It was Valentine’s Day 1989 when Salman Rushdie got a call from a BBC reporter. She asked him how it felt to be sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini. He thought, “I’m a dead man.”
Starting at the age of 41, Rushdie spent almost 10 years living under the threat of murder because of a book he’d written, "The Satanic Verses."
He survived, finding strength and renewal through literature. He chronicles its toll and the lessons he learned in a memoir, "Joseph Anton," now out in paperback. The book is a look at Rushdie’s personal and professional life during the dark years when the death threat loomed over him.
A man’s forties are normally thought to be the prime of his life; and I spent my forties essentially in jail fighting against the risk of assassination – not only for myself but everyone else named in the threats: translators, publishers, etc. There were attacks, as you know, on many of those people. So I feel as if that very important moment of my life was taken from me.
People who were the victims of violence due to “The Satanic Verses” include Hitoshi Igarashi, the book's Japanese translator who was murdered; William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher who was shot three times but survived; and Ittore Cappriolo, an Italian translator who was seriously injured in a stabbing.
From bookstore bombings in the US to fatal mobs in Turkey, “Verses” has been linked to violence and fear. As late as 2007, bombs placed in central London were linked to threats against Rushdie. Officially, the fatwa still remains in place, though Khomeini died in 1989.
People angered by “Verses” felt that it was a criticism of Islam. Rushdie said that they weren’t entirely wrong, that he did ironize it in a number of ways – but the novel never mentions by name Islam, Mohammed or Mecca. From this, Rushdie uncovered a greater issue of extremism and freedom.
The fact is, there is no reason why religion should not be criticized. There’s no way in a genuinely free society that you can ring-fence any idea and say that “you have to leave that alone, that’s off limits.” That’s a very dangerous precedent to set and it’s something authoritarian regimes and tyrannies and religious bigotries always try to do.
They always say, “You cannot question this, you can’t talk about this, we tell you how to think about this, do what we say or else.” It’s very, very important that writers, poets, intellectuals, journalists and private citizens retain the right to satirize, to speak irreverently, to debunk and to criticize any idea whether secular or sacred.
We have to retain the ability to laugh about it, joke about it, poke fun at it, to deconstruct it, to argue over it; if we can’t do that we’re living in an unfree world.
Rushdie said he isn’t sure that the book would even be published today because of a climate of fear and nervousness. Turkey is the only Muslim country where the book is legal.
I do think that what has happened since is a growing fear of saying more or less anything at all about the subject area – Islam – from which these threats arose. So I think in some ways there has been a chilling effect on free speech as a result of the fatwa. Other people are scared to tread on that turf. And I hope that fear fades in time.
Rushdie acknowledges that there were people who shied away from involvement with “The Satanic Verses” out of fear, but said that you could count them all on the fingers of one hand. What he remembers more, he said, was the extraordinary collective resolve that arose from so many people.
The way in which booksellers continued to stock the book, to put it in the window, to sell it, to recommend it, and to do so in an unafraid way – that was heroic. That’s the heroism of ordinary people. I think the reason that this battle ended the way it did, with this book having survived and the author having survived, is because of the that: is because of the heroism of ordinary people.
It’s because of people working in bookstores, people working in publishing companies, translators, editors, publishers – not people with power, not people with guns – just saying that we will not let this matter end in defeat. It’s a matter of some pride to be part of that.
“Joseph Anton” is meant to be more than just an autobiography, it is also a commentary on the importance of storytelling in all people’s lives.
One of the things I tried to say in the book is how important it is to understand that human beings – all of us, not just professional writers – we are all storytelling animals. We are the only creature on the earth that tells stories in order to understand the kind of creature that we are.
So the telling of stories, whether privately – between friend and friend, inside families – or professional storytellers writing for readers, this is all very close to the center of the business of being humans. And I think that’s why it needs to be protected and defended because if we allow that freedom to be eroded, we’re eroding something very central to our nature as human beings.
Produced by Jason Pagano.
This interview originally aired on October 8, 2013.