“What we must do, all of us, is insist that this society is one of open discourse.”
It may seem like this memoir has been a long-time coming, as Rushdie’s life story garners as much public interest as his vibrant and fantastical novels; but, given the harrowing nature of his experiences, it is not surprising that it took over two decades before he could commit the events to print. In February 1989, in response to claims that Rushdie’s novel constituted blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed, the theocratic leader of the Iranian dictatorship at the time, the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, offered a bounty in his own name for murder of Mr Rushdie – a man who was neither a practising Muslim, nor an Iranian. It has been noted by many since then that this extraordinary offence to morality, free speech and the rule of law represented a foreshadowing of what we could expect from religious fundamentalism in years to come.
It was a watershed moment, an opportunity to set a precedent for how such barbarism could expect to be confronted in the future. But the reaction was less than satisfactory. While Rushdie himself has always been vocal in his praising of the agents assigned to protect his home; the diligence of the British authorities in assuring his safety; and the support of his friends and family, the response from religious figures the world over confirms the importance of protecting free expression from bogus claims of blasphemy. The Pope, Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many other nodding heads of various religious institutions, closed ranks and condemned the novel and its author. Elements of the intellectual and political community were also not without blame and many dithered as to whether he deserved their support and whether they could afford to offer it. In other words, offending a verminous religious dictator with the resources to fund and facilitate your assassination is a very efficient way of discovering who your friends are.
The years immediately following this debacle only grew darker for Rushdie; family, friends and colleagues (and even their families) were threatened and attacked, his Italian translator stabbed, his Japanese translator murdered. Desperate to appease his tormenters in order to put an end to such attacks, he published an article declaring that he had embraced Islam and apologising for his previous blasphemy, but this fell on deaf ears. Here again, was a foreshadowing of things to come; Rushdie discovered that the nature of fanaticism is that it cannot be reasoned with and does not seek dialogue. A similarly dark lesson was learned too late by Theo van Gogh who was murdered in the street for the film he made in partnership with Ayaan Hirsi Ali about the plight of Muslim women in Holland; as he lay in the street having been shot off his bike, he tried to reason with his killer before his throat was cut (Ms Hirsi Ali has since had to live a life of constant surveillance and protection comparable to that of Rushdie’s).
During his years on the run, possibly due to the publicity surrounding the initial circumstances, his life was erroneously characterised by some as a kind of glamorous Bond-esque existence; the international man of mystery always accompanied by black-suited anonymous agents. For his part he has always been puzzled by this association, “To me it felt like prison”. This is illustrated most harrowingly in his description of the panic he felt when a minor miscommunication about the whereabouts of his son led him to believe that he had been taken, the horror of such a thing is probably more vividly understood by those who have children, for my part, I can only imagine.
Ever since he became a hunted man, he has become a kind of go-to talking head when matters of free speech and offence, particularly in a religious context, are brought to the public square. And the multiple interviews and re-posting of his old articles over the past week have almost served to obscure his more comprehensive commentary on the matter: the book itself.
The interest in his story should not be surprising; Rushdie himself concluded that the tumult surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses was bigger than either him or his work. I believe most people instinctively recognise the relevance of such cases to their own lives and to democracy. Others, sadly, recoil in fear. A number of rather flaccid platitudes (still in use today in relation either to Mr Rushdie’s case or to other examples of so-called ‘blasphemy’) were employed by those who failed to recognise the relevance of this struggle and wished to distance themselves from him. One Rushdie himself finds rather amusing is “he knew what he was doing”. In Rushdie’s words “it would be really strange, I thought, to spend five years writing a novel and not know what I was doing; what would that be, that act?” The absurdity of such a statement aside, the other implication is that he was trying to cause offence and expecting a response – which was simply not the case. Despite being a secularist, Rushdie’s writing is, for the most part, an overwhelmingly colourful homage to the diverse religious and cultural traditions of India and not an attempt to denigrate them. In fact, the ‘offensive’ chapter was an abstract dream sequence based on a religious myth that in no way sought to attack Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. However, even if he had sought to offend, as the creators of the recent controversial ‘film’ appear to have, it says nothing to justify the actions of those who react to it through a campaign of violence and intimidation, nor does the fact that the film is devoid of artistic merit. Indeed, another tactic adopted by those who sought to abandon Rushdie was to dodge the blasphemy question entirely by attacking the book on purely literary grounds, thereby spinelessly absolving them of the responsibility to stand up for freedom of expression. The literary or artistic worth of the material makes little difference to those who seek an excuse to commit acts of violence or surrender to them. To paraphrase Rushdie, when asked about the events of the last week, defending free speech sometimes involves defending people you don’t like and free speech includes the right to behave badly.
In Rushdie’s own words, “Censorship changes the subject and introduces a more tedious subject; it creates a more boring world.” Censorship does not respect the difference between trash and art. If we remove the right of the less pleasant elements of society to make trash, we give up great art as well. In a world where the right to ugly speech is not defended alongside the right to beautiful speech, we would possibly have already lost Salman Rushdie and his writing. Salman Rushdie’s journey should remind us all of the importance of defending what we have in free societies. Indeed, such cases as his are not merely a matter of private trauma but affect us all. This was eerily illustrated by Christopher Hitchens, who, in the conclusion of the chapter in his own memoir, detailing his friendship with Rushdie and his defence of him after the issuing of the fatwa, employs the phrase mutate nomine de te fabula naratatur, “change only the name and the story is about you.”