The savage and near fatal knife attack on Salman Rushdie on 12th August in quiet upstate New York shocked many. It echoed through the global community of writers and readers and well beyond. Rushdie had been about to speak when naked violence plunged into a literary event. It charged brutally into the world of words, thought and imaginative expression. These are more usually spaces of reflection in which violence is parsed, questioned, perhaps mocked, deflected, understood.
Rushdie has been a friend for decades and the shock of his attack brought me back to the moment on Valentine’s Day 1989, some months after the publication of The Satanic Verses, when Iran’s chief cleric issued a Fatwa, a death sentence, against Rushdie and his publishers, quickly followed by what was effectively a ransom on his head. The book, it was purported, not it seems on the evidence of reading but of politically sparked protests in Britain (initially with kindling from India) and elsewhere, was blasphemous. In Bolton, in the North of England, it was burned. Around the furore clerics consolidated their power, hastening to speak for a newly identified ‘Muslim’ community, where before there had been immigrants, men and women, from various geographic locations who may also have been more or less Muslim. This was arguably the first move in the Anglo world into identity politics, and the rise of subjectively felt (rather than intended) ‘offence’ or ‘insult’ as a political category.
For many, The Satanic Verses was a satire on Thatcher’s Britain, the parlous life of migrants, the hardships of displacement which can also transform to give birth to new energetic combinations. With Rushdie’s hyperbolic genius, the book exposed racism and celebrated hybridity, ‘our mongrel selves’. It was not a book which extolled purity, religious or otherwise: the episode of the so-called "satanic verses" is part of a hallucination experienced by one of its protagonists.
Religious purists and extremists are not lovers of literature: they usually have only one book in their repertoire and that one is learned by rote. They are, however, interested in authority and power. The call to assassination by a state on a writer-citizen of another was unprecedented in the modern world. The Papal Index may have prohibited the reading of Madame Bovary: it didn’t send an assailant to ferret out Flaubert.
Rushdie was forced into hiding. He had to keep moving, change addresses, stay indoors, never appear on public platforms, where his wit and brilliance have always been in evidence. He was grateful to have round-the-clock police protection, but he was also effectively living the life of a captive. The threats were all too real. Book-burning, as history has sadly shown, can act as a prelude to other kinds of violence, perpetrated to consolidate power. Protests and yes, killings, grew, including that of Rushdie’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi in 1991.
Rushdie kept making bids for freedom, sometimes appearing at literary festivals, or seeing politicians who might help put pressure on Iran to lessen the threat. Meanwhile, with extraordinary strength of mind, he kept on writing, producing wonderful fictions, including the book for his then young son, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a wonderful voyage into story and the power of the word. It took some ten years for a new government in Iran to state that they no longer had the intention of enforcing the Fatwa. Not that it could be taken off the statute books, but its sentence would no longer be sought by government actors. Rushdie weighed up the danger of an individual assailant against that of organised state action and decided to take his chances. He made a bid for freedom. He left Britain for the US. With the French director, Elisa Mantin, we made a film (Rendez-vous à New York) of him in his new home country: his joy at being able to walk down the streets is palpable.
The Italian journalist, Roberto Saviano, targeted by the Camorra for his exposé Gomorra, has been living under constant police protection since 2006. He commends and admires, indeed envies Rushdie for having made a bid for freedom, one which has given him over 20 years of courageous liberty – a time in which, we should note, he has written without cease and given us a splendid array of fictions about America, as well as acting as President of PEN America and championing endangered writers around the world. In Britain, while I was President of English PEN, he helped us with our ‘Free Expression is no Offence’ Campaign, which challenged the government’s attempt to make offences of religion a criminal act. We successfully curtailed the powers of the bill which would have made any discussion, let alone criticism or satire of religion, a prosecutable offence.
Saviano worries that the recent attack will mark the need for police protection for Rushdie as well as more caution. President Biden has made a statement in which he commends Rushdie for his courage and resilience and notes "his insight into humanity", "his refusal to be intimidated or silenced".
We live at an odd historical moment where in the English-speaking world, the defence of free expression has somehow become allied to the right, indeed hijacked by it – as if defending free expression were equivalent to defending the right to defame, or libel, insult or incite which come within a category of legal harm. Meanwhile other factions want a kind of anodyne purity and even-handedness that is not of this world, nor exists in readers’ minds.
Free imaginative expression is much broader than this. It is what the greatest writers have long practised, even in the face of death. Rushdie is one of them. We all need to rally round to wish him better and to hope for more from his wonderful pen – stronger we pray than any sword or knife.