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.
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.
Some critics of Joseph Anton have argued that the book is too long and ultimately fails to fully exploit the cloak-and-dagger elements that his predicament put at his disposal. If one is solely interested in the espionage aspects of the Rushdie affair, then yes, 600 pages, which include lots of material about his romantic life, his growing children, the celebrities he brushed elbows with, his friendships, his quirky protection teams, imaginary letters to protagonists and antagonists, and so on, is probably too long. However, true fans of the author will gain tremendously from reading the book in its entirety, as it yields invaluable information about the context in which his future novels took shape. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury and Shalimar the Clown would not have turned out the way they did were it not for the fatwa and the existential crises it engendered for the author.
Rushdie’s memoir contains a rich brew of friends and foes in the literary world, and how they react to his predicament will be of great interest to anyone interested in the belles-lettres. There are plenty of allies, people like Susan Sontag, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gunter Grass, U2’s Bono and so on. And there are some who, in seeming contradiction to their body of work, vilified the man for his action, people like John le Carre, who not only comes out looking bad but ended up being subjected to the mother of all tirades by Hitchens — front-page stuff. The weakness of one’s literary idols is such that one fears turning the page lest Rushdie mention another one who failed to step up to the occasion. Mohammed Khatami, a moderate who became president and inspired great hopes for a dialogue between civilizations, is one of those heroes who emerges from Rushdie’s book a much weakened man, given his support for the irreversibility of the fatwa.
At the heart of Joseph Anton — and ultimately the heart of the whole matter — is the idea that freedom consists in our ability, not just as artists, to question our beliefs and the grand narratives that define our lives. As Rushdie writes: “… one could say that our ability to re-tell and re-make the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom.” The essence of the The Satanic Verses, and what made it “problematic,” is the author’s daring to revisit the basic tenets of one of the world’s great religions, not so much to discredit it as to encourage openness of mind and interpretation — argument itself. “But in a closed society,” Rushdie continues, “those who possessed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates. We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means … and we forbid you to tell it in any other way.”
This is a lesson, and a warning, that should be heeded by all, as intolerance and the assault on free speech has, since the Rushdie affair, become an all-too-common poison in the electronic age. Thanks to Rushdie’s magnificent and (sadly) timely book, we now know what it was like to be one of the first victims of transnational tyranny.