In recent years it seemed as if the threat had left him for good. Before he was attacked, Salman Rushdie took to a stage in upstate New York to speak about how America had given him and many writers and artists a sanctuary before him.
since leaving Britain in 2000, he has been able to resume the life he had been denied since the day in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa demanding his death.
He was a fixture at literary festivals; appeared on television; published political essays; published novels regularly; mixed with celebrities; and even took to Twitter with an unlikely enthusiasm.
The attack on Rushdie was a gruesome reminder that the past still casts a shadow. The young man suspected of stabbing the writer was not even born The Satanic Verses was first published. It is unlikely that he read the novel, let alone grasped the attempt at magical realism. Facts hardly matter to religious extremists. Perception of an insult is enough to justify murder.
In 1991, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in his office at Tsukuba University.
Two years later, Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot dead three times outside his home. He miraculously recovered.
In the days following the fatwa, Rushdie failed to win widespread sympathy.
Norman Tebbit, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest associates, denounced him in that newspaper as “a superb villain”. John Le Carré sparked a decades-long dispute between them by saying that “there is no law in life or in nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity”.
VS Naipaul, a longtime rival, seemed to laugh at the fatwa, describing it as “an extreme form of literary criticism”.
It was often left to leftist writers like Tariq Ali, Harold Pinter, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said and Hanif Kureishi to defend him.
Rushdie himself was appalled by the allegation The Satanic Verses constituted an insult. Why, Rushdie asked, had he spent a tenth of his life up to this point creating something “as gross as an insult”?
Rushdie wanted to be seen as a serious author writing a serious book – not, as some have claimed, for personal gain.
As far as Rushdie is concerned, this was the least political of the three recent books – and “essentially admires and even respects the Prophet of Islam”. What Rushdie failed to grasp was that instead of being treated as a work of art, his book was being held hostage to a conflict.
The Rushdie fatwa came at a moment of renewed clash between parts of the West and the Muslim world. The fatwa was a cynical attempt by a petrified ayatollah to weaponize the divisions between them and stoke the anger of the faithful. It worked.
Angry protests erupted in various Muslim-majority countries. The book was torched in the streets of Bradford and banned in India. Bookstores were firebombed, prompting others to remove it from their shelves.
Rushdie himself was forced into hiding for many years, moving from place to place and escorted by Scotland Yard officials, whose haughty presence he detested.
One of the tragedies of the past few decades is that there has never been any serious engagement with the issues the Rushdie affair exposed: the divisions in the Muslim world between those who fought for an open society and those who opposed them; the role of Western-backed dictators in suppressing these freedoms; anger at often Western-sponsored wars that have ravaged many Muslim-majority countries; or the intolerance faced by Muslims in the West.
Ironically, it was Rushdie who illuminated these subdivisions in his earlier work. The task of literature, Rushdie once wrote, is to “promote understanding, sympathy and identification with people who are not like oneself”.
Rushdie was a harsh critic of British racism, the subject of a searing lecture broadcast on Channel 4 The new empire within.
His most famous book midnight childrenis a masterful attack on the legacy of colonialism, the intrepidity of the South Asian ruling classes and the violent chauvinism that created the three separate countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
His 1983 novel shame revealed the three-way battle between Pakistan’s corrupt politicians, its cruel mullahs and its underhanded generals that continues to this day.
It’s hard not to conclude that the fatwa changed Rushdie as a writer, even weakened him.
He continued to write essays and novels, some very courageous defenses of his writing and free inquiry. But they seldom included the broad themes his earlier work explored.
Some of his critics were cruel. In a review of his memoir, Zoe Heller noted the many flaws he flaunted, including his “pompousness” and his “shuddering haughtiness.”
But last Friday’s attack should force us all to consider what it means to live with a death sentence that has hung over a writer for decades and can be carried out at any time. (© Independent News Service)
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/the-senseless-assault-on-salman-rushdie-was-a-cruel-reminder-that-the-past-still-casts-a-shadow-41914161.html The senseless attack on Salman Rushdie was a gruesome reminder that the past still casts a shadow