ADVERTISEMENT

Years After ‘The Satanic Verses’, Salman Rushdie Still Has a Knife to His Throat

The attack on the author has raised an alarming question: how long can someone hold a grudge?

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Years After ‘The Satanic Verses’, Salman Rushdie Still Has a Knife to His Throat
i

Just before the celebrations of India’s 75th Independence Day were to begin over the weekend, its self-named midnight’s child was stabbed in the neck at an event in upstate New York. Both the location and the context are deeply ironic. Salman Rushdie was at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, a notoriously peaceful place celebrating the arts, for a “discussion of the United States as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression”. The shocked and disappointed creative community and the public in the US and India are essentially asking one question: “Is nothing sacred?”

Not any more. Social media has closed the gap between the public and the figures it venerates. Verbal violence directed against them has become commonplace, and perhaps physical violence is just a logical step away, much easier to contemplate than in the days when an unreasonably angry man had to seek out a grassy knoll. Perhaps security details should be much more careful than they have been. In Rushdie’s case, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has clearly been very careless.

Snapshot
  • After Salman Rushdie's brutal stabbing in New York, the shocked creative community and the public in the US and India are essentially asking one question: “Is nothing sacred?”

  • Social media has closed the gap between the public and the figures it venerates. Verbal violence directed against them has become commonplace.

  • But, an even more alarming question: how long can someone hold a grudge? In this case, it has been 34 years.

  • Divisions circumscribe our choices because they force tribalism upon us, and thereby limit our speech.

  • If a man can go to hear Salman Rushdie speak on the freedom to create, with murder in his heart over three decades after the Ayatollah’s fatwa, it reminds us that deep divisions of the sort that freedom at midnight once exposed in South Asia are alive the world over, or are at least brought back easily to life.

ADVERTISEMENT

That One Interview

But, an even more alarming question: how long can someone hold a grudge? In this case, it has been 34 years. Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha fell out of the sky over the English Channel in 1988, setting the magical realist story of The Satanic Verses rolling. No author would have been harmed in the experiment, were it not for an interview with Rushdie that appeared in India Today. Apparently, it was tarted up a little to make it look more controversial. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini took offence at the interview, perhaps without having read the book.

After a fatwa was issued against Rushdie for blasphemy and a bounty put on his head, Margaret Thatcher’s government in the UK took him into hiding for years, as Rushdie described in his memoir, Joseph Anton. To people who had read the book, it was abundantly clear that those agitating against Rushdie and plotting to reduce his height by six inches had not read it at all. In their ignorance, they created a culture of censorship by fear, not seen before in modern democracies.

In Joseph Anton, Rushdie said that India had been hasty in banning The Satanic Verses. Rajiv Gandhi did it for fear of violence, on the plea of Syed Shahabuddin.

Banning is a knee-jerk affair in India – today, the government moves hastily to cut the internet switch for precisely the same fear, and India leads the world in digital blackouts.

At the time of the book ban, customs officials took their duties very seriously and rooted about in the baggage of incoming air passengers for contraband, including liquor, 555 cigarettes, Camay soap in excessive quantities, and banned books. Therefore, The Satanic Verses circulated in India in the form of photocopies, like samizdat literature in the Soviet Union.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Rushdie Bounty Was Never About Money

Rushdie was no stranger to censorship. He has a hilarious account of the changes he had to make on a production of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story for Pakistan radio. So, he has repeatedly visited India while the ban on his book remains in force, and visited locations for novels in progress. But then, he was censored at the Jaipur Literature Festival, again by the threat of violence. He has been treated much better by Pakistan, though he explored themes of violence in Shame, which followed Midnight’s Children and is probably his most tightly crafted novel.

While The Satanic Verses remains banned in India, the $3-million bounty on his head set by Iran – a terminal form of censorship – is not a talking point anymore; in fact, in 2016, news organisations backed by the Iranian state made a new offer of $600,000 for Rushdie’s death, keeping the flame alive.

But the Rushdie affair was never about money. It was about assertively defending community honour. Ayodhya was becoming a live issue in India. In fact, Shahabuddin had threatened a march on it, and Rajiv Gandhi agreed to the book ban to deny him the opportunity. The Bosnian War was just three years ahead, to be followed later by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan, and the cataclysmic turning point of 9/11. While the clash of civilisations gathered head, on the side, there were cultural skirmishes such as the Charlie Hebdo incident.

The global agitations triggered by the fatwa against Rushdie were early warning signals that Muslim communities wanted to defend what they perceived to be their honour and beliefs – and other communities were at hand to demonise them for it.

The violent reception of The Satanic Verses was one of the early waypoints to the deeply divided world we now live in.

ADVERTISEMENT

Are the Fault Lines Widening?

Divisions circumscribe our choices because they force tribalism upon us, and thereby limit our speech. In India, we didn’t need Muslim assertion to censor us and narrow our speech choices. They have served the purpose just as well as straw men – constructed bogeys against whom the majority are required to speak in a united, vituperative voice. Blasphemy is no longer about religion. Anything inconvenient to a majority is seen to be blasphemous and polluting.

If a man can go to hear Salman Rushdie speak on the freedom to create, with murder in his heart over three decades after the Ayatollah’s fatwa, it reminds us that deep divisions of the sort that freedom at midnight once exposed in South Asia are alive the world over, or are at least brought back easily to life.

(Pratik Kanjilal is editor of The India Cable. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read and Breaking News at the Quint, browse for more from voices and opinion

Topics:  Salman Rushdie   Hadi Matar 

ADVERTISEMENT
Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Quint Insider
25
100
200

or more

PREMIUM

3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Insider Benefits
Read More
ADVERTISEMENT
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!
ADVERTISEMENT
More News
×
×