Islamic fanatics’ war on freedom of speech: Salman Rushdie

Author Salman Rushdie’s latest book, Photo: Salman Rushdie talks to students about his life and writings

PARIS, November 16, 2012 — Twenty-three years after an Iranian fatwa authorized his murder, Salman Rushdie is alive and well but still on the radar of fanatical Muslims.

The price on his head has reached $3.3 million and the faithful are being urged again to take up arms. Rushdie is trying to dismiss this latest threat as a nuisance, not a new fatwa. He may be overly optimistic.

His crime was a book he dared to publish in 1988, “The Satanic Verses,” which included imaginary scenes of Muhammad’s life. Although the original fatwa was lifted in 1998, the worst of the would-be killers remained incensed. A semi-official Iranian group upped its bounty by $500,000 in September and hopes to re-ignite the old Rushdie affair.

“Joseph Anton” Is Rushdie’s Memoir 

This disturbing development rather spoils the happy ending of Rushdie’s new book, “Joseph Anton,” a gripping account of his nine years on the run from the hot-heads. The book concludes as he steps onto a Notting Hill street in London and hails a taxi – his first free act in Britain since the Ayatollah Khomeini condemned him to death.

Khomeini wanted more than Rushdie’s blood. “All those involved in its [“The Satanic Verses”] publication are sentenced to death. I ask all Muslims to execute them wherever they find them,” the text reads. 

Rushdie, never quite losing his cool, quotes a BBC journalist as telling him early in the affair not to worry too much: “Khomeini sentences the president of the United States to death every Friday afternoon.”

Protestors against Rushdie, September 2012 AP

The Salman Rushdie story bears retelling, not only for its personal cruelties but also as a reminder that bloodthirsty, intolerant forces are abroad in the land and quite willing to kill those who disagree with them.

In an interview last month, a self-effacing Rushdie told the New York Times he felt he had been caught up in a “world historical event…the battle against radical Islam, of which this was one skirmish.”

In response to the original death sentence in 1989, a rash of book burnings, fire-bombings and mass marches broke out in Britain, where he was a naturalized citizen, and throughout the Islamic world. In Teheran, excited marchers carried posters of him with his eyes dug out and signs such as “Kill the dog.”

Murders on the margins of the affair were actually carried out or attempted. His Japanese translator was killed, his Italian translator was stabbed in the neck but survived and his Norwegian publishing house was bombed. The killers never got near him, thanks mainly to the efficiency of the British police spiriting him from house to house at the slightest sign of trouble.

Protestors Took to the Streets Against Rushdie

In London, where I was living during this saga, I found the atmosphere deeply unsettling for such a peaceful capital. Thousands of bearded fanatics, most of them Pakistanis and other Middle East immigrants, protested against Rushdie by marching down Park Lane under police protection, shouting, chanting and shaking their fists — exercising their right to free expression. The irony of the situation was lost on them. No one was prosecuted for incitement to violence. 

During his years in hiding, Rushdie tells of how the tables were turned and he became the villain. A large majority of the British public told pollsters that they wanted him to apologize for writing the book. And he came under attack from the best of Britain’s intellectual coterie.

I had forgotten that he was bashed by such luminaries as George Steiner, John Le Carre, Germaine Greer, Auberon Waugh, Gerald Kaufman, Richard Ingrams, Geoffrey Howe, Douglas Hurd, and even John Major. To his eternal credit, Rushdie stood fast on his right to free speech.

Caricature of Salman Rushdie by Michael Johnson

To this day, he seems perplexed by the craven attitudes around him and the eagerness of prominent figures to appease the fanatics merely to maintain their cozy lives. Very few chose to focus on the larger issue at stake, the freedom of expression that is at the basis of Western values.

Rushdie Credits U.S. Commitment to Freedom

He wrote his latest book in third person, using his police code name as the protagonist. The officers guarding him agreed to call him “Joseph Anton” from the Christian names of his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. He became known to the police as “Joe.” He decided to write this book in the third person to avoid using the more egotistical “I“ and “me” throughout.

For me, the heart of the book is not the detail of his scuttling from house to house to confuse the hit squads, fascinating as that is, but the over-arching issue of freedom to speak and write one’s opinions without fear of getting stabbed or shot by paid assassins.

He maintains he did nothing wrong. “When did it become irrational to dislike religion, any religion, and to dislike it vehemently?” Rushdie asks. “When did reason get re-described as unreason?”

In the past two decades, militants in Europe have been emboldened by the lack of resistance to their actions. Rushdie has been keeping track. “There were Islamist attacks on socialists and unionists, cartoonists and journalists, prostitutes and homosexuals, women in skirts and beardless men, and also, surreally, on such evils as frozen chickens and samosas,” he writes.

Tracing the rise of violence, he cites extremist ideologies including Wahhabi, Salafi, Khomeiniite, Deobandi, and Islamic schools funded by Saudi oil as producing “generations of narrow-eyed men with hairy chins and easily clenched fists,” taking Islam far from its origins while claiming to be returning to its roots.

This book is something of a diary in narrative form with many unexpected digressions. He describes his life as a writer before and during his death sentence, even detailing how he came to write The Satanic Verses and other books that have brought him acclaim. He says his first major book, “Midnight’s Children,” was the result of 13 years of rumination during which he made many false starts and wrote “enormous” quantities of “garbage.

He never quite loses his sense of humor. The police allowed him to take a short stroll in public one day if he agreed to wear a wig. He acquiesced and on the street overheard a passerby say, “There goes that bastard Salman Rushdie in a wig.” He recalls one joke making the rounds in London during his invisible years: “Who is tall, blond, has big tits and is living in Tasmania? Salman Rushdie.” Despite all, he seemed to relish the lighter side.

He credits the U.S. commitment to freedom as his salvation during the darkest days of British ambivalence. Police protection might have been withdrawn but for a hero’s welcome in Washington when he managed a secret flight into the country. “America had made it impossible for the British to walk away from (my) defense,” he writes.

Salman Rushdie continues his prolific output, of which this book is a valuable example. He has exorcized his demons that remained from his traumatic years on the run but has given us a stark reminder that his case was a mere skirmish in a much longer and deeper conflict between rational forces in the West and the fanatical wing of a badly distorted religion.

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Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a American journalist and writer based in Bordeaux, France. He also writes for the International Herald Tribune and American Spectator.


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