Salman Rushdie is the author of 12 novels, including Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was once the subject of death threats; now, when asked if he can move about freely Rushdie responds: “You have to stop asking me. … It’s been like 16 years since it’s been OK.”

When Salman Rushdie wrote the sentence, probably some time in 1987, in The Satanic Verses, “Now there was no demand for satires — the general fear of Mahound had destroyed the market for insults and wit,” describing the milieu in the fictional city Jahilia which had been conquered by a war-lord, little could he have guessed how prophetic that statement would have been for his life.

The story, in the realm of “magical realism,” told the tale of a Gibreel Farishta and a Saladin Chamcha — two equally laughable yet sombre characters in fiction. The title, The Satanic Verses, refers to the Quranic verses which allow for intercessory prayers to be made to three pagan goddesses: Allat, Uzza, and Maat. In the novel, the character Mahound believes he is being visited by the voice of the Archangel Gabriel who recites holy teachings to him.

Rushdie told the story as this: Mahound (Mohammed) is a simple merchant entrenched in a city oriented around trade. He begins to hear voices and makes a deal with the progenitor of the city to allow for the retention of the afore mentioned pagan goddesses in his new “religion” which has become a hot trend — only to renege on his deal and declare that it was actually “Shaitan” who whispered those commands  (in the form of verses) in his ears. Thus the title: The Satanic Verses. 

Literary critics looked at the work through a vast variety of lenses: secularism, the immigrant experience, portrayals of the “other” (as those in literary circles are so inclined to do), with Harold Bloom — the influential  and controversial literary figure — claiming it was “very wordy, very neo-Joycean, very much an inadequate artifice.” I thought Rushdie’s writing was O.K., belabored and extended, yet funny and sad in unexpected doses. I recall reading Midnight’s Children at a younger age and walking away  feeling similarly semi-enchanted.

But there are other things Rushdie represents:

For satirizing the origins of the Prophet Mohammed, amongst other things, Rushdie’s life was inextricably changed. On St. Valentines day in 1989, The Ayatollah of Iran placed a fatwah on his head for “insulting Islam.” Riots ensued around the world. There were book burnings, bombs, murders of translators, and assaults on publishers. Rushdie went into hiding for 10 years in a haze of security and protection, eventually surfacing with his memoir, Jospeh Anton (the fictional name he used whilst living an existence of constant over-the-shoulder checks, jumps at loud sounds, and general paranoia of being a hunted man). Along the way, Rushdie sought an escape in apology — which did no good, with Khomeini saying:

“Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent upon every Muslim to employ everything he has, his life and wealth, to send him to hell.”

So he tried other things: re-affirming his faith in Islam in a 1990 signed declaration on Christmas Eve, Rushdie asked for a halt of production of The Satanic Verses in paperback from Viking-Penguin and a stop to all translation. Khomeini did not care for that either. Incidentally, Rushdie immediately repented — though privately. He is quoted many years later in reference to his apology:

“It was deranged thinking. I was more off-balance than I ever had been, but you can’t imagine the pressure I was under… As soon as I said it I felt as if I had ripped my own tongue out. It was the moment I hit rock bottom. I realized that my only survival mechanism was my own integrity.”

Christopher Hitchens, Rushdie’s good friend, said in Hitch-22 in response to the fatwah,

“It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression.”

For dictatorship, bullying, and intimidation it was. Never in modern times, had a religious head of a country declared that they would offer state money for the murder of a writer who had dared to criticize and lambast a sacred figure.

The reaction in the Western world was, perhaps, a precursor to what we witness today, which can be summed up to:

“Well he has the right to say what he wants, but maybe….” “He can write what he wants, however….” “Artist’s may do what they want. But perhaps he shouldn’t have….”

President Carter said at the time: “Rushdie’s book is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated… The death sentence proclaimed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, was an abhorrent response. It is our duty to condemn the threat of murder [but] we should be sensitive to the concern and anger that prevails even among the more moderate Muslims.”

This conversation is often framed in the realms of offense. Should we offend? Should we be free to say, draw, write something that could “offend.” If you were to ask the academics, journalists, etc. of the western world, their first reaction would inevitably be to refer to the power structures in place. “Power and privilege!” they would say. “We should be careful because we hold the power and minorities are underprivileged so we must not ostracize them with our words.”

Other than painting all minorities with a collectivist brush, as those who sit in their sheltered spheres are prone to do while speaking carefully about how we have a duty to protect, where does that belief tie into a text like For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech essays by Muslim and Arab writers who confirmed Rushdie’s right to write whatever he may please. These paternalistic “be careful not to offend” types look at Muslims, minorities, and “others” as a homogenous group, devoid of any difference from one another; mindless automatons chained to their religion or group identity. To them the only “authentic” Muslim is the angry Muslim. And we must be ever so careful not to offend.

Hitchens himself pointed out this error (he also used For Rushdie as a point of objection)  but I’ll do it again: to believe that the baying mobs filled with religious lunatics calling for the deaths of writers and satirists represents the wills of all Muslims is itself disturbing. For, I’m sure, there are those who do not care to take offense at words.

Regardless of whether you believed in Rushdie’s right to craft a story satirizing Islam, we should have defended him from the use of violence, and we should defend his and other dissenters rights around the globe to verbalize an opinion or idea that might spring to their minds without the threat of their decapitation looming overhead. Words do not equate violence. That is an important distinction.

Though you would have a hard time getting that sentiment across today in some college campuses, where Hate Speech is often conflated with conservative thought, and administrators and student groups scamper to protect vulnerable students who shirk at the thought of having their views challenged.

The Satanic Verses

Back to the novel: it didn’t exactly criticize Islam or Muslims in any particular way; it satirized. First was the origin of Mohammed (Mahound) — described by Rushdie as a war-lord who fabricated holy verses to suit his own needs and whims. Then there were the wives and prostitutes. The author gave twelve sex-workers the same names as the twelve wives of the prophet. It perhaps does some good to point out that the Jahila subplot took maybe a quarter of the story and in no way was the driving force of the novel.

Nearly three decades later, free thought and expression are not accepted principles around the world. While one is prone to suffer more serious consequences for voicing unpopular opinions in the Eastern parts of the globe, the self-silencing from dissenting academics is a trend starting to take hold in the West. In the East: Turkey is leading the world in the number of journalists that have been locked up, secular bloggers in Bangladesh are  hacked to death in the streets, a Jordanian writer was shot in the head for sharing an image humoring the prophet months ago, and nine secular activists have recently disappeared in Pakistan. These are only the publicized cases.

Though Salman Rushdie has faded into occasional appearances in the back pages of the The New York Times, New Yorker (there are, however, rumors of a return with a novel about P.C. culture), he will always be remembered as being the first to have poked and endured the collective demon of aniconism from Islam. The Jyllands Posten and Charlie Hebdo events followed suit.

Another passage in The Satanic Verses, apt to conclude this brief reminiscence, casts a prophetic net over current sentiments. In describing the death of his character Baal — a satirical poet living in hiding from Mahound in Jahilia (having lambasted Mahound his entire career and evaded him till he was finally caught) — Rushdie wrote:

“So [Baal] was sentenced to be beheaded, within the hour, and as soldiers manhandled him out of the tent towards the killing ground, he shouted over his shoulder: ‘Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can’t forgive.’

Mahound replied, ‘Writers and whores. I see no difference here.'”

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  1. Hitchens did more than most to help Rushdie. He gave him shelter in his Washington D.C. home for long stretches during that dark decade.

    When Rushdie realized he no longer believed in any kind of imaginary sky-daddy or religion he was an adolescent at school in the UK and promptly went to the school canteen and had a Ham and Cheese sandwich!! Because we all know how Heaven Hates Ham!!

  2. Rushdie’s is such a grim experience. I can’t help but hold the millions of moderate or fence sitting Muslims responsible, at least to a significant extent, for this state of affairs. It seems that somehow they must be upholding and sustaining the extreme forces that keep the ayatollahs in power. What a bitter taste.

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