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Salman Rushdie and the enduring risk of political art

Did Americans forget the risks of free speech?



On Friday, as Salman Rushdie prepared to take the stage at a summer festival at New York’s Chautauqua Institution, he was stabbed 10 times. The dangers faced by artists who take risks have been brought back into the spotlight after Rushdie was hospitalized after a violent attack on free speech.

Since the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989, calling for his death over purported blasphemy in Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which satirized Islamic histories and mythologies with magical realism, the author has been subject to death threats for over three decades. For ten years after the book’s publication, Rushdie was forced to avoid public view. As a result of Khomeini’s condemnation, bookstores in Europe and the United States were firebombed, and publishers in both countries received numerous bomb threats. Hitoshi Igarashi, the novel’s Japanese translator, was murdered in 1991.

The death threats against Rushdie remained, but they faded into the background of popular culture. His works are used in college curricula and can be purchased at bookstores everywhere. Tope Folarin, author of A Particular Kind of Black Man, has said that The Satanic Verses has “become a symbol of freedom of speech.” “is a master of doing this sprawling, big-picture fiction that includes a host of characters, and is really about showing your virtuosity,” he added about Rushdie’s writing skills.

The last few decades have seen Rushdie’s re-emergence into public consciousness. In 1998, reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared the matter “completely finished,” but the fatwa was never officially reversed. In a 2017 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David asked Salman Rushdie how the fatwa affected him, and Rushdie responded, “It’s there, but fuck it.”

The vicious assault on Rushdie serves as a chilling reminder that literature, along with other forms of creative expression such as art, poetry, and comics, can be lethal weapons.

Novelist Zia Haider Rahman, who wrote In the Light of What We Know, told me that he was pivotal in showing him what a writer ought to be like. “He was instrumental in showing me what a writer ought to be like,” Rahman said. I feel like the fearlessness of the young Rushdie is missing from the literary world in the Anglosphere today.

Rushdie, who was born in Bombay before the British Empire’s partition of India and who subsequently worked in London as a copywriter, was a celebrated author even before The Satanic Verses, as the controversy surrounding that book briefly explained. The Booker Prize was awarded to him for his second novel, Midnight’s Children. He popularized the use of South Asian characters in anglophone literature and introduced a post-colonial perspective to international authors. “Ironically,” writes historian Juan Cole, “the early 1980s Persian translations of Midnight’s Children and Shame caused Rushdie to be admired in Iran for his anti-imperialism.”

The year 1988 had finally arrived.

At the time, Rushdie had just released The Satanic Verses. The novelist Laila Lalami points out that the novel’s ideas originated with Rushdie’s undergraduate coursework at Cambridge, where he studied a controversial collection of Qur’anic verses that early Islamic scholars debated (and later scholars rejected).

The incident of the Satanic verses is essentially a case of prophetic testimony inspired by Satan, then corrected by God — a fascinating exchange between what is profane and what is divine, between the politically expedient and the religiously authentic, as Lalami explains in The Nation.

When the grand sheikh of the influential Al-Azhar institution in Cairo deemed Rushdie’s retelling of the story within the dreamscapes of his protagonist to be blasphemous, the controversy spread from India to the British press and back again.

The Ayatollah issued the fatwa in February 1989. (Two days earlier, at least five people were killed when Pakistani riot police opened fire on protesters outside of an American cultural institution in the country.) Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against Rushdie as the book was banned in numerous Muslim and Arab countries. Publishers, booksellers, and translators connected to the author received death threats, despite widespread support for his work. In order to avoid arrest, Rushdie disappeared.

Senior scholar of literary criticism and Harvard professor Homi Bhabha recalls reading early proofs of The Satanic Verses. According to what I was told by Bhabha, Rushdie “never mentioned the possibility of this kind of outrage.” There was a palpable sense of dread. Bhabha, who was scheduled to host a discussion with Rushdie this coming week as part of an ongoing series, explained that the novel is fundamentally about “displaced peoples and displaced geographies” during the time of the right-wing British government of Margaret Thatcher, which is why it has become embroiled in religious controversy.

“It’s very much a book about the way in which migrant communities,” Bhabha said, “constitute themselves as a community,” specifically referencing the South Asian community but also including the Afro-Caribbean and other communities. It concerns “the way in which, particularly in Thatcherite Britain, they are treated as second-class citizens,” and “the way in which they confront issues to do with identity, to do with history, to do with the past, to do with the future.”

As an outsider who found success as a writer in London, Rushdie has become an iconic role model for younger writers. “I can write as ambitiously and as gorgeously as any writer can,” Folarin, a Nigerian American novelist and the director of the Institute for Policy Studies, told me. Folarin, who grew up in a strict Pentecostal household, recalled how exciting it was to read the subversive novel while he was a graduate student. He told me, “In the midst of all this stuff, the one thing that I’m really sort of disappointed about is that The Satanic Verses is a really good book.”

As an immigrant to Britain from Bangladesh “with a subaltern consciousness,” Rahman said that reading Salman Rushdie in the 1980s sparked a newfound political awareness in him. In addition, “he made us acutely aware that we were pawns in another person’s game, that we were objects of political discourse,” as Rahman put it.

It could be argued that writers are much less of a target than politicians and clergy. And the fatwa on Rushdie triggered a wave of threats and attacks on other writers, including an attempt on the life of Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz in 1994. At about the same time, Rushdie proposed a “City of Asylum” to protect threatened writers from all over the world.

The Problem with Offensive Speech

For over a decade, I’ve been reporting on the topic of how dangerous and convoluted some speech can be. Artists, especially in countries where free speech is restricted, break the rules and take chances in order to expand the available avenues for self-expression.

The offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked in January 2015, killing 12 people, including five of the magazine’s provocative cartoonists.

As a journalist based in Cairo, Egypt at the time, I wrote extensively about cultural currents, focusing on the struggles of cartoonists and satirists to navigate the boundaries of acceptable speech in countries with repressive states and conservative religious politics. Many of the Arab cartoonists I spoke with told me that they had been threatened with death or censorship by religious extremists or editors with ties to the state. They were unanimous in their defense of Charlie Hebdo’s right to depict insulting depictions of Islam in its pages.

However, some cartoonists have said that Charlie Hebdo is “punching down” at Europe’s marginalized communities. You were either with the artists (“Je Suis Charlie” was the slogan of the moment) or against them, rather than asking why and how such a situation arose, making it a more nuanced debate than what was happening in France or the United States.

Six prominent writers spoke out against PEN America’s plans to honor Charlie Hebdo with the organization’s annual award, saying that the work was incendiary and problematic, echoing arguments made by the late Marxist critic John Berger and others around the time of the fatwa. Rushdie, a supporter of PEN for many years, dismissed his critics as “horribly wrong.”

The case of Egyptian author Ahmed Naji is another that springs to mind. After a series of unfortunate events, he spent 10 months in prison after a private citizen accused him of “disturbing the public decency” for the gonzo novel Using Life, which included some salacious scenes.

Although I was aware that beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs had faced obscenity trials in the United States in the years following World War II, I never thought I’d be sitting in the courtroom of a friend who was being tried for violating public morals.

During his time behind bars, Naji was honored with PEN’s Freedom to Write Award, and he received a letter from Rushdie that read, “I send you all of my solidarity and administration.”

This message from him, which I received while incarcerated, lifted my spirits and shone brightly in the gloom of those long, dark nights. As a result of his inspiration and participation in the BMI City of Asylum fellowship program, through which I have benefited for the past four years, I am extremely grateful to him. August 12, 2022 — Ahmed Naji (@AhmedNajiTW)

Naji, amusingly, had started reading Rushdie while incarcerated. He mentioned that he had wanted to read Rushdie’s novels for a long time but had never gotten around to it because of their length. While Naji was in jail, a friend sent him the novel Midnight’s Children, followed by four more by Salman Rushdie. I’ve always felt there’s some sort of connection and relation between us, Naji told me.

As of right now, Naji is a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, a branch of the City of Asylum network that Rushdie conceived of. By 2022, you might find yourself wondering if you really need that safe haven.

However, threats to writers persist even 30 years after the release of The Satanic Verses. Violent extremists pose a threat that must be addressed. The Egyptian journalist and novelist Ibrahim Eissa was threatened with death by the terrorist organization al-Qaeda in one of its publications last month. States also resort to violent censorship; victims of repressive governments around the world can be found in the PEN International Writers at Risk Database. Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe are among the many countries where writers are currently behind bars. Sadly, violence against journalists remains a constant reality.

Some academics and critics have cast doubt on whether Satanic Verses could be written in the twenty-first century. In 2012, Rushdie made this claim. But considering all the writers in peril who keep going despite insurmountable odds, I believe it could.

In 2012, Rushdie said, “Writers have been in terrible situations and yet managed to produce extraordinary work.” There are many examples of great works being written by writers who were under terrible circumstances throughout literary history.

In that moment, I told myself, “OK, well if this is your turn, if you find yourself in the latest of that line of people, don’t make excuses.”