The near-fatal stabbing of Salman Rushdie onstage in New York on 12 August was not an act of standalone savagery. It was the culmination of a long agitation in which many more besides Hadi Matar, the assailant, are complicit. The knife that Matar plunged into Rushdie’s neck and abdomen had been sharpened over three decades by an alliance of the implacably regressive and the insufferably progressive.
In writing and publishing The Satanic Verses, Rushdie did not elect to offend anybody. A great many reactionaries worked extremely hard to incite themselves into a state of unpacifiable offendedness. And an embarrassingly large number of literary, cultural, and political luminaries offered their shoulders to the aggrieved obscurantists demanding blood—and scolded Rushdie for provoking their bloodlust.
Rajiv Gandhi, despite commanding the biggest parliamentary majority in India’s history, kowtowed instantly to the demand for the proscription of The Satanic Verses because it was, in the words of the parliamentarian Syed Shahabuddin, “a deliberate insult to Islam and the holy Prophet and an intentional device to outrage religious feelings”. Shahabuddin claimed that the absence of “literary creativity” in the novel would become apparent to anyone who read it—before admitting that he hadn’t actually read it.
Shushing the Muslims who urged him not to yield to self-styled community leaders, Rajiv cravenly surrendered: On 5 October 1988, his finance minister added The Satanic Verses to the list of contraband items. What transpired was, in Badruddin Tyabji’s unforgettable words, “a coup de theatre in a comedy played by a group of deaf actors under the direction of a blind director. The blind have not read the script and the deaf only understand the sign language of the election-hustings”.
Khomeini’s call, West turns cold
India’s decision demonstrated that capitulation to fanatics does not result in the abatement of fanaticism: It only emboldens them. On Valentine’s Day 1989—four months after Rajiv Gandhi effectively banned The Satanic Verses—the Ayatollah Khomeini, supreme leader of Iran, went on Tehran Radio to “inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who are aware of its content, are sentenced to death”.
Rather than condemn the Ayatollah for exhorting his coreligionists everywhere to execute a private citizen of another country for the sin of writing a novel, many Westerners paraded their contempt for Rushdie for … writing a novel. Roald Dahl accused Rushdie of cheap sensationalism. Germaine Greer had no time for “that book of his”. And the solipsistic spy novelist John le Carre advanced the absurd counsel that Rushdie should propitiate his tormenters by withdrawing his book.
Such reflexive castigation of Rushdie was characteristic of those who, unbeknown to themselves, felt inherently superior to the community whose sensibilities they accused Rushdie of offending. Geoffrey Howe, Britain’s Foreign Secretary at the time, took pains to assure Tehran that the British people “do not have any affection for the book”.
Even Jimmy Carter chimed in—though his condemnation of Iran, if it can be called that, was so qualified that it is difficult to tell which side he was on. Before directing some mild criticism at Khomeini, Carter peremptorily declared that “Rushdie’s book is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Carter was clowning himself by speaking in the name of “millions” of Muslims whose reading habits he could not have known to characterise a novel of magical realism—where the allegedly blasphemous action takes place in the dreams of a dazed character—as offensive.
The timidity of governments was matched by the ferocity of the mob. Rushdie—grudgingly granted protection by Western establishments that radiated, in the words of Julian Barnes, a “glacial indifference” to his fate—miraculously escaped death. Others, alas, were less fortunate. The novel’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered; its Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot but survived; its Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was attacked with knives; and 37 people lost their lives in an arson attack that was mounted to murder Azin Nesin, the novel’s Turkish translator.
In the years since, the cowardice of democratic leaders has only expanded the space that is available to—and legitimised the destructive ways in which it is used by—religious supremacists. Fundamentalists have been permitted to recast themselves as ‘community leaders’. Iqbal Sacranie, for instance, once said that “death, perhaps, is a bit too easy” for Rushdie. Years later, he received a knighthood from the British government for “services to the community”.
When Rushdie was given a knighthood, violent protests erupted in the Muslim world. The late Shirley Williams, a Liberal Democrat member of the British House of Lords, called it a ‘mistake’: “This is a man who has deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way, who has been protected by the British police against threats of suicide for years and years at great expense to the taxpayer, and frankly, I think it was not wise, and not really clever, to give him a knighthood.”
Rushdie’s transformation from the late 1990s on into an establishment figure and an imperious Indian uncle—he dispensed banal and often inaccurate insights on world affairs, seethed with grudges, mocked others, demanded what he called “quality defence” because he numbered himself among history’s great writers, and, with the unselfconsciousness bred by tawdry celebrity, offered mitigations for the purveyors of the Iraq War while denouncing the immeasurably superlative V.S. Naipaul, who cleared the path for writers such as Rushdie, for supposedly mixing with the Indian establishment—deserves deeper scrutiny. But now is not the time for that.
Now is the time to wish Rushdie home and to recognise that, for all his successes, he is a tragic figure. The Satanic Verses is one of those books that are not read so much as deposited by culture in people’s imaginations. And the book’s author is known to most of the developing world not as a novelist but as a shadowy sinister figure. Consider International Guerrillas, a hugely successful Pakistani film released in 1990 that portrays him as a depraved agent of Jews and Hindus out to destroy Islam. He’s so ‘satanic’ that a jihadi mission to kill him comes to nothing. Ultimately, Rushdie is dispatched by lasers shot by a pack of flying Qurans that have descended from the heavens. When the British refused to certify the film, Rushdie personally intervened to get it clearance.
There are many Indian ‘secularists’ and Western ‘liberals’ who detest Rushdie only marginally less than the producers of International Guerrillas. Matar wielded the weapon against Rushdie. There are still many among us who believe, if not that Rushdie deserved it, then that he brought it upon himself.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. Views are personal.