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Salman Rushdie’s Life under Khomeini’s Fatwa

As an Iranian religious foundation increases the price on ‘Satanic Verses’ author Salman Rushdie’s head, he tells the story of his 10 long years of hiding in the wake of Khomeini’s atrocious fatwa ordering his death in a new book coming out tomorrow.

Salman Rushdie’s new book is titled Joseph Anton: A Memoir, published by Random House. Joseph Anton is the pseudonym he used while in hiding, a combination of the names of two of his favourite authors: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. Rushdie has chosen to tell his story of long ordeal of living under police protection, incognito, with a death sentence on his head, in the third person: to write not about Salman Rushdie but about Joseph Anton.

The New Yorker has published this week an extract of Rushdie’s new book:

The Disappeared : How the fatwa changed a writer’s life.

Excerpts:

Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door. […]

Somebody gave him a printout of the text as he was escorted to the studio for his interview. His old self wanted to argue with the word “sentenced.” This was not a sentence handed down by any court that he recognized, or that had any jurisdiction over him. But he also knew that his old self’s habits were of no use anymore. He was a new self now. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was the author of “Satanic Verses,” a title that had been subtly distorted by the omission of the initial “The.” “The Satanic Verses” was a novel. “Satanic Verses” were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author. How easy it was to erase a man’s past and to construct a new version of him, an overwhelming version, against which it seemed impossible to fight.

He looked at the journalists looking at him and he wondered if this was how people looked at men being taken to the gallows or the electric chair. One foreign correspondent came over to him to be friendly. He asked this man what he should make of Khomeini’s pronouncement. Was it just a rhetorical flourish, or something genuinely dangerous? “Oh, don’t worry too much,” the journalist said. “Khomeini sentences the President of the United States to death every Friday afternoon.”

I close this post with an excerpt from Michael Ignatieff’s excellent piece, The lessons of Rushdie’s fatwa years [gated] in the Financial Times:

We need to rethink what it means to live together. Everyone in a free society shares the deepest possible interest in protecting Muslim minorities, indeed all faith communities, from discrimination, defamation, violence or incitement to acts of hate. But no free society has an interest in protecting their doctrines, beliefs and practices from criticism, scorn, ridicule or belittlement.

This is a hard bargain for faith communities. It is not pleasant to live in societies that appear to hold nothing sacred except the liberty to get rich and the freedom to be sarcastic and sacrilegious. But tolerance is a hard bargain for secular liberals too, requiring them to live with those who believe in the subjection of women, the subordination of reason to faith and the division of humankind into the faithful and the infidel.

So we come out of the Rushdie affair with one thing in common: democratic life together is a hard bargain. Each of us, Muslim believer and secular liberal, wishes the other were different. But we are not, and living together requires us to accept what we cannot change.

Living together should not be in resentful silence, each in our own ghettos. It means shouldering a burden of mutual justification without privilege. Faith has no privilege, no exclusive rights, and secular reason has none either. We are stuck with each other, with the burden of justifying ourselves, living with each other in freedom and trying to persuade the other to be different, free from menace or violence. That is what democratic life demands.

One comment

  1. I remember too few Iranian intellectuals publicly defended Rushdie when he was targeted by Khomeini in 1989.

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