In a world where the black birds of hatred have felled colossal towers, threatened cartoonists with murder and attacked embassies over a film preview, Salman Rushdie’s years under the fatwa, a death warrant ordered by the Ayatollah Khomeini on Feb. 14, 1989, may not seem extraordinary. The fact that living under the shadow of terror in the name of religion, of cross-border assaults on freedom of expression, is now regarded as close to normal speaks worrying volumes about the world we now inhabit.
It wasn’t always so, and a brilliant new book by Rushdie takes us down into the heart of darkness, a portrait of the artist as a victim of state-sponsored terror as mullahs and religious zealots called for murder over his novel, The Satanic Verses, which in their interpretation of it had blasphemed against the Prophet Mohammed and insulted Islam. Joseph Anton — the pseudonym Rushdie would use during his years in hiding under police protection — is a story of intolerance, anger, fear and betrayal, but also courage, resilience, love and friendship, in a decade-long battle between the forces of repression and freedom.
The contours of the story are pretty well known: In 1988, Rushdie, the Indian-born author of the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children and one of the greatest storytellers of our time, published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, a book partly inspired by the life of the Prophet Mohammed and a deranged man’s musings on the early days of Islam. No stranger to controversy, Rushdie had already succeeded in angering Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan in Midnight’s Children and Shame respectively. The Satanic Verses was no exception. The Indian government banned it before its release, and soon afterwards, a large protest was organized outside the American Cultural Center in Islamabad, during which six people were killed. Muslim communities in the UK also felt the book was an assault on the Koran, and soon enough, in scenes that were more at home in Nazi Germany than late twentieth-century Britain, the book was burned, as was an effigy of the author himself.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir
By Salman Rushdie
The snowballing reactions culminated in the infamous fatwa, or religious edict, declared by a dying Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, effectively saying that it was the duty of every Muslim to kill apostate Rushdie for his blasphemous act. Then an ever-growing bounty is put on his head, Muslim protesters worldwide carry placards saying Rushdie must die, and the rest is, well, sad history. British intelligence steps in, Rushdie and his family are forced into hiding for a decade and move houses 57 times during that period, publishers and booksellers refuse to carry the book, a Japanese translator is murdered, an Italian one wounded, a Danish publisher shot three times but survives, two moderate imams in Belgium are slain, a fire kills dozens in Turkey, and a would-be bomb maker kills himself in the UK. The cause of free speech gets caught up in the web of international politics, what with efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic and attempts to secure the release of hostages held in Iran and in Lebanon by Hezbollah.
Over more than 600 pages, Rushdie’s recounting of the fatwa years provides a tableau of torments through forced isolation, restricted movement, airlines that won’t allow him on board, broken marriages, self doubt, the constant threat of assassination, vicious attacks by the media, and the storm’s impact on his creative life.