Muslim world forgives Salman Rushdie

 

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Category: Profiles Date: 01 Oct 98


‘The reason why we have been able to fight this campaign and the reason why so many people fielded defence committees around the world, individuals in many countries, politicians and so on, the reason why this issue has been kept alive is not just that somebody’s life was in danger but because the world is full of people whose lives are in danger’

“When the news got around Jahilia that the ‘whores of The Curtain’ had each assumed the identity of one of Mahound’s wives, the clandestine excitement of the city’s males was intense.” Extract from The Satanic Verses  (the Prophet Mohammed is assumed to be  Mahound)

 

“I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses book which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.  I ask all Muslims to execute them.” Ayatollah Khomeini, February 1989.

 

“It looks like its over. It means everything, it means freedom.”

Salman Rushdie September 24, 1998 after the Iranian government announced that it would do nothing to threaten his life and dissociated itself from the offer of a reward to his killers.

 

It was just another grey morning in North London, the moment we all get in the course of a working day, putting the kettle on for another cup of coffee, or as I was, blankly looking out of the windows of the long, rectangular office building. I saw a TV cameraman running after a reporter, running after a slightly hunched, bearded man. Very quickly, everyone in the office lined up thigh to thigh, peering, down from the third floor.  If we were on a ship we would have tipped over. Sadly, for the TV reporter it was soon apparent it was not going to be a scoop. A militia of photographers, cameramen, hands carrying large booms, reporters with notebooks, asking questions, flashing cameras at him, walking backwards, blocking him. By then, we had all recognised him: Salman Rushdie, who recently had the fatwa removed from him, was walking along this ordinary street near the Angel tube station. God to lovers of great literature, Devil to Islamic fundamentals most of whom have never read any of his work.

 

He was pale, and looked like he had just come up for air, only to be assaulted by people like us, who make a living out of other people’s misery. He froze for a split second, leg in mid-air, in order to, as we would say, catch himself. He was not just up for air. He was just walking round the corner to Lancaster House where he was to give a press conference that was later pronounced by Literary Editor of The Observer,  Robert McCrum, as “a bravura  performance.” It was here, in a press conference on September 25, that Rushdie told journalists about his feelings for the Iranian government’s dissociation from the 1989 death decree (fatwa) against him by Tehran’s  late leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

 

After what journalists described as a “two hour cliff hanger wait” which mysteriously had to do with security, although he had just been walking on  a back street in Islington, Rushdie began the denouement of his 10- year ordeal as one of the most wanted men in the Muslim world.

“Let us not forget that this has been a dreadful event, a dreadful event, and I would like to say also how sorrowful I feel about all the people who died in demonstrations against The Satanic Verses, particularly in the subcontinent of India.

“I feel in many cases that they didn’t even know who they were demonstrating against, or why, and that was a shocking and terrible waste of human life, and I regret that equally with everything else that happened.

“The reason why we have been able to fight this campaign and the reason why so many people fielded defence committees around the world, individuals in many countries, politicians and so on, the reason why this issue has been kept alive is not just that somebody’s life was in danger but because the world is full of people whose lives are in danger.

“The reason is that some incredibly important things were being fought for here: being important to me, the art of the novel; beyond that, the freedom of the imagination, the great overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own country without fear.

“These have been colossal matters and many of us who, by inclination and design, were not politicians, have been prepared to become political animals and fight this fight because it was worth fighting, not just for myself, not just to save my skin but because it represented many things in the world that we most care about.

“I don’t think it’s a moment to feel anything except a serious and grave satisfaction that one of the great principles of free societies has been defended. At the end of it there has been a great political negotiation which has resulted in this happy ending. However, the reason the struggle succeeded, was because ordinary people around the world wanted to fight for these things readers, writers, booksellers, publishers, translators and ordinary  citizens.”

 

This is a large and generous account by a writer who has been in hiding since his timetable of terror began on February 14, 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini announced his fatwa. In 1991, the Japanese translator of his book was stabbed to death. In July 1993, 40 people died in a hotel fire in Turkey during anti - Rushdie violence after the publication of extracts from The Satanic Verses in a liberal newspaper.

 

Today, he thanks all those who defended him, publishers, politicians, and friends. However, in times of triumph, especially after we have emerged from the dark, we are generous both with adversaries and ourselves. Our memory is selective.  Perhaps, this is the body’s way of protecting itself from on-going trauma.  At the press conference, Rushdie was effusive:

“I’d like to thank all those people who have helped that fight. There are thousands and thousands of people in the defence campaign - from the United States to Scandinavia, to  Holland, France, Germany and elsewhere. This is a fight which ordinary people have fought.”

 

His friends too are delighted. Novelist, Jane Drabble, gushes:

“His survival has been remarkable. The fatwa was depressing enough. The fact that it went on for nine years is even worse. However, thank goodness it has not lasted any longer. It has been a long, long, wait. All his friends can breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate.”

Michael Foot, the former labour leader of Mr Rushdie, said September 24 when it was lifted, was a great day.

“Every lover of freedom should be rejoicing. It looks like a great victory for human freedom, a great victory for his courage, and a great day for the diplomacy that the Government has done.”

During question time, he was elated enough to be humble, and acknowledged his mistakes. For instance, he said he regretted his conversion to Islam. He cracked jokes. He was described by his friend Robert McCrum as  “funny, articulate and thoughtful.” McCrum left out relieved.

 

The public story of a prisoner freed after nine years, seven months and 10 days is a good one. However, the private story, which demonstrates what fear can do to a man, that, is far more compelling.

 

In the nine years of his fatwa, Rushdie lived like a man who lived with the sword of Damocles over his head. This Herculean novelist whose first allegiance was to art, truth, had the jitters.  In 1989: Fear, anger: He separates from his wife Marianne Wiggins who publicly calls him self obsessed and vain. February 1990: Courage:  He breaks his silence in a 7,000 word essay defending The Satanic Verses. June:  Fear : Rushdie donates £5,000 to the Iran earthquake appeal. December:  Courage: He broadcasts live on the BBC and makes an appearance at a  Waterstone’s Bookshop. February 1992: Hope: Key pro-Rushdie campaigner,  Frances DSouza, meets Iranian diplomats in London. March: The paperback on  sale in Britain. November: Fear: The Bounty on his head is raised. July 1993:  Rushdie contributes £500,000 to his own protection after 40 deaths in Turkey. July: Affirmation of literature: Midnights Children wins Best of Booker 25 year prize. December: Fear: Rushdie formally and publicly converts to Islam. 1996:  February: Joy: The Moors Last Sigh is named book of the year at the British Book Awards 1997.  February:  Fear: Bounty on Rushdie raised to  $2.5 million in 1997. August: Love: Rushdie Remarries. February 1998: Hope: Robin Cook vows to put pressure on Iran. Rushdie meets Tony Blair. September 24: Triumph over fear. Kamal Kharazi says Iran does not support the bounty on him.

 

During those times, Rushdie has repeatedly criticised his colleagues, writers of repute and especially the British Government for not doing enough.  Now, he can’t thank them enough. Rushdie told his friend Robert McCrum on September 26, one day after the fatwa was called off, “I didn’t expect to survive. I didn’t expect to live.”

 

The Rushdie Affair, as it is now known is not just about  fundamental human rights from being able to spontaneously take a walk without  fear and free expression of the intellect. It is about another grand theme: kicking death in the face with courage. That image of a man walking down a tiny, dreary street with modern grey offices with his leg frozen in the air will endure. It is endearing to see him being determined not to be afraid. There is a little bit of all of us in Rushdie, and some of him in all of us. Despite his and our human capriceslike vanity and inconsistency, he has demonstrated that there is nothing that creativity, good friends and love can’t bring you through. There is also the luck factor which came in the form of a man called  Kamal Kharrazi. For his sake and ours, let’s hope it holds out.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur