Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Text Size


How the Ayatollah’s fatwa changed the life of Salman Rushdie

Media Monitor



CPI introduction

As our country struggles to understand the Islamic system and as the religious rhetoric gets more shrill and strident, all of us – Muslims and non-Muslims – would do well to reflect on the lessons that can be gleaned from one man’s epic odyssey and his attempt to reclaim his life from the religious authorities who have placed a bounty on it.

We are reproducing below excerpts from an article written by the writer, Salman Rushdie describing his continuing struggle to come to terms with the fatwa which changed his life.

Following the publication of the book [The Satanic Verses], there were book burnings in England. In Pakistan, six people died and 100 were injured in demonstrations against the book. Then on Feb. 12, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of Iran, declared that the book was blasphemous, and called for the death of Rushdie. An Iranian charity offered a million dollars reward for Rushdie's murder. This has since been raised to 3.5 million dollars.

Subsequently, two bookstores in Berkeley California were firebombed. Twelve people died during rioting in Bombay. In Belgium, two Muslim leaders who opposed Rushdie's death penalty were shot to death. When Ayatollah Khomeini died the Iranian government reaffirmed Rushdie's death penalty. Five bookstores in England were firebombed. The Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death. The Italian translator was seriously wounded. The Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously wounded. One observer cynically noted as the book became a best-seller – “That Ayatollah sure knew how to sell books.”

As the article explains, the book is not antireligious and Rushdie has apologized that it had offended so many Muslims.

Malaysia is one of the countries that banned Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses book. We hope that wide public knowledge of this article will persuade our authorities to read the book themselves and work towards lifting the ban on the book. Such an act will do much to convince us that the Prime Minister’s call for a "Global Movement of the Moderates" aimed at rallying leaders and intellectuals of the Islamic world to come forward and state their stand openly and firmly against extremism made in his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly is not an exercise in futility, including in Malaysia.


The Disappeared

by Salman Rushdie


Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.


At the CBS offices, he was the big story of the day. People in the newsroom and on various monitors were already using the word that would soon be hung around his neck like a millstone. “Fatwa.”

I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the “Satanic Verses” book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.

Somebody gave him a printout of the text as he was escorted to the studio for his interview. His old self wanted to argue with the word “sentenced.” This was not a sentence handed down by any court that he recognized, or that had any jurisdiction over him. But he also knew that his old self’s habits were of no use anymore. He was a new self now. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was the author of “Satanic Verses,” a title that had been subtly distorted by the omission of the initial “The.” “The Satanic Verses” was a novel. “Satanic Verses” were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author. How easy it was to erase a man’s past and to construct a new version of him, an overwhelming version, against which it seemed impossible to fight.

He looked at the journalists looking at him and he wondered if this was how people looked at men being taken to the gallows or the electric chair. One foreign correspondent came over to him to be friendly. He asked this man what he should make of Khomeini’s pronouncement. Was it just a rhetorical flourish, or something genuinely dangerous? “Oh, don’t worry too much,” the journalist said. “Khomeini sentences the President of the United States to death every Friday afternoon.”


The tension ratcheted up another notch. On December 28th, there was a bomb scare at Viking Penguin. Then it was 1989, the year the world changed.

Two thousand protesters was a small crowd in Pakistan. Even the most modestly potent politico could put many more thousands on the streets just by clapping his hands. That only two thousand “fundamentalists” could be found to storm the U.S. Information Center in the heart of Islamabad on February 12th was, in a way, a good sign. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was on a state visit to China at the time, and it was speculated that destabilizing her administration had been the demonstrators’ real aim. Religious extremists had long suspected her of secularism, and they wanted to put her on the spot. Not for the last time, “The Satanic Verses” was being used as a football in a political game that had little or nothing to do with it.


Here was a mortally ill old man, lying in a darkened room. Here was his son, telling him about Muslims shot dead in India and Pakistan. It was that book that caused this, the son told the old man, the book that is against Islam. A few hours later, a document was brought to the offices of Iranian radio and presented as Khomeini’s edict. A fatwa, or edict, is usually a formal document, signed and witnessed and given under seal at the end of a legal proceeding, but this was just a piece of paper bearing a typewritten text. Nobody ever saw the formal document, if one existed. The piece of paper was handed to the station newsreader and he began to read.

It was Valentine’s Day.


Sameen, a lawyer (though no longer a practicing one—she worked in adult education), had always had a sharp political mind and had a lot to say about what was going on. The Iranian Revolution had been shaky ever since Khomeini was forced, in his own words, to “drink the cup of poison” and accept the unsuccessful end of his Iraq war, which had left a generation of young Iranians dead or maimed. The fatwa was his way of regaining political momentum, of reënergizing the faithful. It was her brother’s bad luck to be the dying man’s last stand. As for the British Muslim “leaders,” whom, exactly, did they lead? They were leaders without followers, mountebanks trying to make careers out of her brother’s misfortune. For a generation, the politics of ethnic minorities in Britain had been secular and socialist. This was the mosques’ way of getting religion into the driver’s seat. British Asians had never splintered into Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh factions before. Somebody needed to answer these people who were driving a sectarian wedge through the community, she said, to name them as the hypocrites and opportunists that they were.

She was ready to be that person, and he knew that she would make a formidable representative. But he asked her not to do it. Her daughter, Maya, was less than a year old. If Sameen became his public spokesperson, the media would camp outside her house and there would be no escape from the glare of publicity; her private life, her daughter’s life, would become a thing of klieg lights and microphones. Also, it was impossible to know what danger it might draw toward her. He didn’t want her to be at risk because of him. Reluctantly, she agreed.

One of the unforeseen consequences of this decision was that as the “affair” blazed on, and he was obliged to be mostly invisible—because the police urged him not to further inflame the situation, advice he accepted for a time—there was nobody who loved him speaking for him, not his wife, not his sister, not his closest friends, the ones he wanted to continue to see. He became, in the media, a man whom nobody loved but many people hated. “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him,” Iqbal Sacranie, of the U.K. Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, said. “His mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness from Almighty Allah.” (In 2005, this same Sacranie was knighted at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.)


On his second day at the hotel, Stan and Benny came to see him with a piece of paper in their hands. Iran’s President, Ali Khamenei, had hinted that if he apologized “this wretched man might yet be spared.” “It’s felt,” Stan said, “that you should do something to lower the temperature.”

“Yeah,” Benny assented. “That’s the thinking. The right statement from you could be of assistance.”

Felt by whom, he wanted to know; whose thinking was this?

“It’s the general opinion,” Stan said opaquely. “Upstairs.”

Was it a police opinion or a government opinion?

“They’ve taken the liberty of preparing a text,” Stan said. “By all means, read it through.”

“By all means, make alterations if the style isn’t pleasing,” Benny said. “You’re the writer.”

“I should say, in fairness,” Stan said, “that the text has been approved.”

The text he was handed was craven, self-abasing. To sign it would have been to admit defeat. Could this really be the deal he was being offered — that he would receive government support and police protection only if, abandoning his principles and the defense of his book, he fell to his knees and grovelled?

Stan and Benny looked extremely uncomfortable. “As I say,” Benny said, “you’re free to make alterations.”

“Then we’ll see how they play,” Stan said.

And supposing he chose not to make a statement at all at this time?

“It’s thought to be a good idea,” Stan said. “There are high-level negotiations taking place on your behalf. And then there are the Lebanon hostages to consider, and Mr. Roger Cooper in jail in Tehran. Their situation is worse than yours. You’re asked to do your bit.” (In the nineteen-eighties, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, funded by Tehran, had captured ninety-six foreign nationals from twenty-one countries, including several Americans and Britons. Cooper, a British businessman, had been seized in Iran.)

It was an impossible task: to write something that could be received as an olive branch without giving way on what was important. The statement he came up with was one he mostly loathed:

As author of “The Satanic Verses” I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.

His private, self-justifying voice argued that he was apologizing for the distress — and, after all, he had never wanted to cause distress — but not for the book itself. And, yes, we should be conscious of the sensibilities of others, but that did not mean we should surrender to them. That was his combative, unstated subtext. But he knew that, if the statement was to be effective, it had to be read as a straightforward apology. That thought made him feel physically ill.

It was a useless gesture, rejected, then half accepted, then rejected again, both by British Muslims and by the Iranian leadership. The strong position would have been to refuse to negotiate with intolerance. He had taken the weak position and was therefore treated as a weakling. The Observer defended him — “neither Britain nor the author has anything to apologize for” — but his feeling of having made a serious misstep was soon confirmed. “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell,” the dying imam said.


As for him, he could not be seen at the farm or its safety would be “compromised.” A local farmer looked after the sheep for Michael and Deb, and at one point he came down off the hill to talk to Michael about something. “You’d better get out of sight,” Michael told him, and he had to duck behind a kitchen counter. As he crouched there, listening to Michael try to get rid of the man as quickly as possible, he felt a deep sense of shame. To hide in this way was to be stripped of all self-respect. Maybe, he thought, to live like this would be worse than death. In his novel “Shame,” he had written about the workings of Muslim “honor culture,” at the poles of whose moral axis were honor and shame, very different from the Christian narrative of guilt and redemption. He came from that culture, even though he was not religious. To skulk and hide was to lead a dishonorable life. He felt, very often in those years, profoundly ashamed. Both shamed and ashamed.

The news roared in his ears. Members of the Pakistani parliament had recommended the immediate dispatch of assassins to the United Kingdom. In Iran, the most powerful clerics fell into line behind the imam. “The long black arrow has been slung, and is now travelling toward its target,” Khamenei said, during a visit to Yugoslavia. An Iranian ayatollah named Hassan Sanei offered a million dollars in bounty money for the apostate’s head. It was not clear whether this ayatollah possessed a million dollars, or how easy it would be to claim the reward, but these were not logical days. The British Council’s library in Karachi—a drowsy, pleasant place he’d often visited—was bombed.

On February 22nd, the day the novel was published in America, there was a full-page advertisement in the Times, paid for by the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, and the American Library Association. “Free People Write Books,” it said. “Free People Publish Books, Free People Sell Books, Free People Buy Books, Free People Read Books. In the spirit of America’s commitment to free expression we inform the public that this book will be available to readers at bookshops and libraries throughout the country.” The PEN American Center, passionately led by his beloved friend Susan Sontag, held readings from the novel. Sontag, Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Claire Bloom, and Larry McMurtry were among the readers. He was sent a tape of the event. It brought a lump to his throat. Long afterward, he was told that some senior American writers had initially ducked for cover. Even Arthur Miller had made an excuse—that his Jewishness might be a counterproductive factor. But within days, whipped into line by Susan, almost all of them had found their better selves and stood up to be counted.

When the book was in its third consecutive week as No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, John Irving, who found himself stuck at No. 2, quipped that, if that was what it took to get to the top spot, he was content to be runner-up. He himself well knew, as did Irving, that scandal, not literary merit, was driving the sales. He also knew, and much appreciated, the fact that many people bought copies of “The Satanic Verses” to demonstrate their solidarity.

While all this and much more was happening, the author of “The Satanic Verses” was crouching in shame behind a kitchen counter to avoid being seen by a sheep farmer.

To continue reading, go to The New Yorker magazine, September 17, 2012.


History series




Latest Articles