Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, published in 1981, was conceived as the story of an era—the era of a free India, narrated by a man who was born at the very moment (August 15, 1947, at midnight) that India achieved its independence from Britain. The novel, Rushdie’s second, was a breakthrough in his career and in English-language writing: It received the Booker Prize—the UK’s most prestigious book award—and then, in 2008, the Best of the Booker, recognizing it as the most outstanding novel ever to get the prize.
But Rushdie’s fourth and best-known novel has also turned out, alas, to have defined an era: The Satanic Verses (1988), a grand and extraordinarily ambitious novel setting the story of two Indian Muslim immigrants to London alongside stories rooted in the early history of Islam, with episodes in both narratives turning on grim and prescient acts of violence stirred by religion.
Our age is one marked by violence involving religion, even in—or especially in—supposedly secular societies. This age began with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979 (and the stymied U.S. response to Iran’s abduction of American hostages) and extends to the present—with the destruction of the World Trade Center by Islamist terrorists on September 11, 2001, at its center. The events make an appalling timeline of fanatical atrocity across the religious spectrum. Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police clashing at Mecca. Abortion clinics bombed and health care providers shot. The FBI engaged in a deadly firefight with End Times–obsessed Christians at the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Texas. Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin assassinated by a Jewish extremist in Tel Aviv. Al-Qaida and ISIS mustering forces for a holy war against the supposedly godless West. Mosques besieged in India. A rage-filled gunman murdering congregants at a Black church in Charleston; a rage-filled gunman murdering congregants at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Islamist zealots striking an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, beheading Coptic Christians in Libya, and murdering heedlessly across Europe: a filmmaker in Amsterdam, cartoonists in Paris, Catholic worshipers in Nice, a priest celebrating Mass in Normandy. And on and on. Our age is marked—some would say epitomized—by violent acts committed in God’s name or committed by one kind of believer against others.
Salman Rushdie has witnessed all this. He grasped the phenomenon early on. He dramatized it in a work of genius, making a central character in The Satanic Verses, one Gibreel Farishta, an actor who is tormented inwardly by the loss of his Muslim faith, the torment taking the form of an inability to sleep—and vivid scenarios of belief and unbelief that invade his dreams. Then, suddenly, Rushdie himself was its near-victim as Khomeini (whom the author had evoked imaginatively as “the Imam” in the book) issued a death threat against him shortly after the novel was published: February 14, 1989. The “fatwa” urged Muslims to kill Rushdie and offered a $1.5 million bounty—and the promise of a prized place in the hereafter.
Khomeini’s crowdsourced death threat led Rushdie to live in secrecy for years, a man “with no fixed address” and a heavy security detail, persevering as a writer even as several efforts were made to kill him, even as he was derided by other authors, politicians, and religious traditionalists of all stripes. Khomeini died less than six months after making the death threat, but the fatwa remained for decades, and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ominously declared that “the arrow…will one day hit its target.”
Now—a third of a century later—Rushdie has been victimized again. As I write, he lies in a hospital bed in Erie, Pennsylvania, having possibly lost the use of one eye and sustained injuries to his arm, chest, thigh, stomach, and liver. Thankfully, he is no martyr: He is alive and able to speak. Rather, he is at once a seer and a sufferer of the age we are in.
Rushdie was attacked: the word—debased in recent years through countless news accounts of word-slinging politicians “attacking” one another—is a precise description of the act in which a masked man strode to the stage at the Chautauqua Institution, in upstate New York, where Rushdie was about to speak, and reportedly stabbed and punched Rushdie over and over. The attacker was restrained and pulled away from Rushdie, who was bleeding profusely. The suspect’s identity: Hadi Matar, 24, of New Jersey. Although Matar’s motives aren’t known, it’s clear that he meant to kill Rushdie, not just injure him. (And he has been charged with second-degree attempted murder. A public defender entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of his client at a Saturday arraignment.) And it was a precedented attack—one akin to the stabbing murder of the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, the stabbing of the novel’s Italian translator, and the stabbing of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who had spoken out against the threatening of Rushdie by Muslims. It might be that Matar knows The Satanic Verses only through crude paraphrase, if at all. But it is likely, through his frenzied actions, that he is quite familiar with the history of violence against the book—a history he has now joined.
In 2014 I wrote an article for Vanity Fair marking the 25th anniversary of the novel’s publication and tracking the ensuing controversy. In an interview, Rushdie, recalling the intense five years he gave to the writing of the novel, told me, “One holds so much of a novel in one’s head during the years of work that when it’s done and the thing in your head evaporates it’s a little like having your brain removed. I felt lobotomized.” Rushdie, of course, was far from lobotomized—as his eight subsequent novels, children’s books, and dozens of essays have made clear. But madmen have wished to remove his brain from civil society ever since. Hours after Friday’s attack, Iran’s state-controlled newspaper lauded it (“A thousand bravos…to the brave and dutiful person who attacked the apostate and evil Salman Rushdie in New York”), and Iran’s Foreign Ministry has perniciously claimed that Rushdie and his supporters brought the attack on him.
Rushdie’s intersection with religious violence is full of paradoxes. He wrote The Satanic Verses not as an attack on Islam or Muhammad, but as an attempt to apprehend imaginatively the experience whereby Muslims have responded to the early history of Islam recorded in the Quran—in the desert culture of the seventh century or the metropolitan culture of “Babylondon” in the 20th. For that, he was condemned by Khomeini (who had lived for a time near Paris) as an apostate who had blasphemed against the prophet. Rushdie sought to depict a “migrant’s-eye view of the world”—and was vilified by his some of his fellow Muslim migrants in Britain, even as they boasted of not having read his book. The fatwa removed him physically from society for a time—but in response, he took a prominent role as an advocate for free expression and eventually became a dynamic president of PEN, the writer’s organization devoted to the defense of free expression.
The Satanic Verses had been a culmination of Rushdie’s effort, as he once put it, to understand “a critical phase of [Britain’s] post-colonial period…a crisis of the whole culture, of society’s entire sense of itself.” But in the aftermath of the book’s publication, he has lived and worked in the United States, thriving—as John Lennon did—in New York City’s wide-open way of life. In America, the man “with no fixed address” has become a fixture of the literary world, in part through events like the one at Chautauqua, where the topic under discussion was not Rushdie’s work or his life but this country’s ongoing struggle to welcome writers under threat.
In an essay, written while he was at work on The Satanic Verses, Rushdie set out the stance of the socially and politically engaged writer with clarity and prescience. “We live in a world without hiding places,” he wrote, alluding to the Reagan-era nuclear arms race, adding that “the missiles have made sure of that.” This leaves writers with two choices, he stated. They can make work that ignores the wider world through a focus on the self and a Panglossian, cockeyed optimism about society and progress. Or they can engage with the world fully, freely, fearlessly: “We can make the very devil of a racket.” Rushdie has made such a racket ever since. A thousand bravos to him for that. We can only hope that he will make a full recovery and keep at it.
Five years after Khomeini’s death threat, PEN distributed a flier calling attention to the plight of Rushdie, who was then still largely withdrawn from ordinary life. The unnamed author was the novelist Don DeLillo—whose 1991 novel Mao II (written during the controversy over The Satanic Verses) is itself a work of genius at the intersection of religion and violence. DeLillo observed that Rushdie circa 1994 was “making public appearances on occasion—but effectively under threat, marked as with an incandescent X on his chest and back,” and went on: “He is alive, yes, but the principle of free expression, the democratic shout, is far less audible than it was five years ago—before the death edict tightened the bonds between language and religious dogma.”
Friday’s attack at an idyllic, literary gathering in a lakeside lecture hall was a reminder that the specter of extremism and its brutality haunt us at every turn. A more fitting reminder, however, is the life and work of Salman Rushdie, who has at once understood our age and bravely, boldly withstood it.
Paul Elie, a Vanity Fair contributor, is a senior fellow in Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach. His third book, Controversy, about the intersection of the arts and religion in the 1980’s, is forthcoming.
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