Salman Rushdie’s story of living under a ‘fatwa’ is ultimately a moving tale of fidelity to principle.
When Salman Rushdie decided to write a memoir about the years he spent in hiding following Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa advocating his murder for blasphemy, he called it Joseph Anton. Derived from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, two of his favorite writers, “Joseph Anton” is the name he used to conceal his identity for a decade. (Apparently to emphasize his sense of dislocation during that period, Rushdie wrote "Joseph Anton" in the third person.) “Well, Salman,” you might be tempted to tut, “if only you had appended this other handle of yours to 'The Satanic Verses,' the novel that outraged so many Muslims and prompted Khomeini to issue the fatwa, you might have saved yourself a lot of trouble.”Skip to next paragraph
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Yet it is impossible to imagine that Rushdie, raised in India and Britain and already famous thanks to his Booker prize-winning novel "Midnight's Children," had an inkling of what was about to happen. Noting that "The Satanic Verses" took him over four years to write, Rushdie (writing in the third person) recounts, “Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an ‘insult,’ he wanted to reply, I can insult people a lot faster than that.”
The novelist Milan Kundera, who came of age in communist Czechoslovakia, and from whom some critics initially expected politically themed fiction, once said: "The condemnation of totalitarianism doesn't deserve a novel." Indeed, most people, whether in the West or the Soviet bloc, didn’t need to be convinced of the injustice of communist rule. One might reasonably extrapolate that free speech, hardly a contentious matter in Western societies, doesn’t deserve a defense spanning over 600 pages.
But the shameful reality is that many Britons were averse to offering Rushdie protection from his would-be murderers. The culprits were not just the usual suspects, i.e., radical Muslims. There were those on the right who felt nothing but disdain for a British-Indian novelist of Muslim origin and his troublesome efforts to create “an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of [divine] revelation,” others on the left who tied themselves in knots worrying about the sensibilities of Muslims the world over, and many in the middle who fretted about economic ties with Iran and other oil-rich Muslim countries.