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Salman Rushdie and the enduring risk of political art

Did Americans forget the risks of free speech?

Author and social commentator Salman Rushdie speaks at the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson, Mississippi, in August 2018.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

Novelist Salman Rushdie walked on stage at a summer festival at the Chautauqua Institution in New York to speak on Friday and was stabbed 10 times by an assailant. The violent attack on free speech has left Rushdie in the hospital and revived concerns around the perils facing artists who take risks.

Rushdie has faced death threats for more than three decades, since the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 and called for his death over purported blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses, which satirized Islamic histories and mythologies with magical realism. For a decade following, Rushdie lived underground as the book caused a firestorm. Khomeini’s condemnation led to booksellers in Europe and the United States being firebombed and publishers receiving persistent bomb threats. The Japanese translator of the novel, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in 1991.

The threats against Rushdie never went away, but fell into the cultural backdrop. His books are taught in universities and sold in bookstores. The Satanic Verses has “become a symbol of freedom of speech,” said Tope Folarin, author of A Particular Kind of Black Man. And on a craft level, he said, Rushdie “is a master of doing this sprawling, big-picture fiction that includes a host of characters, and is really about showing your virtuosity.”

In the recent decades, Rushdie reemerged into social life. Though the reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called the affair “completely finished” in 1998, the fatwa was not formally rescinded. Asked by the comedian Larry David about how the fatwa weighed on him, Rushdie replied in a 2017 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, “It’s there, but fuck it.”

The attack on Rushdie is a striking reminder that fiction — along with art, poetry, and comics — can be dangerous tools that hold real power and risks.

Iran’s role here is not clear. Rushdie’s alleged attacker Hadi Matar is 24 years old; that is, younger than the novel that spurred the fatwa. He’s currently held in custody, and his attorney emphasized to the Daily Beast “the presumption of innocence,” but didn’t comment further. Intelligence sources told VICE that Matar, whose family is from southern Lebanon, may have links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But rather than focus on the perpetrator or what role, if any, Iran played, this is a moment to appreciate Rushdie’s multifold living legacy. That Rushdie remains a source of inspiration says perhaps even more about the ubiquity of those countering forms of repression — either subtle or violent, from individuals or the state.

“He was instrumental in showing me what a writer ought to be, and that is fearless and in opposition to power, wherever power gathers in culture, society, or politics,” novelist Zia Haider Rahman, the author of In the Light of What We Know, told me. “When I look around at the world of letters in the Anglosphere, what I see missing today is the fearlessness of the young Rushdie.”

The controversy over The Satanic Verses, briefly explained

Rushdie, who was born in Bombay before the British Empire’s partition of India and later worked in London as a copywriter, was a celebrated author even before The Satanic Verses. His second novel, Midnight’s Children, earned him the prestigious Booker prize. He brought South Asian characters into the anglophone literary scene and a post-colonial consciousness into global literature. As historian Juan Cole notes, “Ironically, the early 1980s translations of Midnight’s Children and Shame into Persian caused Rushdie to be admired in Iran for his anti-imperialism.”

Then came 1988.

That year, Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Its intellectual origins can be traced to Rushdie’s undergraduate coursework in Cambridge when, as the novelist Laila Lalami notes, he studied a disputed set of verses spoken by the Prophet Muhammad that early Islamic scholars argued about (and later scholars rejected).

From the contested text and its subtext, Lalami explains that Rushdie took away a key theme: “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,” she writes in The Nation.

Marchers scream out anti-Rushdie chants in Hartington Street, Derby.
A protest against Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in Derby, UK, on March 15, 1989.
Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Police Guard At Publishing House
A policeman stands guard outside the offices of the publisher Penguin Group in London, UK, on February 24, 1989.
Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

Rushdie’s reworking of that story in the dreamscapes of his protagonist first stirred controversy in India, then back in the British press, and then the grand sheikh of the influential Al-Azhar institution in Cairo called it blasphemous.

In February 1989 came the Ayatollah’s fatwa. (Two days before, Pakistan’s riot police fired on demonstrators outside an American cultural institution in the country and killed at least five.) As the book was banned in many Muslim and Arab countries, protests multiplied, with tens of thousands of people holding inflammatory signs and chanting slogans against Rushdie. Death threats confronted publishers, booksellers, and translators associated with the author, even as many rallied behind him. Rushdie went into hiding.

Homi Bhabha, a senior scholar of literary criticism who teaches at Harvard, remembers reading early proofs of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie “never mentioned the possibility of this kind of outrage,” Bhabha told me. “It was terrifying.” The book is now caught up in religious controversy, but Bhabha — who was due 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” in the time of Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing British government.

“It’s very much a book about the way in which migrant communities — largely South Asian, but he is also interested in Afro-Caribbeans and others — constitute themselves as a community,” Bhabha explained. It’s about “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, and the way in which, particularly in Thatcherite Britain, they are treated as second-class citizens.”

Rushdie’s status as an immigrant writer who made it big in London made him a symbolic mentor to a generation since. “I am a direct beneficiary of somebody like him stepping forward and saying, ‘I can write as ambitiously and as gorgeously as any writer can,’” Folarin, a Nigerian American novelist who also directs the Institute for Policy Studies think tank, told me. Raised in a devout Pentecostal family, Folarin recalled the thrill of reading the novel in graduate school, a book whose very title was subversive. “The one thing that I’m really sort of disappointed about, in the midst of all this stuff, is that The Satanic Verses is a really good book,” he told me.

Rahman described coming into political awareness in the ’80s in London as an immigrant from Bangladesh “with a subaltern consciousness,” and how Rushdie presented to him a new way of thinking. “He also made us acutely aware that we were pawns in another person’s game, that we were objects of political discourse,” Rahman said.

Writers, it might be said, are a lot easier to attack than politicians and religious leaders. And the fatwa on Rushdie led to a wave of writers being threatened and targeted — an assassination attempt on the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz in 1994 and a series of attacks on writers in Algeria in the 1990s. Around that time, Rushdie put forward the idea of a “City of Asylum” for writers at risk from around the globe.

When speech offends

It’s easy to forget how dangerous and complex some speech can be — but it’s a theme that I’ve been reporting on for over a decade. Perhaps most in places where free speech is not protected, artists bend whatever rules exist and take risks, creating more space for expression in the process.

In January 2015, two gunmen burst into the Paris offices of the French comic magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12, including five of the magazine’s rabble-rousing cartoonists.

I covered that tragedy from my base at the time in Cairo, Egypt, where as a journalist I wrote widely about cultural currents, focusing on how cartoonists and satirists grapple with the red lines of acceptable speech in countries with a repressive state and conservative religious politics. Many Arab cartoonists I interviewed had experienced censorship from state-aligned editors and death threats from religious extremists. They all staunchly supported the right of Charlie Hebdo to draw controversial topics related to Islam.

But cartoonists simultaneously criticized Charlie Hebdo for “punching down” at marginalized communities in Europe. It was, in some ways, a more subtle debate than what was happening in France or the United States, in which a kind of black-and-whiteness prevailed; 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.

Vigil in memory of the Charlie Hebdo victims
A portrait of killed cartoonist Georges Wolinski at the center of a vigil in memory of the Charlie Hebdo victims in Paris.
Godong/Corbis via Getty Images

When the free speech advocacy group PEN America set out to honor Charlie Hebdo for its annual award, six prominent writers took a stand against it — reviving a line that the late Marxist critic John Berger and others put forward about Rushdie around the time of the fatwa — that the work was incendiary and problematic. Rushdie, a longtime PEN advocate, rejected the detractors and called them “horribly wrong.”

Another incident that comes to mind is that of the Egyptian author Ahmed Naji. A private citizen had accused him of “disturbing the public decency” for the gonzo novel Using Life, with some salacious scenes that, after a turn of unfortunate events, landed him in prison for 10 months.

The beat authors Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs had faced obscenity trials in the United States in the postwar years, but I never imagined I would find myself in the courtroom of a peer who was on trial for transgressing public morals.

While in prison, Naji was recognized with PEN’s Freedom to Write Award, and Rushdie wrote him a note — “I send you all of my solidarity and admiration” — which meant a tremendous amount to Naji while incarcerated.

Funnily enough, Naji had taken up reading Rushdie in prison. He had always wanted to read Rushdie’s novels, he said, but they are big, long books, and he remembers telling his friends that he never had the time. So Naji’s friend sent him Midnight’s Children in prison, and then four more of Rushdie’s novels. “I always felt there is a kind of connection and relation between us,” Naji told me.

Now, Naji is a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, a literary center that is part of the City of Asylum network that Rushdie had envisioned. That refuge might seem unnecessary in 2022.

But 30 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses, risks to writers endure. Some of those hazards come from violent extremists. Last month, the terrorist group al-Qaeda, in one of its publications, issued a death threat against the Egyptian journalist and novelist Ibrahim Eissa. States, too, engage in violent censorship, and a review of PEN’s Writers at Risk Database include those who have been murdered, jailed, or disappeared in repressive countries across the world. Authors are detained in Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and many other countries. Journalists, of course, confront violence as ever.

Some critics and scholars question whether Satanic Verses could be written today. Rushdie himself posited as much in 2012. But looking around the world at all of the writers at risk who continue to work against unfathomable challenges, I think it could.

“Writers have been in terrible situations and have yet managed to produce extraordinary work,” Rushdie said in 2012. “[T]he history of literature is full of moments in which writers in dreadful situations have produced great stuff.

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