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.”
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.
This is not to deny that "Joseph Anton" – surprisingly poignant in its treatment of Rushdie’s relationships with his family, tireless supporters, and dedicated police officers – features a good deal of grandstanding about the virtues and importance of literature; it just places the issue in context. The book’s other irritants also have straightforward explanations. Consider the incessant name-dropping. It took Iran nearly a decade to begin distancing itself from the fatwa, during which time Rushdie’s personal life was so constricted – police living in his home, solo excursions prohibited, several airlines refusing to fly him – that his social interaction occurred almost exclusively with writers and celebrities in secured locations.
It should go without saying, but sadly does not, that whatever you may think of Rushdie as a novelist (and many consider him a fine one indeed), such opinions must not be allowed to impinge on an evaluation of "Joseph Anton." This is a book about a fiction writer who did not intend to become the poster boy for freedom of speech, but when presented with the mantle, wavered only briefly before accepting it. And although Rushdie wanted “a more particular defense, like the quality defense made in the cases of other assaulted books, 'Lady Chatterly's Lover,' 'Ulysses,' 'Lolita,' ” he understood that even when he and his backers argued for the literary worth of "The Satanic Verses," this defense could not be allowed to overshadow the larger issue of an imperiled civil right.
"Joseph Anton" is about Rushdie the man, not the novelist – and he acquits himself admirably. As chance would have it, however, Rushdie’s true measure as a man can best be determined by his response to a more recent accusation of blasphemy, one directed at the maker of “Innocence of Muslims,” a low-budget, overdubbed film that differs from "The Satanic Verses" most saliently in that it is arguably of little or even no artistic merit. Rushdie, who described the film as “garbage,” also pointedly defended the filmmaker’s right to create it.
In other words, Rushdie (who now lives in the US), has not only emerged triumphant from a lengthy battle with religious tyranny, an experience movingly recounted in "Joseph Anton"; he has remained faithful to the principle in whose name he and many other people defied his persecutors and stood up for his controversial novel.