Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fleeing the Death Squad

I once attended a spirited panel discussion at Emory University on the fatwa or death sentence pronounced by the deeply, I guess, religious leaders of Iran, on the author of The Satanic Verses. People lined up at the mics for a Q & A session and I was appalled by the smug prevailing attitude that Salman Rushdie brought the reaction on himself. More disturbing, not once was the question of freedom of speech raised, neither from the panel nor audience of mostly middle-easterners. I suppose that’s the number of times it was raised in the discussion leading up to fatwa in Iran also.

It is a truly an astonishing fact that some people of “faith” imagine that a being capable of creating an intricate, awe-inspiring cosmos of perhaps infinite scope in both micro and macro directions, would be possessed of such a delicate ego that He’d(!) be insulted by anything said in a book, and would be consolable only when one of his followers murdered the author, preferably preceded by a longish session of devilish, ah, make that holy torture. Why not just a lightning bolt from the offended almighty?

Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses got him in a great deal of trouble – 13 years of Her Majesty’s finest police protection and a claustrophobic isolation which ultimately proved intolerable. Rushdie claims that The Satanic Verses is quite mild iconoclastic-wise, the guilty passages actually coming from a character, fictitious mind you, who has some thoughts about Islam deemed blasphemous by one faction in the assorted interpretations of a text, authoritive only to those who set aside their capacity for critical thought. But these words, Rushdi claims, were seized upon by Khomeini to distract the masses. The Iranian Revolution had delivered the people from the murderous torturers of the Shaw to murderous torturers of Khomeini and they were beginning to notice this, along with the inept and arbitrary nature of his rule. So strategy number one in Machiavelian politics – when the people start questioning authority, start a little war, or, as it were, a fatwa.

Joseph Anton, a Memoir is Rushdie’s account of 13 years in hiding with excursions into his pre and post life. His success as an author had really only just begun, the Verses being his fourth book of fiction, so a good bit of his writing was done during that exile, though there were a few dry periods in there, what with the writer’s block and paranoia that screaming mobs of holy rollers can induce. Speaking of holy rollers, an unexpected personage joined the cry for Rushdie’s death, one Yosuf something or other, aka Cat Stevens. I checked out an interview by Tavis Smiley of the bearded Cat (nothing against beards except when they’re mandatory) as he was out promoting a come-back album, hoping Tavis might inquire just where on the ol’ Peace Train that assassination call would fit. Tavis is a smart guy but fell down on that one. According to Rushdie, Cat denies having sung that particular tune but the deed is well documented and Salman is not very forgiving on this point. Oddly, John LeCarre was critical of the author for daring to “criticize one of the great religions.” Salman was rather annoyed at the spy writer’s lack of empathy there. He thought, in retrospect, it might have been a mistake to pan that LeCarre book in the New Yorker. Sensitive guys these writers.

Years of dealing with overly restrictive protection teams, bloodthirsty mullahs, unfriendly tabloids complaining about the cost of protecting him and questioning whether he deserved it, police who seemed to feel the same, publishers who were afraid to publish him, both in England and the states, former friends who distanced themselves, airlines who refused to fly him, his own home country, India, who wouldn’t allow him to visit,  landlords who wouldn’t rent to him, all took a toll on the writer’s sense of well being. One mullah in London in particular was zealously organizing demonstrations and openly calling for Rushdie’s death… isn’t that illegal? Efforts were made to prosecute the writer under England’s blasphemy laws which it turns out only apply to the Church of England. Efforts were then made to broaden the law and came very close to passage. Tony Blair was willing to vote for it and his one vote would have carried the day for intolerance but a miscommunication had him away from parliament at the wrong (or right) time. There is on youtube a debate between Blair and the late Christopher Hitchens, a close friend of Rushdie, where Hitchens absolutely wipes the floor with the former prime minister.

Friends who stuck by him, loaning their weekend houses or apartments, fellow writers who made public statements in support and condemnation of fundamentalism, his agents and publishers who saw the importance to free speech of his case, friends who put together a non-profit to push for lifting of the fatwa, members of the protective teams,… all receive grateful praise in the memoir. President Clinton met with him, giving him a boost in his campaign as did a group of conservative senators who stood for group photos and made statements lauding free speech. This seems, at first blush, quite out of character until one remembers that an anti-Islam stance would hardly disenchant the typical U.S. voter. Yet Britain was particularly unwilling to take a public position nor to press Iran to lift the fatwa, more concerned apparently with maintaining positive relations for reasons of commerce. Things improved noticeably when Labor came to power but as the incident with Tony Blair and the blasphemy law indicate, the improvement was definitely limited. Also puzzling is the failure of British citizens, of Islamic faith, to acknowledge notions of free speech and to publicly rally for Rushdie’s death. I mean… sticks and stones etc;

Despite Rushdie’s isolation, or perhaps because of it, he managed to divorce two women and a third shortly after the fatwa was lifted. The first was his second marriage. A son from the first marriage grows up during the exile and figures prominently in the story. Fortunately the fatwa was aimed solely at Rushdie so his family were not targeted, proving I suppose, the marginally uplifting thesis that religious fanatics are not as ruthless as druglords. Less assuring is the support given right wing theories about the medieval nature of  Islam and the tenuous hold notions of free speech have on western politicians. I doubt that U.S. senators would have happily posed before the cameras with a writer condemned for questioning the superstition of Christianity. The whistleblower who exposed U.S. torture in Iraq may not have had a fatwa issued on his head but he was soundly unpopular when returning to his home town. Instead of denouncing the torturers people charged the whistleblower with some kind of disloyalty. Go figure on that. I guess it boils down to identifying with the home team. I remember abusive name-calling and a few actual fist fights, after high school football games, with the fans from a town only eleven miles away. What brings people to these kind of limited identifications is an exaggerated elaboration on a basic, maybe instinctual, caution toward strangers, to wit, fear.

Rushdie himself succumbed at one particularly low point in his ordeal, meeting with the British mullahs, hoping for some kind of resolution, The clerics insisted he had to renounce the book and sign a “confession” hearkening back to the inquisition. Rushdie was later so embarrassed by his signature on a compromise document that he decided to go on the offensive, appearing in public, defending himself and pushing back hard at the fanatics, hoping to shift public opinion and promote the freedom of speech that the west supposedly values. Never the less, lifting of the fatwa came years later, seemingly as arbitrarily as it had arrived. That rigid minds can come to a position of power where they can dictate such injustice ought to be a lesson, a reminder of Jefferson’s dictum that freedom requires eternal vigilance.


  1. "His success as an author had really only just begun . . .": not true. Midnight's Children (1981) won the Booker Prize and catapulted Rushdie into literary fame as well as commercial success. The follow-up, Shame (1983), did almost as well. Both books, his second and third, are important not only literarily but also as extended comments on the founding of India and Pakistan.

    1. thanks for that correction steve

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