As most people remember, on August 12th, Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times as he was preparing to give a lecture in Chautauqua, New York. According to CNN, “the author suffered three stab wounds to his neck, four stab wounds to his stomach, puncture wounds to his right eye and chest, and a laceration on his right thigh.”
This attack was a grim reminder that that fatwa that former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued in 1989, calling for Rushdie’s death (because of his book The Satanic Verses), has never actually been formally lifted (and the monetary bounty has even been raised several times), although the Iranian government has distanced itself from the edict since 1998, saying it does not support the murder of Rushdie.
For a year or so now, I have had on my bookshelf Joseph Anton, the thick memoir of Rushdie’s almost decade-long time in hiding, and the attack prompted me to pull it out and read it. The name “Joseph Anton” is the name Rushdie used in hiding, combined from two of his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. Here are a few thoughts.
First, I was reminded again that Rushdie is a very good writer. He has an excellent sense of pacing, a finely tuned ear for sentence structure and word choice. I have read several of his books (including The Satanic Verses), and I love his writing. The memoir is a page-turner.
Two, during the entire time, he was defiant and would not allow himself to be silenced: he kept writing, traveling, speaking, and accepting awards. He married, had a son, got divorced, and married again. And at the same time, it was a very, very hard life. He moved often—I mean, really often. He had a protection detail that went with him everywhere. There were many places he couldn’t go, including India, and every time he went anywhere publicly, there were elaborate safety measures that had to be put in place.
Other colleagues also were attacked, simply because of their association with him and with the book: most notably, his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was killed; Ettore Capriolo, his Italian translator, was stabbed; his Turkish translator Aziz Nesin had to flee a hotel that had been set on fire to kill him (37 others died in that attack); and William Nygaard, Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times.
Throughout, Rushdie was supported by a strong, defiant personal and professional network of people who refuse to be intimidated or cowed. They found him places to live, invited him to parties, gave him opportunities for his work to be recognized, and just generally stood by him with affection and encouragement. Their courage and steadfast friendship is to be admired.
Some people said he should apologize, should repudiate his book; and, I am sorry to say, some religious figures from different traditions—including Christianity—lined up behind the fatwa (not in support of it, of course, but not in outright condemnation of it, either), criticizing Rushdie and arguing that he had brought it on himself. This is to say nothing of the many, many others who simply said nothing at all.
Religions do not embody the best of their traditions and beliefs when they show themselves as brittle, rigid, defensive, and reactive, and certainly not when they are violently reactive. Coming to the end of the book, when the fatwa had (supposedly) run out of steam and been deflated, and the influence of Khomeini was (supposedly) exhausted, I was left feeling very uneasy about the power religious leaders can wield in their communities and beyond. In this case, it was the Muslim community, but make no mistake, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and even Buddhist communities also can be roused to violent speech and action, given the right provocations.
It was not only Rushdie’s life that was impacted, not only the lives of his family and friends, but diplomatic relationships of entire nations were impacted, to say nothing of the lives of the many, many Muslims who took the words of the fatwa seriously, and either spoke out or acted out against Rushdie, in ways both minor and dramatic. Those words, issued in 1989, finally found their target 33 years later. It is only now, in 2022, when Rushdie finally believed that he was safe, that he finds himself recovering from serious injuries, with a long and difficult road to health ahead of him.
Now, I am not unaware that I finish this book and write this post on 9/11, the 21st anniversary of the attacks. This is a good moment for all people, especially people of faith, to recommit themselves to rejecting violence, resisting narrowmindedness, and speaking out in support of peace—in support of creative and different voices within our traditions, and in support of open dialogue and mutual understanding. As President Obama once said, “Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11.”
After reading Joseph Anton, it is clear that whatever life Rushdie had, lived under the shadow of the fatwa, it was made possible by such acts.