The fatwa is “rhetoric,” Salman Rushdie said last year — he had chosen not to live in fear


When Salman Rushdie’s attacker ran onto the stage at the Chautauqua Institution in rural upstate New York on Friday, viewers initially thought some sort of stunt was possible. A witness said she assumed it was a play to show “that there was still controversy surrounding this author”.

The victim, who soon lay bleeding, would have understood this unbelief. At writers’ festivals, he sometimes complained about excessive security measures. The 34-year-old fatwa — officially an opinion on Islamic law but in reality a bounty on its head — has dissolved into “rhetoric,” he told me in an interview last year. He refused to live in fear.

He liked to regard the Iranian government’s annual reminder that it was actually active as “my unfunny valentine.”

If we all thought Salman was out of the woods, it might be because a long time has passed since the fatwa was declared. His attacker, whom no government or organization has claimed, wasn’t even born in 1988.

The Muslims who burned The Satanic Verses in Bradford that summer would be old men now. The fundamentalists, who denounced the book as blasphemous, had, it seemed, deviated from a position incomprehensible then and now in the West – that someone should be killed for writing a novel.

But if the specific threat to Rushdie seemed to have abated, the general atmosphere of censorship and hot insults has not. All these years later, there are still many societies that don’t believe in something we in the West take for granted: that an artist who speaks in metaphor and allegory, as Rushdie did in his depiction of the Prophet, is protected from persecution and is free to “slip away from the implication of her work,” as Hilary Mantel put it.

No one slips in Jeddah or Tehran. Censorship has become even stricter since the Arab Spring a decade ago. Egypt’s new constitution prohibits “insulting or abusing all religious envoys and prophets”.

Iran has banned the work of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In recent years, fatwas have been issued in India, the US and Pakistan. Advances in communications have changed the way these edicts are received, often by 10-a-penny clerics.

A website called Islamonline publishes a list of live fatwas. Radio broadcasts throughout the Arab world are offering call fatwa hotlines. In the West, extremism is finding a growing audience in impressionable, disaffected young men, and storming stages to attack performers — most famously Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle — has been the ugliest cultural trend of 2022.

Meanwhile, the Tehran government, like a state-sponsored Alex Jones, is ranting about a Western conspiracy against Islam. We don’t yet know the exact motivations of Rushdie’s attacker, but in this atmosphere it’s not difficult to understand how the decades-old Order of the Ayatollah finally found a willing foot soldier.

One of the narratives surrounding the attack was that it also sprung from a Western relativism surrounding Islamic censorship. The movement to treat Islam differently from other religions in terms of how it can be represented in art has gained traction.

In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that mocking Muhammad is a hate crime, although several cartoonists in the Nordic countries were attacked. Most western press organizations have refused to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoon. In Britain, the shock of Rushdie’s fatwa soon turned into something grimly practical; Some politicians felt that the writer, who had been in hiding until then, should take responsibility for his own safety.

It was as if he was being treated more as a private person with a private problem than as a symbol of artistic freedom. Some critics even claimed that Rushdie, himself a Muslim, may have known about the controversy The Satanic Verses would ignite.

It felt like some sort of victim accusation. “The fact is, nothing like it has ever happened where terrorists would try to kill an author,” he told me last year. “I’m not from Iran, and its leaders didn’t like many books. I thought there was no reason they would like this one, but I wrote it because I thought that was what there was to write about. I’m really not interested in defending myself on this point.”

Rushdie’s assailant has now been charged with attempted murder and while the writer was believed to be alive he has reportedly sustained horrific injuries; His agent said he was likely to lose an eye, nerves in his arm had been damaged and he had stab wounds to his liver.

It seems particularly sad that such a gregarious man, who drew energy and inspiration from audiences around the world, and who represented such a brilliant cultural figure on the New York literary scene, was so brutally mutilated. And while the attack may expand the lore surrounding him as a writer – this is a moment that will forever live in shame – it will be of little consolation as he embarks on a long road to physical recovery.

The psychological scars caused by the attack will be even greater. Like Andy Warhol getting shot by a mad fan, Rushdie will always live in fear that someone out there will try to finish the job.

The “haunted room” he thought he had left behind is back. The fatwa is “rhetoric,” Salman Rushdie said last year — he had chosen not to live in fear

Fry Electronics Team

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