Rushdie wanted to believe that the threat was in the past, but the dagger was waiting for him

Moments after the attack on Rushdie (AP)

There are photos, videos, chilling images. Difficult to put yourself in the shoes of those who went to listen to one of his favorite authors and suddenly found themselves witnessing an attempt on his life. “My God, My God” an agitated male voice is heard, as agitated is the video that she is recording with her cell phone while she jumps from her seat and approaches the stage where Salman Rushdie lies stretched out and bloodied. The hardest part, too, is putting yourself in the shoes of Rushdie, the author who lived hidden, threatened and drowned in fear for more than three decades, and all this for having written a novel. Many years have passed since the original threat from the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Ruollah Khomeini was made public and the deaths and attacks in the name of religious offense continue to occur. There is no way to cheat anymore: fundamentalism is not a matter of faith, it is terrorism.

The British writer of Indian origin was preparing to speak to 2,500 people at the Chautauqua Institution Summer Festival of the Arts in western New York about the United States (where he has lived for several years) as a safe haven for writers and artists in exile. How ironic. The discussion about the writer’s flimsy personal security that left him helpless in the face of his attacker no longer makes sense, although it is inexcusable that those responsible for the visit had not contemplated the risk of a face-to-face activity with the man with whom many of us learned that art could cost its creator his life if a fanatical leader declared himself offended and a radical community blind to humanism followed him in his insane threat.

Salman Rushdie's attacker was arrested immediately, after attacking the Indian author (Agencies)
Rushdie’s attacker, Hadi Matar, 24, was immediately arrested (Agencies)

What began as a death sentence for blasphemy in 1989 and at one point seemed to fizzle out – Iran distanced itself from the fatwa against Rushdie to resume diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom – was once again confirmed as a valid call and with a larger bag for whoever managed to eliminate the infidel. Hadhi Matar24, from New Jersey and, judging by his posts, a huge admirer and fan of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, paid his arts festival ticket to get to the object of his hatred and win Paradise. It is disturbing to learn that Hadi was not even born when the Ayatollah sentenced Rushdie to death. for having written the satanic verses.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (JOEL ROBINE / AFP)
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (JOEL ROBINE / AFP) (JOEL ROBINE /)

An earthquake in the world of ideas

As soon as the news was known, while the majority recorded their surprise and horror at what had happened on social networks, some accounts told the new generations of the earthquake that shook the world of ideas when the obligatory Rushdie pilgrimage began after the threat of the Iranian theocratic government. New questions then appeared, which are still valid, made more complex by the multiple possible offenses that arose in the heat of the era of cancellation. Does creation have limits? Is it not possible to express yourself in art? Can religion override creativity? Does an artist have to take care not to offend or hurt feelings? Is there another principle for the artist other than that of freedom to create?

Rushdie was born on June 19, 1947 in Bombay, in a secular Muslim family and had studied and lived in the United Kingdom at the time. The strict secrecy lasted ten years and his return to a life as normal as possible would take a lot of time, bodyguards and police protection of all kinds and a lot of suffering. September 11, 2001 – the day of the attacks that changed the world – is the date that can be taken as his coming to light after darkness.

Susan Sontag was at the forefront of Rushdie's defense from the world of writers.
Susan Sontag was at the forefront of Rushdie’s defense from the world of writers.

Many years after the beginning of that darkness with no return and already on this side of the 21st century, in his memoir joseph anton (Joseph Anton is the pseudonym that, combining the names of his favorite authors Conrad Y Chekhovthe writer created at the request of Scotland Yard to conceal his identity), Rushdie, who had established himself as an English-language author in 1981 with children of midnight (winner of the Booker Prize) and then with Shamefrom 1983, would remember those who not only did not accompany their unjust fear but also had the audacity to accuse him of provoking Muslim anger. The book was written in the third person.

The plot of the novel that meant the greatest success but also the pillory for Rushdie is complex and with multiple layers of reading. The characters are two Indian Muslim actors who magically survive the hijacking of a plane traveling from Bombay (now Mumbai) to London by a Sikh terrorist commando. As they fall from the sky, one of the actors transforms into the archangel Gabriel, while the other transforms into the devil.

The book explores themes such as the nature of good and evil, doubt, and the loss of religious faith.. Rushdie was inspired by the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, whom he renamed “Mahound”, a derogatory term used by the English during the Crusades.

The novel’s title refers to the Satanic Verses, a group of verses from the Koran that Muhammad, morally infallible to his followers, allegedly mistook for divine revelation. These verses allowed for prayers to three pre-Islamic goddesses from Mecca, which is a flagrant violation of Islamic monotheism. The satanic verses were withdrawn on the grounds that the devil had sent them to trick Muhammad into thinking they came from God, and devout Muslims deny that these verses ever existed.

Books-Forbidden-Satanic-Verse cover
Rushdie and the English edition of the book that was a before and after in his life.

Good time to remember the satanic versespublished in English in 1988, not only put Rushdie at risk. The edict of the Shiite theocracy functioned as a threat to the writer but also to his publishers and all those who participated in the dissemination of the work. The Italian translator Ettore Capriolo, was stabbed in Milan, although fortunately he survived the attack. the car of William Nygarard, the Norwegian publisher, was riddled with bullets. The Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi, himself a convert to Islam, was assassinated near his office at the University of Tsukuba. For the most part, the victims of this violence were the Muslims themselves. In Pakistan, there was a riot outside the US Information Center, during which police shot and killed five of the protesters. In Belgium, a Saudi cleric named abdullah ahdal and his Tunisian deputy, Salim Bahry, were killed because they had affirmed the right to freedom of expression. There were also deaths in Turkey from the same cause.

Meanwhile, all over the world people on the left and on the right sought to explain the facts by blaming the victim and putting the responsibility on Rushdie; it’s more, many dared to call him an extreme marketer: to do something that offends so much, they risked, surely what they are doing is looking to sell books in a sensational way. That same year, as he recalled Paul Berman in the magazine Dissent, Susan Sontag she became the president of the US branch of PEN and, in that role, testified before the US Senate. It was Sontag who explained to the political class that fatwa Khomeini v. Rushdie had already threatened to kill an American publisher, “and that literary freedom may well be in the national interest of the United States.”

It is still remembered how Sontag led Rushdie’s no-holds-barred defense, “with unique force,” as his biographer put it. benjamin moser“because he had the authority that gave him to be considered a person of the left and also the literary cultural authority”.

former US president Jimmy Carter, Possibly the American politician most linked to the universe of ideas that even today and in a reductionist way we usually call progressivism, wrote a memorable and embarrassing letter in which he began by talking about The last temptation of Christ of Scorsese and his offense against Christian values ​​and then ensure that “the satanic verses it goes much further by vilifying the Prophet Mohammed and defaming the Holy Quran. The author (by Rushdie)an expert analyst of Muslim beliefs, must have anticipated a reaction of horror throughout the Islamic world.”

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Former President Jimmy Carter in a photo of him listening to Joe Biden in 1978. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma, File)

For Carter, Rushdie was an opportunist. Today it may seem unlikely, but with different arguments writers like John LeCarre, Roald Dahl Y John Berger, among others, turned their backs on a colleague threatened with death by a fundamentalist government. Those who accompanied Susan Sontag in the fiery defense of the figure of Rushdie in the name of freedom of expression were many more, and very famous: Martin Amis, Harold Pinter, Ian McEwan, Norman Mailer, Edward Said, Angela Carter, Christopher Hitchens, Hanif Kureishi, Nadine Gordimer, Julian Barnes, Carlos Fuentes, Don DeLillo, Kurt Vonnegut, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Allen Ginsberg Y Thomas Pynchon, among others. In addition, one hundred Arab and Muslim writers risked their personal safety and contributed essays to an anthology defending the right to freedom of expression called By Rushdie.

Fire friend

The spark that lit the fire that would consume Rushdie’s life was lit by someone he considered a friend, he recalled in 2013 in The Nation the Franco-Moroccan journalist and writer Leila Slimani. He was referring to madhu jainthe journalist who interviewed him for IndiaToday, a medium that published the article and an excerpt from the book with titles capable of arousing anger: “An unequivocal attack on religious fundamentalism” and “My subject is fanaticism.” The book had not yet been published in India – it had appeared in English in 1988 – when two Muslim members of Parliament were offended by the advance and responded with letters to the editor. A prominent Sikh columnist and writer, Khushwant Singhhad read an advance copy and was calling for the book to be banned.

Slimani wrote: “From there, the satanic verses quickly moved into the nebulous realm of the controversial. Some British newspapers fed on the controversy brewing in India, with articles citing anonymous sources mocking Rushdie for his ego or his education. Book reviews began to appear, some excellent, some not, but the book was already becoming more than just a work of art: it was seen as a political statement by a deliberately offensive author”.

Rajiv Gandhi he was seeking re-election in India and the Rushdie case was used in the political campaign. Surely Rajiv did not feel anything good for Rushdie who, in children of midnight, had unflatteringly portrayed Indira Gandhi, his mother. A) Yes, the satanic verses it was outright banned in India, with no possibility of appeal. A few weeks later, a British Muslim group issued a statement denigrating the book as “an insult thinly disguised as a work of literature.” The South African government followed, which repeated the same phrase and banned the book.

Not long after, the Grand Imam of the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Sheikh Gad el-Haq Ali Gad el-Haqdeclared the book to be blasphemous. From then on this word would no longer stop being pronounced (and heard). Hate mail began pouring into Rushdie’s home, as well as threatening phone calls and even bomb threats at the offices of Viking Penguin, the publisher. Finally, in December 1988, the book was burned by Muslim groups in Bradford, a small town west of Leeds in West Yorkshire.

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Salman Rushdie at his home in Islington, London, with the English edition of his book. (David Levenson/Getty Images) (David Levenson/)

Slimani recalls in his article that the fatwa against Rushdie and his editors was read on Radio Tehran on February 14, 1989: “I call on all brave Muslims, wherever they are in the world, to kill them without delay, so that no one dares to insult the beliefs sacred to Muslims henceforth.” Thousands of miles away, at the same time Rushdie was leaving his home in Islington to attend his friend’s funeral. Bruce Chatwinthe great author of Patagonia. I wouldn’t go back there for years. His book was beginning to be banned in many Muslim countries.

Rushdie came to apologize -He came to say that he repented, that he embraced the Muslim faith and that he did not think like his characters- Y Khomeini died in June of that year, but neither the writer’s apology nor the leader’s death could stop the machinery of violence and hate. “Even if he repents and becomes the most faithful Muslim on earth, there will be no change in this divine decree,” said Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

It was only in 1998, when the reformist Iranian president Khatami said that the threat was over, that Joseph Anton ceased to exist and Salman Rushdie he once again had a place among the living. However, fear and hatred persisted, fueled from the religious center of power. In 2012, a semi-official Iranian religious foundation increased the reward for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million. And in 2016 the reward became 3.9 million.

salman rushdie
An image of Rushdie in 2012. (Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images) (Ben Pruchnie/)

Rushdie, for his part, wanted to appear normal and insisted that he had to live his life. In an interview with AFP in Paris in 2019, although he was still accompanied by armed police, he sought to believe that he fatwa it was in the past. He was trying to convince himself then, just five years after the massacre of charlie hebdo in which 12 people died at the hands of two Islamic fundamentalist brothers for having dared to caricature – insult, in his conception – Muhammad.

“We live in a world where topics change very quickly. And this is a very old topic. Now there are many other things to be scared of, and other people to kill”, declared the author of more than 14 books between novels and essays, one of the most recognized voices in contemporary literature and a defender of human rights and freedom of expression, even from those who did not support him in the dark times.

Unfortunately he was wrong: the dagger was still waiting for him.

Some quotes from Rushdie

“From the beginning, men used God to justify the unjustifiable.”

“Respect for religion became a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’.”

“Religion has moved out of the private space. (…) The moment it enters the public sphere, it becomes everyone’s business.”

“Religions, like other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and also our fearless disrespect.”


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Writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed in the neck during a conference in New York

Iranian media praised the attack on Salman Rushdie: “Congratulations to the man who destroyed the neck of an enemy of Allah”

The videos of the witnesses showing the first aid work after the attack on Salman Rushdie

The day Iran sentenced Salman Rushdie to death: “I ask all Muslims to execute him wherever they find him”

Attack on Salman Rushdie: the police identified the suspect and revealed that the writer received two stab wounds