bound to kill its author. 

Joseph Anton
A Memoir.
By Salman Rushdie.
Buy this book

About the Author

Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is an associate professor of creative...

Also by the Author

The Childhood of Jesus explores the fictitious dimensions of a just and compassionate world.

Assailed by the right as a fiction, anti-Muslim bias is all too real for those who live with it.

Enter: Rushdie, fatwa.

As it happened, my entire family was Muslim. But to the ayatollah’s chagrin, no one rushed out to find the novelist. We ate dinner and talked about inflation and gas prices. I had grown up in a secular family, but as a teenager I had discovered religion and become a practicing Muslim. Of all those seated around our dinner table that night, the two who would have paid the most attention to a supposed insult against Islam were my grandmother and me. But my grandmother was illiterate and had wisely chosen not to form an opinion on something she had not read. And I loved books more than anything; I could not conceive of burning them. 

Of course, the fatwa guaranteed one thing: I had to read The Satanic Verses. I needed to find out for myself what could have caused so much trouble. So, the following year, when I went to study at University College London, one of the first things I did was to march into Dillons bookshop on Gower Street and buy a copy. (That shop had been firebombed just a few months earlier for selling the novel.) I started reading the novel in the stacks, then took it home to my rented room and stayed up until I finished it. 

“This is what caused all the fuss?” I remember thinking. Of course, there were dream sequences that seemed offensive: one character, for instance, goes into an underground brothel where the prostitutes have the same names as the Prophet’s wives. But I had read other novels by Muslim authors—Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Harrouda—that were deemed offensive as well, and yet no one had put a $1 million bounty on the author’s head. I had bought copies of several transgressive books—D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—from the bookstores of my own hometown without a problem. My experience in Morocco had been that when the seal of censorship fell on a book—Gilles Perrault’s Notre ami le roi or Moumen Diouri’s À qui appartient le Maroc?—it was usually for a nonfiction book, and it was usually for political reasons.

So why all this trouble over The Satanic Verses?

Then school started, and it seemed as if I was always running from one class to another. I was distracted, too, by the sudden freedoms that living alone in a place like London suddenly opened up: museums, theaters, clubs. When I read the newspaper on the Tube, it was to keep up with the Gulf War, the reunification of Germany or the civil war in Lebanon, not with the fatwa. Sometimes on the evening news, pundits brought up this or that new development in the Rushdie affair and asked: But where is the silent majority? I knew exactly where it was; I was the silent majority. 

But for the man who lived in the eye of the storm, there was no possibility of distraction, no freedom of movement, no hope of closure. There was only one concern overriding all others: how to survive an edict declaring you an apostate and encouraging Muslims to kill you on sight. In his new memoir, Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie writes about the fatwa that, fortunately for both the author and his readers, never came to pass. 

Joseph Anton is primarily a story of betrayals: stated ideals of free speech are broken, personal convictions are flouted, and communities are sold out for political gain. Perhaps these betrayals are still too raw, because Rushdie has chosen to write about them using the third-person point of view. Of course, such memoirs are not unheard of—witness the case of J.M. Coetzee, who wrote three volumes about himself in the third person—but for someone like Rushdie, it seems at first a puzzling choice. In person, Rushdie is not at all shy about speaking his mind and fires off one bon mot after another. (I interviewed him for The Oregonian in 2005 and also met him at a literary festival in New York.) But perhaps the third-person point of view allowed him to be critical about his own betrayals: extramarital affairs, ruined marriages and frayed friendships. 

* * *

The story of the fatwa begins in 1967, when Rushdie was an undergraduate student at King’s College, Cambridge, reading history. As part of his coursework, he had to choose “three ‘special subjects’ from a wide selection on offer.” For the first time that year, the college was offering “Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the Early Caliphate,” but so few students were interested in the course that it had to be canceled. Still, Rushdie was determined to take it: “He was his father’s son, godless, but fascinated by gods and prophets.” He convinced Arthur Hibbert, a medievalist, to supervise an independent study—and that was how Rushdie discovered the Qissat al-Gharaniq (known as the “Satanic verses” in the West).

The incident of the Satanic verses comes to us from a few early and disputed histories of Muhammad’s life. At some point during his ministry, the Prophet revealed the following verses to his followers: 

Have ye thought upon al-Lat and al-‘Uzza
        And Manat, the third, the other?
        These are the elevated cranes: truly their intercession is dearly hoped!

Al-Lat, al-‘Uzza and Manat were three goddesses worshipped by the people of Mecca before the arrival of Islam. The verses posed two questions, one about faith and one about politics. 

The faith question: from the start, Muhammad had preached the oneness of God (the very first verse to be revealed was: “Read, in the name of Thy Lord”). Yet here were verses that brought the goddesses of the Meccans into the faith, which would have been a contradiction in principle. As for the political question: acknowledging the goddesses of the Meccans would have helped bring into the fold some of the city’s most powerful and wealthy leaders, thus facilitating the propagation of Islam. So Muhammad faced a dilemma: authenticity or expediency?

At some point, the Prophet is said to have abrogated the line about intercession. It had not been inspired by the angel who regularly visited him, he said, but by a more sinister presence: Satan. The corrected verses, as they appear in the Qur’an, read: 

Have ye thought upon al-Lat and al-‘Uzza
       And Manat, the third, the other?
       Are yours the males and His the females?
       That indeed were an unfair division!
       They are but names which ye have named, ye and your fathers, for which Allah hath revealed no warrant. They follow but a guess and that which (they) themselves desire. And now the guidance from their Lord hath come unto them.

The incident of the Satanic verses is essentially a case of prophetic testimony inspired by Satan, then corrected by God—a fascinating exchange between what is profane and what is divine, between the politically expedient and the religiously authentic. “Good story,” Rushdie remembers thinking when he came across it, before adding of his third-person self: “Even then he was dreaming of being a writer, and he filed the good story away in the back of his mind for future consideration. Twenty years later he would find out exactly how good a story it was.”

After Cambridge, Rushdie went to work as a copywriter—his best-known slogans included “Naughty but Nice” for Fresh Cream Cake and “Delectabubble” for Aero chocolate—but, all along, he was writing fiction. In 1975, he published his first novel, Grimus, a kind of fantasy loosely based on the Conference of the Birds, the Persian book of poems by Farid-uddin Attar. Grimus didn’t do too well, either critically or commercially. The problem, Rushdie decided, was that there was “something misconceived” about him: “If he hadn’t become the writer he thought he had it in him to be, it was because he didn’t know who he was.” So he decided to write a book about being “not rootless, but multiply rooted.” That book was Midnight’s Children. It was, deservedly, a huge success, both critically and commercially. For the first time, Rushdie was able to support himself solely through his writing. 

This was when “the good years began.” These included a marriage to Clarissa Luard, the birth of his son Zafar, the success of Midnight’s Children and Shame, prizes and honors, travels around the world—and an affair with Robyn Davidson, a writer he met while on a visit to Australia. It was on the plane back home that he began to take notes for a new novel. He wanted to write something about immigrants from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan and their relationship to time. Characters began to appear: Saladin Chamcha, a British Muslim actor who is forced to do voice-over work, and Gibreel Farishta, his opposite, a Bollywood star who specializes in portraying Indian gods. Plot details emerged: a plane crash, two survivors. And themes revealed themselves too: migration, identity, belief, newness. Here, the story Rushdie had learned as a student in Cambridge returned to him and gave him his title: The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie finished working on the novel in February 1988. By then, his father, Anis, a powerful presence in his life, had died. He had divorced Luard and married the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, but already he was not getting on with her and thinking of a separation. It was in the context of this personal turmoil that The Satanic Verses was published, in September 1988. 

* * *

The “match that lit the fire” that would soon consume Rushdie’s life was struck by someone he considered a friend: the journalist Madhu Jain, who interviewed him for India Today. The magazine then ran the piece and an excerpt from the book under headlines that Rushdie found objectionable and misleading: “An Unequivocal Attack on Religious Fundamentalism” and “My Theme Is Fanaticism.” Two Muslim members of the Indian Parliament, Syed Shahabuddin and Khurshid Alam Khan, took offense at the excerpt and responded with letters to the editor. The book had not even been published in India yet. A prominent Sikh columnist and novelist, Khushwant Singh, had read an advance copy; he now called for a ban.

From there, The Satanic Verses quickly moved into the nebulous realm of the contentious. A few British newspapers fed on the controversy brewing in India, in pieces that quoted anonymous sources deriding Rushdie for his ego or his education. Literary reviews began to appear—some excellent, others not—but the book was already becoming more than just a work of art: it was seen as a political statement by a willfully offensive author.

That year, Rajiv Gandhi was seeking re-election in India. It is likely that he was no fan of Rushdie: Indira Gandhi, Rajiv’s mother, had been portrayed in less than flattering tones in Midnight’s Children. And, Rushdie argues, Gandhi may have believed that the two MPs who had so strenuously objected to the novel without having read it could deliver the “Muslim vote” to the Congress Party. Thus, The Satanic Verses was banned in India, without a process of review or the possibility of appeal. A few weeks later, a British Muslim group issued a statement disparaging the book as an insult “thinly disguised as a piece of literature.” Next was the South African government, which reprised the same turn of phrase and banned the book. 

Not long after, the grand sheik of Al-Azhar, Gad el-Haq Ali Gad el-Haq, declared the book blasphemous. At last the word “blasphemy” had been spoken—and once spoken, it could not be unheard. British Muslim groups stepped up the verbal attacks. Hate mail began to arrive at Rushdie’s home, as well as threatening phone calls and even bomb threats at the offices of Viking Penguin. Finally, in December 1988, the book was burned in Bradford, a small city west of Leeds in West Yorkshire.

The fatwa was read on Tehran Radio on February 14, 1989. A fatwa is ordinarily a formal document, requiring its author to provide legal justification for the ruling, but this particular one was “just a piece of paper bearing a typewritten text,” with no seal of any kind, and handed by the ayatollah’s son to the news reader. Thousands of miles away, Rushdie left his house to attend a memorial service for his friend Bruce Chatwin. He would not return home for several years. And his book was banned in many Muslim countries.

In Britain, self-appointed leaders of the Muslim community began their media parade. These were often religious conservatives, like Kalim Siddiqui, head of the Muslim Institute, who defended the fatwa on several television programs. There was also Iqbal Sacranie, the head of the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, who said, “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy [for Rushdie]. His mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness to Almighty Allah.” The religious conservatives weren’t alone in finding offense. The writers Roald Dahl, John le Carré, Germaine Greer and John Berger offered condemnations of one sort or another. Even Rushdie’s relations in Pakistan took out an ad in a local paper, distancing themselves from him. 

But many more writers, of many different backgrounds, rallied around Rushdie: Susan Sontag, Edward Said, Ian McEwan, Carlos Fuentes, Hanan al-Shaykh, Fadia Faqir, Nadine Gordimer, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, to name just a few. European publishers, after some cajoling—and occasionally some shaming—by Rushdie’s literary agents, released their translations. One hundred Arab and Muslim writers contributed essays to an anthology in defense of the right to free speech, Pour Rushdie. And bookstores, like Cody’s in Berkeley, continued to carry The Satanic Verses even after being firebombed.

* * *

Not surprisingly, once the violence started, it brought only more violence. The book’s Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was stabbed in Milan, though he fortunately survived the attack. The car of William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher, was riddled with bullets. Mostly, though, the victims of this violence were Muslims themselves. In Pakistan, there was a riot in front of the US Information Center, during which the police shot and killed five of the protesters. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, Hitoshi Igarashi, himself a convert to Islam, was murdered near his office at the University of Tsukuba. In Belgium, a Saudi cleric named Abdullah Ahdal and his Tunisian deputy, Salim Bahri, were both killed because they had affirmed the right to free speech.

The British government provided Rushdie (but not his family) with police protection, whose cost became the subject of heated political debate. Thus began a long period of forced migration for the author: he had to change locations constantly and to rely on the kindness of friends who lent him their homes. I could not help wondering, as I read his account of phone calls made trying to secure a new place to live, what would have happened had Rushdie not been so well connected—where would he have gone?

If the issue with The Satanic Verses had been a purely religious one, it would have been possible to counter with a religious argument. After all, the act of blasphemy, which seems so abhorrent to the faithful, is what gives birth to new ideas—Earth is not flat; Indians have souls; slavery is wrong—and even to new religions. In preaching about the one God, after all, Muhammad was explicitly rejecting the sacred deities of the Meccans, including al-Lat, al-‘Uzza and Manat. If the elders of Mecca had successfully silenced Muhammad for blasphemy, there would have been no Islam at all.

But the issue with the novel was not really a religious one; it was a political one. Ministers, members of Parliament, ayatollahs, community leaders—they all stood to gain from the controversy by pandering to specific constituencies. Norman Tebbit, a member of the British Parliament and a close ally of Margaret Thatcher, wrote that Rushdie was an “outstanding villain.” Keith Vaz, an MP representing Leicester East, was “appalled” by the fatwa, then in support of it, then against it once more. Bernie Grant, another MP, said that the fatwa didn’t matter because “burning books is not a big issue for blacks.” And the Ayatollah Khomeini was able to claim the attention of Muslims worldwide, well outside the Shiite tradition from which he had come. 

The section of Joseph Anton in which Rushdie describes the political response to his forced disappearance from public life is thoroughly depressing. Many promises are made, whether by representatives of the British government or the British Muslim community, to find some sort of solution to the crisis by mediating or negotiating with the ayatollah. However, each of these people speaks with a forked tongue: they claim, every single one of them, to be committed to free speech, but…  The qualification that follows depends on the particular agenda of the politician or self-styled community representative: votes they’re trying to win, alliances they’re hoping to maintain, geopolitical interests they want to nurture. 

So Rushdie continued to live, but he had to live in a cage.

Eventually, Rushdie’s protection team decided that he should adopt a new name under which he could rent a house, and that it would probably be better if it wasn’t an Asian name. “To be asked to give up your name was not a small thing…. He was to give up his race as well. He would be an invisible man in a whiteface mask,” Rushdie notes. So he borrowed the first names of Conrad and Chekhov and combined them for his alias: Joseph Anton. It was as Mr. Anton that he lived in a house on Hampstead Lane, and again as Mr. Anton that he flew to America to deliver speeches. 

In this way, the writer Salman Rushdie disappeared. He became “Rushdie,” a caricature that could be used by the ayatollah to restore some of his faded glory, a cause célèbre that could be trotted out by Western politicians who professed to support free speech; by fools like Kalim Siddiqui and Iqbal Sacranie to gain a wider following; and by youths in Bradford, many of whom had not read the novel but saw in its author everything their country admired and everything they were not: a wealthy, Cambridge-educated author who insulted his own community in a book admired by other wealthy, Cambridge-educated people.

* * *

Having lived in Britain when the events of the fatwa were unfolding, I know that the feelings of offense were very real. Islam was a source of comfort and succor for many people and—especially for those who have been disenfranchised in a variety of ways—hearing that someone insulted it was unbearable. I say “hearing” rather than “reading,” because the evidence seems to suggest that very few of the young people who were out protesting the author had actually read his work. For instance, Adnan Sarwar, a British photographer and Iraq War veteran, recently wrote that he had taken the charge of insult at face value and that he went to a protest against The Satanic Verses simply because he thought it would be “fun.” He was handed a placard with a message in ungrammatical English, and he, a native speaker, repeated it: “What we want? Ban the book.” 

Ironically, Rushdie had devoted his life to telling the stories of India, had advocated for the rights of Asian minorities in Britain even as this work put strains on his marriage, and had written in support of the right of Kashmiri Muslims. Now he found that some of those same people had turned against him. In Joseph Anton, he writes: “How could he be called an enemy of Islam when that was his record?” 

I had never considered Rushdie an enemy of Islam, but as I read more of his work, I realized just how absurd the charge was. I came across Midnight’s Children while I was in graduate school in California; it turned out to be, for me, a kind of revelation. Its playful language, its complicated families, its humor—I loved all of it. I found in Haroun and the Sea of Stories a wonderful homage to the kinds of fables my grandmother used to tell me, in which, more often than not, a child has to save the adults from their own foolishness. And I read and reread Imaginary Homelands, the book of essays that was published by Granta Books some years ago. These experiences coincided with my own journey away from religious dogma. What had attracted me to Islam—its ideals of justice—were, in the end, what turned me away from its practice. It sounds simple, doesn’t it—justice? But for me, it meant not just racial or economic justice, which have deep roots in Islam, but also justice in terms of civil rights for all: women, gays, immigrants, religious minorities. And justice meant the protection of belief as well as unbelief. 

Even today, that moniker (“enemy of Islam”) continues to follow Rushdie, even though he has been an outspoken defender of Muslim writers’ rights to free speech. For instance, in 2004, when the Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan was denied a visa to the United States, it was Salman Rushdie who, as president of the PEN American Center, spoke out against the order. PEN was part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU challenging a provision of the Patriot Act that was used to deny visas to foreign scholars. Ultimately, Tariq Ramadan was granted a visa and was able to visit the United States to deliver talks. Similarly, in 2004, Rushdie contributed a letter of support to a suit brought by Arcade Press, which was trying to publish Strange Times, My Dear, an anthology of contemporary Iranian writing, but was being blocked by the Treasury Department on the grounds that writing from “Axis of Evil” nations required a special license. The anthology was eventually published, though no one seemed to notice the irony of a writer who’d had a bounty placed on his head by the state of Iran working to guarantee that Iranian writers could be read in the United States. 

The multiple and profound betrayals chronicled in Joseph Anton have, I think, caused Rushdie to want to settle some scores. His second wife, Marianne Wiggins, comes across as little more than a psychotic nag. His fourth wife, the model Padma Lakshmi, is portrayed as a moody airhead. He refers to Kalim Siddiqui throughout as a “silver-bearded garden gnome.” Some of this score settling can be amusing—he describes the critic James Wood as “the malevolent Procrustes of literary criticism”—but it is likely to put off some readers. And Rushdie’s fondness for dropping names and reporting on the soirees he attends quickly grows tiresome. But Joseph Anton remains an essential account by a writer who has been put on trial for his imagination. 

Much has happened since The Satanic Verses was published. The Berlin Wall fell; the Ayatollah Khomeini died; the Soviet Union collapsed; the Balkans erupted in internecine warfare; and then, in September 1998, President Khatami of Iran “declared the death threat ‘over.’” Joseph Anton disappeared for good, and Salman Rushdie took his place again among the living and the free. 

Still, the issues raised by the fatwa have not faded. Earlier this year, at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, Rushdie was forced to cancel a scheduled appearance after threats from Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, the head of a seminary in Deoband. The threats had been echoed by politicians—from both the ruling party and the opposition—who were seeking office in the upcoming state elections in Uttar Pradesh. (The one trait that unites politicians across the ideological spectrum is their love of pandering.) In protest, the writers Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru, both of them guests of the festival, staged an ambush reading from The Satanic Verses and then had to leave India in a hurry in order to avoid any legal proceedings. (The book remains banned there.)

Eight months later, just when Joseph Anton was being published in the United States, a fourteen-minute video, supposedly a trailer for a movie called Innocence of Muslims, surfaced online. The clip, which portrays Muhammad as a drunken pedophile and Muslims as rampaging savages, had been languishing in complete obscurity on YouTube until its broadcast on El-Nas TV, an Islamist television station in Egypt. As of this writing, the clip has had more than 17 million views.

Protests broke out in Cairo, then quickly spread to Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan, India and the Sudan. Protesters scaled the walls of the US embassy in Cairo and the US consulate in Benghazi. The American ambassador to Libya, three Foreign Service officers and ten Libyan police officers were killed. In Tunisia, the American school was burned down. In Pakistan, the violence was even more widespread; twenty-three people were killed and more than 200 injured. 

Watching the reaction to Innocence of Muslims was like watching the reaction to The Satanic Verses in fast-forward: the denunciations, the demands that the clip be censored, the protests that quickly turned violent and, finally, the death of innocents—ten years’ worth of events condensed into one month. The new controversy also served to show that we have learned almost nothing from the past twenty years. Once again, the issue was framed in purely religious terms: on one side, angry Muslims; on the other, rational non-Muslims. 

However, this was, in fact, a confrontation between factions of different faiths with different political agendas. In Egypt, for instance, the protest at the US embassy had originally been called by Gamaa Islamiyya to demand the release of Omar Abd-el-Rahman, the cleric who was convicted for his involvement in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. In Libya, armed militants joined the video’s protesters in front of the consulate in Benghazi. In Pakistan, the government declared Friday, September 21, a national holiday and encouraged people to protest. And in America, the clip might have remained obscure had not a Coptic extremist alerted other extremists about it through an Arabic-language blog post. In the end, the protests were the result of a conflict between those who make it their mission to offend and those who make it their mission to be offended.

And yet many in the media preferred to call on old clichés about the “clash of civilizations,” as if the West did not have its own issues with free speech. In the wake of the turbulence over Innocence of Muslims, for example, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a series of new caricatures of the Prophet. While defending the French republic’s commitment to free speech, Manuel Valls, the interior minister of France and a member of the Socialist Party, also banned all protests against either the caricatures or the video. “The country needs to rally and appease around laïcité,”  he said, referring to the strict separation of religion and state. So, in France, you are free to hold any opinion that the interior minister approves of—or else you have to be silent. Every society has its biases, and it’s usually in its practice of free speech that you can best notice them.

The Satanic Verses is, of course, different from Innocence of Muslims. One is a work of art that probes the struggle between belief and unbelief; the other is not even a complete film, but rather a bunch of scenes featuring actors in brown-face makeup and silly dialogue. One was written by a novelist with a lifelong engagement in issues of free speech; the other is by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a former meth cook who allied himself with the Church of Kaweah, an organization classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. On aesthetic and moral grounds, there is no comparison.

But legally, there is no difference. Free speech is just that: it doesn’t mean speech that is smart or kind or tasteful. And it is in all of our interests to protect it.

In “Meetings, Purchases, Pleasures” (Sept. 15, 2008), William Deresiewicz found Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence to be “his most coherent and readable novel.”

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