On Friday, as he waited to deliver a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, on the importance of the US offering asylum for artistes in exile, author Salman Rushdie, 75, was attacked by a man who stabbed him onstage. Even as Rushdie fell to the floor, his assailant was taken into custody.
Fatwa and death threats
Since the publication of The Satanic Verses in September 1988, the British-Indian writer who won the Booker Prize for his Midnight’s Children (1981) has faced innumerable threats to his life. On February 14, 1989, Iran’s religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa on Rushdie for “insulting Islam” with his novel. The repercussions of this would continue to be felt for decades to come. Even as Rushdie went into hiding following the fatwa, book bans, book burnings, firebombings and death threats continued unabated for years to come, raising important questions about freedom of expression in the arts around the world.
The controversy around The Satanic Verses
In an interview to Channel 4 in 1989, soon after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had responded to the rising criticism of the book by making a case for freedom of expression. “If you don’t want to read a book, you don’t have to read it. It’s very hard to be offended by The Satanic Verses — it requires a long period of intense reading. It’s a quarter of a million words.”
But the author had not bargained for the backlash his novel would bring. Told through a framework of magic realism, The Satanic Verses tells the story of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, actors of Indian Muslim origin, whose miraculous escape from, and transformation after, a plane crash forms the basis of the satire. On its release, the book received favourable reviews in the West, winning the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year and becoming a 1988 Booker Prize finalist.
In India, however, nine days after its publication, the book was banned by the Rajiv Gandhi government for hurting religious sentiments. In the UK, too, protests took shape. By the end of the year, the book was banned in a number of countries, including Bangladesh, South Africa, Sudan, Kenya. Other countries would soon follow.
Iran, though, initially, was not among the countries protesting the book. But as the clamour against the book – and Rushdie – grew, a group of clerics read out sections of the book to Khomeini, including a portion featuring an imam in exile that was suspiciously like a caricature of him. The rest, as it goes, was history.
Life in hiding
Even as a bounty of more than $3 million was offered for the assassination of the writer, for the next nine years, Rushdie would remain in hiding, moving from place to place, guarded heavily by bodyguards and security services. In his poignant 2012 memoir Joseph Anton, Rushdie wrote about adopting the pseudonym (taken from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov’s first names) to avoid scrutiny and turning into “an invisible man in a whiteface mask”. He would issue clarifications explaining his position, even as the novel, a bestseller in some countries such as the US, would have to be withdrawn from shops around the world because of vandalism.
The Iranian government would eventually distance itself from the fatwa in 1998.
Re-emergence in public life
It was only after 1998 that Rushdie re-emerged in public life, becoming an advocate of free speech and artistic freedom, while continuing to write bestselling novels. He returned to India in 2000 for the first time since the fatwa with his son Zafar for the announcement of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book.
In an interview to The Indian Express last year, the writer, who is working on his first play based on Helen of Troy, said, “My creative relationship with India remains just about my strongest motivating force. Thanks to the pandemic, my personal relationship is in abeyance. I truly hope India comes through the nightmare as soon as possible. After that, I hope I’ll be back.”
Rushdie, a former president of PEN America, has also been serialising his new novella, The Seventh Wave, on Substack.