Salman Rushdie’s August 12th stabbing in “idyllic” Chautauqua, New York brought up many emotions for those with enthusiasm for literature (and even those without it). Or, more accurately, the freedom of speech element it champions. On the one hand, there is something “encouraging” about the fact that the power of someone’s words in novel form could hold such weight. On the other, that it took this long for a person to successfully carry out the implications of a fatwa on Rushdie is perhaps a testament to how little people really care about literature. Maybe Islamic extremists were somewhat aware of that in terms of prioritizing the fatwa below, say, planning 9/11 (including in its germinal 1993 skin). In both cases, of course, it was made evident once again that Islam’s quest for vengeance is never forgotten. The “rogue” side of the religion is perfectly capable of playing a long game, and when the “Supreme Leader” of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued Rushdie’s fatwa on Valentine’s Day in 1989 (the year after the The Satanic Verses was released), it wasn’t just the author himself they had their eyes on, but “all parties involved” in the publication, distribution and dissemination of the work.
This included translators like Hitoshi Igarashi, who was murdered (via stabbing, the preferred method it appears) in 1991 for translating the book. Rushdie’s Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was also stabbed the same summer, but survived the attack. As did Rushdie’s Turkish translator, Aziz Nesin, whose presence at the Madımak Hotel in Sivas prompted an arson attack that left thirty-seven people dead—though not, to their dismay, Nesin. In effect, the book started threatening and taking many lives early on (complete with bookstore bombings) as a result of Rushdie simply depicting Muhammad in a manner deemed “disrespectful” (in that essentially any “imperfect” depiction of him is deemed as such by Islamic extremists).
While use of Muhammad as a “subplot” (or “parallel story”) component was what rattled Muslims, Rushdie himself asserted that the book is not “about” Islam, but rather, a tale of “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.” One might even say the book offered plenty of common ground for Islam to revel in because “it’s a novel which happened to contain a castigation of Western materialism.” In short, Islam’s bread and butter. But no, the backlash was instantaneous (again, further proof that no one is actually reading, just skimming), with an immediate banning in Pakistan followed by India. For it didn’t really seem to matter what Rushdie was saying, only that he was mentioning and “exploiting” a highly sensitive religious figure and repurposing his life for “blasphemous” ends.
And so, “Keep my wife’s name out your fuckin’ mouth!” is essentially what Muslims of a certain extremism have always held fast to when it comes to talking about Muhammad in any way, shape or form. By 1989, two British organizations, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Policy Studies Institute, were holding talks regarding the “intense reaction” (to use understatement) to The Satanic Verses. Among those invited to speak was Shabbir Akhtar, who argued for a “compromise [that might] protect Muslim sensibilities against gratuitous provocation.” Akhtar also wrote a book that year called Be Careful with Muhammad!: The Salman Rushdie Affair (followed up in 2020 with Be Careful with Muhammad! Salman Rushdie and the Battle for Free Speech). It featured a chapter called “Art or Literary Terrorism?” Clearly, the fatwa “proponents” would characterize The Satanic Verses as the latter. Ergo invoking their own literal (as opposed to literary) terrorism in response.
A form of terrorism fanned by someone like Akhtar writing, “There is no choice in the matter. Anyone who fails to be offended by Rushdie’s book ipso facto ceases to be a Muslim… Those Muslims who find it intolerable to live in a United Kingdom contaminated with the Rushdie virus need to seriously consider the Islamic alternatives of emigration (hijrah) to the House of Islam or a declaration of holy war (jihād) on the House of Rejection.” In the same article, Akhtar said of the supposed anti-Muslim sentiments Rushdie had sparked, “The next time there are gas chambers in Europe, there is no doubt concerning who’ll be inside them.” Effectively, Akhtar was calling for a preference of no mention of Muhammad in art as a form of appeasement to keep at bay the extremists Western society automatically associates with “all Muslims.”
Predicting the shift of “liberalism” into the territory of censorship so as to avoid “offending” anyone under the guise of “inclusivity,” journalist Andy McSmith remarked of Akhtar’s rhetoric, “We are witnessing, I fear, the birth of a new and dangerously illiberal ‘liberal’ orthodoxy designed to accommodate Dr. Akhtar and his fundamentalist friends.”
Margaret Atwood has freshly cut to the core of this sentiment in the wake of Rushdie’s stabbing. Now entering the fray with her own take on the present left versus right political climate as it pertains to free speech, she relates it to the long-standing attempts on Rushdie’s life. So it was that Atwood wrote of the August 12th “incident” that Rushdie, in spite of Islam’s attempts to instill the fear of “God” (or rather, Muhammad) within him, “never missed an opportunity to speak out on behalf of the principles he’d been embodying all his writing life. Freedom of expression was foremost among these. Once a yawn-making liberal platitude, this concept has now become a hot-button issue, since the extreme right has attempted to kidnap it in the service of libel, lies and hatred, and the extreme left has tried to toss it out the window in the service of its version of earthly perfection.”
Well before this warped flip-flopping of ideals, when politics felt like a topic reserved solely for politicians to duke out, Rushdie, just as Don DeLillo before him, relied on copywriting as a career before transitioning out of the field (he wrote Midnight’s Children while still working at Ogilvy & Mather; DeLillo, instead, worked at the same agency’s branch in New York). This, in fact, is the type of “writing” that people would prefer writers “stuck to.” Keeping it light, airy and, most importantly for the capitalist agenda, profitable to not just the writer, but the many corporations ultimately involved. Appropriately enough, DeLillo once said, “Writers must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments… I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us.” Rushdie has undeniably adhered to that philosophy, regardless of whether one feels “moved” by his style of writing or not. And it is his “opposition” to being told to shut up—not to Islam, per se—that has landed him in this death throe.
As a result, it is easy for non-“titan” writers to be misled into believing that literature remains such a force to be reckoned with that it can still provoke a visceral reaction like murderous rage (J. K. Rowling, too, being threatened with, “You’re next” for her, by now, well-documented stance as a TERF). Even with all the streaming options available to distract the masses from such quaint things as “book learnin’.” But, in truth, it’s more a matter of which sect of people one “chooses” to offend with the topics they address. And it doesn’t even have to be genuinely offensive; it’s the mere act of addressing the topic at all. For people would so much prefer if writers said nothing whatsoever about “hot-button” issues and instead stuck to the frothy stylings of “BookTok” (i.e., a YA or E. L. James novel).
For those who would say that literature of any genre still has all-encompassing power to provoke, the evidence raised would be that books are, once again, being banned at the elementary to high school level. But that’s solely because, if we’re being quite candid, it’s likely the only period in the average person’s life when they’ll feel obliged to actually read semi-regularly. All of this said, has “Islam’s revenge” merely served as a reminder to the sensitivity readers at the Big Five publishing companies that causing religious outrage actually sells more books than sex? It was true then and, thanks to this stabbing, it remains true now. And so, for those committed to the written word, perhaps it really is a gentle nudge to keep “holding on” to the increasingly anachronistic concept of free expression. Because, even if it might kill you, it might also manage to make you (or your successors) some coin. And that, far above art, is what the diabolical West is all about, no?