Literature Held Hostage
Posted by eGZact on August 27, 2007
The Holy War Against Salman Rushdie Turns 10. By Gregory McNamee
FEBRUARY 8, 1999: IN THE FALL of 1988, the Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie published what was then his fourth novel, a fantastic, sprawling allegory of the lives of immigrant Muslims in England. Like Rushdie’s earlier novels, The Satanic Verses combined literary seriousness with whimsical slapstick to criticize life in the so-called First World. The book was issued to a handful of critical notices, seemingly condemned to the quiet fate that most books that aspire to be seen as literature enjoy today.
Under normal circumstances, Rushdie’s novel would have been a moderate success, perhaps praised by some critics and damned by others; its sales would likely have been respectable, but small. The Satanic Verses is a good but not great book, somewhat formless and sometimes confused, calling on cultural references that few Western readers command–hardly the makings of an English and American bestseller. Rushdie’s book took a different course, however, when an Indian parliamentarian, a Muslim named Syed Shahabuddin, charged that it was blasphemous. He admitted that he had not read the book, but that did not keep him from petitioning the government of Rajiv Gandhi to ban The Satanic Verses.
Understandably sensitive to religious conflict, the Gandhi government bowed to Shahabuddin’s demands on October 5, 1988. In announcing its decision, it declared that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work,” to which the author retorted, in an open letter to the Prime Minister, “thanks for the good review.” The Indian government replied by saying that it would not permit “literary colonialism” in any form, especially in the guise of what it termed “religious pornography.”
Rushdie and The Satanic Verses were suddenly international news, on their way to becoming household words.
The Satanic Verses was banned as well in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, and, predictably, South Africa. In all those countries the book sold wildly, smuggled in by intrepid merchants. In India, where one in every 10 citizens is a Muslim, pirated editions of The Satanic Verses sold briskly as well. Mr. Shahabuddin seemed not to mind, and another tempest in a teacup appeared to have blown over.
BUT THE RUSHDIE affair would not end. Conservative Pakistanis, testing the new government of Western-educated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, demanded that Pakistan force the United States to halt publication of Rushdie’s novel in America. When it became obvious that the United States would not tolerate literary colonialism either, anti-American riots exploded in the streets of Karachi and Islamabad. Bhutto would not join in the fray, and so Pakistani fundamentalists turned west to their next-door neighbor, the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for leadership. Khomeini immediately denounced Rushdie. He had good reason to: Rushdie had plenty of bad things to say about a thinly disguised version of the bearded leader in The Satanic Verses, noting that the Muslim religion was not supposed to be a cult of personality. He further depicted Khomeini as the very mouth of hell, devouring his people–a fitting image, given the millions of young Iranians the Ayatollah had sent off to be bled in a cynical war against Iraq.
For this transgression, Khomeini declared that Rushdie deserved to die for “insulting Islam” and for working in concert with “Zionism, Britain, and the USA, which, through their ignorance and haste, have placed themselves against the Islamic world.” The date of his infamous proclamation was February 14, 1989.
Acting on the Ayatollah’s cue, other Iranian religious leaders offered a bounty of at first $2 million and then more than $5 million to anyone who killed the newly famous author. Within a few days, they announced that hundreds of Muslim assassins from around the world had gone to London, where Rushdie lives, to exact vengeance.
Rushdie has always spoken his mind freely, regardless of whose sensibilities his opinions may offend. He has publicly stated that literature takes the place of religion in his life. He borrowed heavily from the Islamic tradition to provide subtexts for The Satanic Verses, which abounds in provocative stories of Muslim djinns, martyrs, seers, and angels who act rather more human than an orthodox believer might wish them to. Turning on the basic meaning of the Arabic word Islam, which is “submission,” he suggests that its followers have been terrorized into belief. Worse still, a subversive reading of the life of Mohammed underlies Rushdie’s novel. The very title recalls a set of suras, or scriptural verses, that Mohammed is believed to have deleted from the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, after deciding that he had composed them under Satan’s influence.
But Rushdie’s aim was not to pillory the religion of his birth. Instead, he used his novel as a way to look at the lives of immigrants like himself, men and women who arrive in the First World only to be chewed up and spit out by the postindustrial machine. The principal characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are themselves unwilling prophets of a sort, adrift in the foreign city they call Ellowen Deeowen, where the unwelcoming natives persecute them for their not being English enough. Chamcha’s and Farishta’s days are full of apocalyptic visions, of battles in the hostile land of Margaret Thatcher. Like all immigrants, they are strangers in a very strange land.
The protagonists of The Satanic Verses are stateless, and no one cares about their fate. Unlike them, Rushdie is a naturalized citizen of England, fully protected by the force of that nation’s long-established laws guaranteeing rights of free expression and security against foreign threats.
BUT ENGLISH LAW–and Western law in general–cannot guarantee the writer’s safety. Thus, for 10 full years now Rushdie has been in hiding. There is still a price on his head, the original fatwa having been withdrawn but a new one issued in its place, and martyrdom and heavenly reward have been promised to any Muslim who kills him. Never mind the admonition of the Qur’an: “Allah does not love aggressors.”
Those 10 years have not been easy. Immediately after the Ayatollah issued his fatwa, several European publishers canceled their editions of the novel. (Most of those publishers later had a change of heart and issued the book.) An Iranian diplomat even met with Pope John Paul II to urge that the Italian edition be withdrawn, but the Pontiff did not oblige him. For their part, the heads of several American bookstore chains ordered that The Satanic Verses be pulled from their shelves. Although they eventually reversed their policy, those executives served for a time as Khomeini’s most effective censors.
And Rushdie remains in hiding, guarded around the clock, moved from one safe house to another every couple of days. It is a condition he has likened to living in hell. He has not been the easiest of charges, to be sure, and his bitterness over his condition seems to be growing with the passing of the years.
That bitterness does not come from ingratitude. It is a natural reaction to the insults he has endured not only from the now-dead Khomeini, but also from fellow writers who seem to have tired of Rushdie’s remaining among the living. One of them, Roald Dahl, branded Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist.” Another, the feminist author Germaine Greer, called him, with the thinly veiled racism Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha endured, “a megalomaniac, an Englishman with dark skin.” Most pointedly of all, the noted historian Hugh Trevor-Roper breezily said, “I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”
That improvement, of course, can mean only death. The fatwa against Rushdie is no replay of the slapstick Beatles’ movie Help!, where a band of religious buffoons hoot it up on screen. It does not matter, according to a BBC poll taken at the time of the Ayatollah’s proclamation, that the majority of British Muslims were in favor of burning The Satanic Verses, but not of punishing the author. A Saudi émigré named M.T. Al-Rashid voiced their opinions nicely in an op-ed piece in The London Times: “If he has offended God, then God Himself will have to deal with Rushdie.”
Rushdie’s would-be punishers are in human guise, though, and they are deadly serious. Rushdie has only to consider the murder of his Japanese translator Hitoshi Iagrashi, the multiple stabbing attack on his Italian translator Ettore Capriolo, the shooting of his Norwegian publisher Willem Nygaard. He has only to recall the assassination in Brussels of the Saudi cleric Abdullah Ahdal, who once dared disagree with Khomeini. So, too, did an obscure, exiled Iranian pop singer, whose satirical lyrics about the Ayatollah earned him a gruesome end in a Paris hotel room. When the police found his body, it was in small pieces in a garbage bag.
The Satanic Verses is not the only book to have excited fundamentalist Islamic Muslim hatred in recent times. The Anglo-Indian playwright Hanif Kureishi has been the target of death threats for his realistic portraits of the lives of Muslim immigrants in northern England, especially that community’s homosexual subculture. Most of the books of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, are outlawed in the Muslim world; in 1994, two knife-wielding attackers nearly killed the 84-year-old writer outside his Cairo apartment for his presumed blasphemies. That year in Bangladesh, the novelist Taslima Nasrin was sentenced to death by the so-called Council of Soldiers of Islam for calling out for both the emancipation of Muslim women and greater religious tolerance.
All of those writers, like Rushdie, dare question the fundamentalist order. All of them live in fear for their lives.
Rather than face down Iran, the Western powers have turned their backs on the persecuted. Less than a year after the fatwa, Britain resumed diplomatic relations with the Khomeini government, its period of righteous indignation evidently having expired. For our part, American trade with Iran, whose leaders are fond of branding us “the Great Satan,” has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, the period of Rushdie’s captivity.
Realpolitik may be the order of the day, but when President Clinton received Rushdie at the White House on November 24, 1993, it took him only a few days to begin loudly explaining that he “meant no disrespect” to the Muslim world, and that he only saw the author “for a few minutes.” That disgusting spectacle promised little hope that the leader of the free world would actually, for once, stand up for free expression, that we would not allow the threats of petty tyrants to influence our daily lives. If that is so, then Rushdie will likely spend the rest of his days in the hell of a closed room, a fate to which he seems resigned. As he has said, “To live, to avoid assassination, is a greater victory than to be murdered.” But merely to live is not enough. It is no victory to walk free in a world where words can mean death, where a novel can shake a religion to the core, where orthodoxies of all stripes hurry to crush even the slightest whisper of dissent. Salman Rushdie’s prison is the world’s. We all have a stake in his release.