March 15, 1989
After the thousand and one magical realist novels, with their daffodils falling from the sky and ancient crones giving birth to pig-faced children—novels desperate to recapture from the movies some small piece of the art of narrative by creating imagery that cannot be adequately represented on the screen—the genre has finally produced its masterpiece. Yet, as might be expected, it is not a novel at all, not even a book, but a tale that exists only in bits and pieces in the newspapers and on radio and TV, in oral transmission and cocktail party chatter. It is a plot that is still unfolding, and strangely, or not so strangely, it is the story of a magical realist novel: Once upon a time there was a man who wrote a book which a billion people didn’t like. They tried to kill him for it, and ended up killing each other. Few of these people had even seen the book, yet all, friend and foe alike, found that it revealed their own worst natures…
I speak of course of the sprawling metafiction that is being engendered by that sprawling metafiction called The Satanic Verses. Today, the Ides of March—though the date, given the intellectual constrictions of the protagonist, is surely arbitrary—is the deadline set by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the execution of Salman Rushdie. (And an execution, unlike sudden or slow death, creates its own, suspended yet limited time, as the crowds standing by wait for fate to be enacted: executed.) Rather than yet another expedition onto the moral high ground—that territory already grown thick with rhetoric—it may be a day simply to unravel the tangled plot, to try to get the story straight, while we wait for the next night of this fantastic tale:
Salman Rushdie was born to an upper-class Moslem family in Bombay in 1947, the year of Indian independence. At thirteen he was sent to England for a gentleman’s education: Rugby and Cambridge. His family, meanwhile, moved to Pakistan, where Rushdie joined them after graduation. His brief stay in Karachi a disaster, he was soon back in London, where he became a British citizen and worked for ten years as an advertising copywriter while attempting to write fiction. A fantasy novel, Grimus, was published in 1974 and quickly forgotten. In 1981, however, his second book, Midnight’s Children, became an international success. A magical realist novel about the children born at the moment of Indian independence, their descent from exhilaration to despair, it was the first novel to emerge from the contemporary urban chaos (in this case, of Bombay) rather than the ‘timeless India’ of the villages. More important, after generations of Indian writers whose language was more English than the English, Rushdie’s book was written in the accelerated, jazzy speech of the city streets. He was, incredibly, the first Indian to write in Indian English, and he had tile enviable position of being a Joycean with an entirely untapped language at his disposal. [Ironically for his international reputation, it is precisely his finest quality which cannot be translated. In any other language, he becomes merely a funnier version of Garcia Marquez.]
Midnight’s Children provoked endless debate in India for its savage portrait of Mrs. Gandhi–who threatened to sue Rushdie for libel–and her martial-law Emergency of 1975. India allowed copies to be imported, but there was no Indian edition for many years. In 1983 he published Shame, which was, in many ways, a shorter version of the previous novel, this time set in Pakistan. Once again, his portrait of a ruler, the Pakistani dictator General Muhammad al-Hu Zia, set off a storm, and the book was banned in that country.
Rushdie became a celebrity in England, usually paired in opposition to England’s other novelist of-Indian-origin-in-residence, V.S. Naipaul. Where Naipaul stood for Queen and Thatcher, and made a career out of ridiculing Third World countries, Rushdie criticized England’s ethnocentrism and institutionalized brutality against its minorities. Naipaul, in his tweed suits, lived as a squire in a country cottage; Rushdie, in a loose kurta, was part of the trendy left-wing literary set in the city.
The topic of his next novel was predictable: the masses of Asian immigrants in London. Rushdie had always been the first in his territory, and here was an opportunity for which he was, of course, perfectly suited. After two centuries of Orientalism and the thousands of novels and accounts of Englishmen abroad, the time was overripe for a story of the reverse migration and peregrinations: an epic of Occidentalism.
With an advance of $850,000 from Viking/Penguin, he clearly set out to write the Anglo-Indian Ulysses. What he wrote was The Satanic Verses: a dense and very funny novel, filled with characters who mirror each other and ten years’ worth of news stories and objective correlatives from England, India, Pakistan, and the U.S., much of which will float by most readers outside of those countries: the baby stoned to death on the steps of a mosque in Lahore; the film star Dimple Kapadia (here called Pimple); the woman bandit Phoolan Devi; the man in California who swindled money from widows by claiming he had to buy back his soul from the devil; the New York restaurant Takesushi; the Tamil star M.G. Ramachandran, who played various gods in the movies and then became governor of his state and a little god himself, the massacre of children in Assam; the housing scandals in London; and so on. Like nearly everything of interest coining from England these days—so reminiscent of American narratives in the 1960s–the book is largely set in the apocalypse of Thatcher London, with its race riots, police violence, cars burning in the street. It is a novel whose language is relentlessly brilliant on every page, and yet the pages never quite add up to a novel, for they paper over some enormous holes.
Following Dickens, the novel has scores of memorable minor characters, and one can imagine a wonderful version of The Satanic Verses composed entirely of these passersby: a panorama of the city. Instead, hundreds of pages are devoted to its two protagonists who, forced to stand for nearly everything, sink under the weight of their allegorical trappings. One, Gibreel, is a Bombay film star who turns into an evil angel and ends up as a tragically jealous lover, reenacting Othello; the other, Chamcha, is an Indian who has become the perfect Englishman, a good Satan who turns into a goat–only regaining his human form when he vents his long-suppressed rage at the Raj–and who, in the cloying and transparently autobiographical end of the novel, returns to Bombay for a reconciliation with his dying father and Mother India.
Within this story, Rushdie has incorporated another novel. [In a 1984 interview with the Australian magazine Scripsi, Rushdie described two novels he was then working on. They have clearly been joined together in Satanic Verses. It is one of the commonest mistakes of modernism: to assume that the two disparate works one happens to be writing can form a counterpoint to one another in a single piece.] This second novel extends the explorations of religious fanaticism begun in Shame into yet another virgin territory: the secular–not to mention satirical–use of the Quran. And it is this second work that not only partially undermines the novel, but ruined the author’s life.
Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world (and in the United States, particularly among blacks) not only because it has replaced Communism as the sworn and effective enemy of the colonialist West, but also because it offers the last refuge against the social and psychological commotion of the century: modernism, doubt, criticism, feminism. Of the three monotheisms, Islam is, for many reasons, the purest, the least affected by change, and the least subject to variation over the centuries. First, its founder lived in historical time, and Muhammad–a merchant, general, politician, and prophet of Mecca–considered himself merely an ordinary man whom God had selected to receive His message. There is no folklore about his life: no miracles or displays of’ supernatural power, no cults or local variants taking on lives of their own beyond the Quran. Second, it is the only major religion whose founder also personally created a theocratic state (and killed people to create that state); thus a model for Islamic society was spelled out in detail from the beginning. Third, its book–which legitimized Islam for the other peoples of the book, the Jews and the Christians–is the only one of the three that is actually written by God, and then dictated by the archangel Gabriel directly to Muhammad. As such, it is the first and last word, and it is inviolate: it cannot be translated, and it is the only Arabic text where the vowels are written out, to avoid mistakes in its recitation. Furthermore, Islam takes very seriously the Jewish commandment against graven images: the text is all. It is the only major religion without a sacred iconography, and even purely secular representational art is rare, for it is blasphemous to rival God as Creator. In the ninth-century Hadith literature, for example, owning representational paintings is considered as disgusting as keeping a dog inside one’s house–which is why Arab and Persian artistic impulses were mainly channeled into the calligraphic and architectural arts.
Islam begins and ends with the Quran. It has not only not had a Reformation: it has not had the folkloric or artistic adaptations or elaborations of’ the other religions–the thousands of’ versions of Jesus or the Buddha or the Virgin Mary. [What it has had are centuries of theological and legalistic debate over passages in the Quran. And it is important to remember, thinking about the Power of the Ayatollah Khomeini, that the Shiites, unlike the Sunnis, believe that a new cycle began after the death of Muhammad, and that the secret meanings of the Quran are continued to be revealed to the Imams.]
Rushdie has leapt into this iconic vacuum with two chapters in which his character Gibreel (Gabriel) dreams of the founding of Islam. It is a comic burlesque version, reminiscent of the scene in Bunuel’s Viridiana where the beggars reenact the Last Supper: Muhammad is called Mahound (a medieval English derogatory name for the Prophet); Mecca is Jahilia (Arabic for “darkness”); a scribe named Salman (more than a post-modern joke: Salman was a Persian companion of Muhammad, and is particularly beloved by Iranian Shiites) deliberately changes the words dictated by the angel Gabriel to Mahound; and countless aspects of Quranic law are turned upside-down. Worse, in a story within the story, the whores in the Jahilia brothel take on the names and identities of Mahound/Muhammad’s wives and reenact events occurring in the outside world.
The irony, given the ensuing events, is that the novel would have been much stronger without these two chapters (and two further chapters, where a young woman prophet, clothed in butterflies, leads a village of Mecca pilgrims into the sea), which have little to do with the rest of the book. But Rushdie clearly felt–despite his later disavowals–that an all out parodic assault on the basic tenets of Islam was long overdue. And, as the coup de grace, he titled his novel after the one flaw in the Quranic carpet, the “Satanic Verses” themselves: according to a contemporary legend, Muhammad, having met considerable resistance to his attempt to eliminate all the local gods of Mecca in favor of the One God, recited some verses which admitted three popular goddesses as symbolic Daughters of Allah. Later, Muhammad claimed that the verses were dictated to him by Satan in the voice of Gabriel. Thus the Quran, as Mircea Eliade has pointed out, is the only divinely revealed text which was subject to revision–which of course becomes another post-modern joke.
The Satanic Verses was published in England in September of last year with predictable results: the book was a critical and commercial success, and immediately banned in the Islamic countries that had bothered to notice. Two acts plunged the book into controversy: First, Rajiv Gandhi, facing important state elections and under pressure from Moslem fundamentalists in Parliament, banned the book in India. (A not entirely indefensible act, given the continual ethnic and sectarian strife that has sharply escalated under his regime.) Then the book was publicly burned in two towns in the north of England with large Moslem populations, Oldham and Bradford (home of the Bronte sisters). Local Labour Party MPs, supported by the Bishop of Bradford, attended both demonstrations, and there was talk of indicting Rushdie under the Race Relations Act or the Public Order Act, and extending the blasphemy laws to include Islam as well as Christianity. [It seems incredible that England still has blasphemy laws–but it is, after all, the country that strangled William Tyndale in 1535 and burned him at the stake for the crime of translating the Bible.]
Both of these acts produced flurries of indignant letters and articles in India and England, and impassioned defenses of the freedom of the word from Rushdie. This was, no doubt, the kind of controversy Rushdie had anticipated, and probably desired. What no one could have foreseen, however, was the mayhem that broke out around the world with the publication of the book in the United States, six months after the British edition. [The book appeared in the stores in the first week of February; its official publication date was February 22.] The story is so full of subplots, daily developments and reversals, that it is best-at this early stage, while it is all still unfolding-told through a day-by-day chronology:
February 12: Police open fire on anti-Rushdie demonstrators storming the American cultural center in Islamabad, Pakistan. Five are killed and 100 wounded. Later in the day, the American Express office is sacked.
[Given the fact that the book, already banned in Pakistan, is written by a British citizen and has been available for months in England, the attack on American offices seems peculiar, In the Following days it becomes evident that Rushdie is merely a pretext, and that the demonstration was orchestrated by the defeated opposition party, the Islamic Democratic Alliance, in league with various fundamentalist groups, as away of destabilizing the recently elected government of Benazir Bhutto, who at the time was out of the country on a state visit to Beijing. Bhutto, a Harvard graduate who spent years in exile in London, is seen by fundamentalists as far too westernized. Worse, she is a woman who has announced that she will lift the Quranic restrictions on women instituted by her predecessor, General Zia. The demonstrators chant slogans referring to Bhutto with ‘vulgar epithets for female animals. “
The leader of the demonstrations turns out to be Kausar Niazi, who had once been a minister in the government of Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfitkar Ali Bhutto, and who was overthrown and executed by General Zia. In the Bhutto days, Niazi’s nickname was “Whiskey” (an ironic echo of the movie mogul in Satanic Verses, “Whiskey” Sisodia) due to his well-known fondness for alcohol and dancing girls. His sudden defense of orthodox Islam surprises even the fundamentalists.]
February 13: Police kill three and wound sixty in demonstrations in Srinagar, India, the capital of the predominantly Moslem state of Jammu and Kashmir. The city completely shuts down for three days. [Again, Rushdie is a pretext for a display of Kashmiri nationalism, including those who wish to secede from India, or merge with Pakistan, or overthrow the Rajiv Gandhi government.]
The American Embassy in Islamabad issues a statement: “The U.S. government in no way supports or associates itself with any activity that is in any way offensive or insulting to Islam or any other religion.” [There is no mention of the fact that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech- “any” speech.]
In London, Rushdie responds: ‘The thing that is most disturbing is that they are talking about a book that doesn’t exist. The book that is worth killing people for and burning flags for is not the book I wrote. . . The common characteristic of the people who are fulminating against this book is that they haven’t read it.” [Of course, as Rushdie well knows, had they read it they would have been even angrier.]
February 14: In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini calls for the execution of Rushdie and “all those involved in its publication.” Anyone killed carrying out this order will be considered a martyr, and thus ensured a place in paradise. In a further display of omnipotence, he warns other governments against attempting to interfere with his commands.
The British Foreign Office asks for clarification.
[Khomeini’s death warrant occurs at a particularly delicate moment in Iranian history. The long and finally inconclusive Iran-Iraq war has left hundreds of thousands dead and the country devastated. Khomeini’s own health, at age eighty-six, is failing, setting up a struggle for succession. Both the West and the Soviet bloc are eager to win the lucrative contracts for reconstruction. Within Iran, a faction led by Speaker of the House Hashemi Rafsanjani-the so-called “moderates, ” although they have been responsible for the execution of thousands of political opponents-is merging closer ties with the West. Those around Khomeini still favor complete isolation from the heathen world. Khomeini is, above all, a brilliant politician: by calling for Rushdie’s death, he will provoke such opposition from the West as effectively to subvert Rafsanjani’s conciliatory gestures.]
In Pakistan, ‘Whiskey” Niazi claims that emissaries are already on their way to London to assassinate Rushdie. “My prediction is that he will be eliminated in the coming few months.”
Rushdie: “It is riot true this book is a blasphemy against Islam. I doubt very much Khomeini or anyone else in Iran has read the book.”
February 15: A “National Day of Mourning” in Iran. Many thousands demonstrate outside the British Embassy. The Ayatollah offers a reward of $3 million to any Iranian or $1 million to any foreigner who kills Rushdie.
Rushdie cancels a promotional tour of eleven American cities. The French publishing house of Christian Bourgois announces it has dropped its plan to publish the book. In New York, television and radio programs have difficulty finding well known writers or publishers willing to support Rushdie publicly. They are, quite simply, fearful for their lives. Only one internationally known writer, the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, condemns the Iranian action as “intellectual terrorism.” Given his position as the best known Moslem writer (still living in a Moslem country) in the world, it is an act of considerable courage.
There is no comment from the British government. [Although it is unprecedented for a national leader to call publicly for the execution of a foreign citizen living in his own country, Mrs. Thatcher–called Mrs. Torture in The Satanic Verses, is, naturally, slow to come to the aid of one of her harshest critics. Had it been say Kingsley Amis, the gunboats would already be steaming up the Persian Gulf. It should also be remembered that Thatcher has instituted the strictest censorship laws, by far, of any Western democracy, and that she herself, like Khomeini, unsuccessfully attempted to prohibit the foreign publication of a book she had banned in England–Peter Wright’s bland memoir of his British Intelligence spy days, Spycatcher–even taking the Australian publishers to court in that country]
February 16: The Iranians raise the bounty by another $3 million. Rushdie and his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, go into hiding, protected by armed guards.
Britain announces that it will temporarily freeze its recent efforts to improve relations with Iran.
In the U.S., various writers’ and Publishers’ organizations, but few individuals, condemn the death threat. The largest book chain, Waldenbooks, citing the safety of its employees and customers–although as yet there have been no threats–orders the book removed from its 1200 stores across the country. Employees are instructed not to talk to the media. Harry Hoffman, president of Waldenbooks and a former FBI agent, declares that the defense of freedom of speech is a problem for government, not for business (even if the business is dependent on freedom of speech): “Waldenbooks is not Congress … Our people are not Foreign Service officers, members of the diplomatic corps or soldiers sworn to protect the rights of citizens … “
[The immediate capitulation to Khomeini by publishers and booksellers is indicative of the terror that Islam now strikes in the West, particularly since the de-demonization of Communism. Imagine if the threat had come from a nation of equally minor international power: say, if Castro had demanded the banning abroad of books by Heberto Padilla. The reaction would have been a smile or a shrug. The Cubans, of course, do not commit acts of terrorism in the United States, but, as no one seems to notice, neither do the Iranians or any Islamic group: with a few minor exceptions, all attacks on Americans have occurred abroad. In the U.S. there have been far more attacks on Iranians and Arabs, particularly Palestinians, than by them. On the other hand it is also true, in the Media Age, that where there is widespread panic and hype concerning acts of violence that might, but have not yet, occurred, those acts will inevitably occur, inspired by panic.]
February 17: The President of Iran, Ali Khamenei, suggests that Rushdie may be pardoned if he apologizes to Moslems.
The British government announces it will retain its staff in Teheran: “The publication of books in this country has absolutely nothing to do with the British Government.”
Canada bans imports of the book under a law prohibiting “hate literature.” [Enacted a few years ago under pressure from Jewish groups, this law was meant primarily to ban neo-Nazi writing. In Canada, a supposedly liberal democracy, there are people who have been jailed for publishing books that claim that the Holocaust was a hoax.] A large book chain there, Coles Book Stores, announces they will not sell the book.
Most Western European governments denounce Iran, recalling minor officials or canceling state visits. Publishers in West Germany, Greece, Turkey, and Japan drop plans for the book, but those in Finland, Norway, and Italy decide to go ahead with their editions.
In the U.S., the second and third largest chains, B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble, pull the book off their shelves. [With the book-chain ban, the controversy becomes a local issue. American writers realize that the timidity of the chains will doubtless have future repercussions: The three chains account for thirty percent of all book sales, and if ideologues can force a book out of the stores, publishers will be reluctant to bring out books that might give offense. The writers finally begin to speak out publicly as individuals. The U.S. government, after years of saber-rattling on the question of terrorism, still has not commented on this rare instance of an actual national threat.]
The book, not sold at the chains and long sold-out from the independent stores, is completely unavailable in the U.S., and will remain so for the next three weeks while Viking/Penguin reprints its edition. Thus The Satanic Verses is a book almost no one, on either side of the controversy, has actually read.
February 18: Responding to yesterday’s hint from the President of Iran, Rushdie issues a tepid three-sentence apology: “As the author of The Satanic Verses, I recognize that Moslems in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.”
American writers and literary organizations line up to condemn Iran and the book chains, and to demand that President Bush–who has already become our Prince Hamlet–make up his mind to respond.
[American comment is largely marked by hyperbole and false analogy. The Holocaust, for both sides, is a popular motif. Susan Sontag writes: “We feel superior to those Germans who in 1933 and 1934 didn’t protest when their Jewish colleagues were being fired or dragged off in the middle of the night to camps–It’s clear that the threat of violence by people perceived as fanatics is very terrifying.. But we have to be brave.” (Nearly all the “celebrity” writers remark on their bravery in finally speaking out, as though Iranian tanks are patrolling Soho.) The anti-Rushdites, revealing that they don’t watch television, wonder how Jews would feel if the Nazis were made a subject for comedy.
Exiled writers take the occasion to recall the imprisonment, censorship, and threats they received in their own countries–not one of them noticing that Rushdie is the first outlaw of the global village: the man for whom exile is not possible. (Even with the death of Khomeini, he will remain the Enemy of Islam; even with the passage of years there will be someone, somewhere, who won’t forget.)
There is a similar tendency, among the American writers, to reduce Rushdie to themselves: authors of works that go out into a world unpopulated exclusively by like-minded souls. A remark of extraordinary chauvinism by Ralph Ellison will be repeated often, and always favorably, throughout the affair: “A death sentence is a rather harsh review.”
Writers who normally are on the barricades condemning American imperialism call for military action against Iran. Rightists claim that celebrities like Rushdie are news, but not the faceless masses imprisoned and murdered by Communist regimes. Leftists claim that celebrities like Rushdie are news, but not the faceless masses imprisoned and tortured by right-wing regimes. Nearly everyone prefaces his remarks with sympathy for the wounded sensibilities of the Moslems, but nearly no one wonders why it is only religious ideologues whose sensibilities can be wounded-the rest of us have far stronger constitutions, and are never distressed by the social demands of the divinely motivated.]
February 19: The Ayatollah responds to Rushdie’s apology: “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Moslem to employ everything he’s got, his life and wealth, to send him to hell.”
The British government responds that they view the Ayatollah’s comments with “great concern.”
In London, a group of writers led by Harold Pinter delivers a letter to 10 Downing Street demanding action. The British Museum puts the book on its locked “restricted” shelves, normally reserved for pornography. On the front page of The News of the World, Rupert Murdoch warns Moslems in England to behave.
In New York, Cardinal O’Connor denounces the book, which he has “no intention” of reading. [Although murder is theoretically contrary to Judeo-Christian and most other extant sacred traditions, and religious leaders are no longer given to ordering executions, not a single major religious organization in the world has come to Rushdie’s defense.]
February 20: The twelve European Economic Community nations agree to recall their ambassadors from Teheran. The British announce they are withdrawing their entire staff. The U.S. government has no comment.
February 21: Iran, in turn, withdraws its ambassadors from the EEC nations. Canada and Sweden recall their ambassadors. West Germany cancels an important trade agreement. Britain asks Iran to remove its charge d’affaires from London. The Secretary General of the United States appeals for Rushdie’s life. Canada lifts its ban against the book.
President Bush, at last, makes an informal statement, in response to a reporter’s question: “However offensive that book may be, inciting murder and offering rewards for its perpetration are deeply offensive to the norms of civilized behavior.” He has no comment on the removal of the book from American bookstores. When asked whether he supports economic sanctions against Iran, he replies that he doesn’t know. [He is not asked why murder and writing differ only in their degrees of offensiveness]
In the U.S., amidst the paper storm of statements by writers and literary organizations against Iran and the book chains, seventeen prominent Catholic writers publish a letter attacking Cardinal O’Connor.
February 22: The Ayatollah reaffirms his position. The President of Iran (one of the “moderates”) states: “An arrow has been shot and is traveling toward the heart of the blasphemous bastard Rushdie.”
In the first comment from the Arab world, Sunni religious leaders meeting in Mecca declare that they will put Rushdie on trial in abstentia for heresy, and possibly sue Rushdie in British courts for slander. They emphasize their legalistic approach to the controversy. No Arab political leaders have commented on the case.
It is the official publication date for the book in the U.S., and the newspapers are full of advertisements declaring solidarity with Rushdie. In New York, three hundred writers march in freezing rain outside the Iranian Mission to the United Nations; with the exception of former Yippie Abbie Hoffman, there are no recognizable faces in the crowd–celebrities don’t get wet. A few hours later, 3000 people line up to attend a mass reading (indoors) by famous authors, sponsored by PEN. The hall can only seat 500, and 400 of the places are already occupied by the press. Those who manage to get inside are frisked, and hear selections from the book-chosen by a Viking editor-and mainly forgettable statements read by Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Robert Stone, the actress Claire Bloom (who qualifies as the wife of a writer, Philip Roth), Diana Trilling, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, and others, some of whom are accompanied by their publicists. [One wit points out that any one of these writers–in off-hand remarks over lunch–has prevented the publication of more books than the Ayatollah could manage in a hundred lifetime.]
Christopher Hitchens reiterates the Holocaust motif by declaring that we must all “don the yellow star.” Gay Talese, for reasons best known to himself, recites the Lord’s Prayer. Larry McMurtry tells how he was once threatened by a six-foot-six transvestite in his bookstore. The anthropologist Lionel Tiger recalls his Bar Mitzvah. Frances Fitzgerald states, with more liberal sympathy than historical foundation, that “to see the Ayatollah as the representative of Islam is like seeing the Grand Inquisitor as the representative of Christianity”–which is precisely what the Grand Inquisitor was, for millions. Norman Mailer speculates at length on the scene of the hit man attempting to collect his bounty, and then uses the occasion to attack Tom Wolfe, who is sitting in the audience.
Robert Massie, president of the Authors’ Guild, calls for a boycott of the chains. A drop in sales being more terrifying than a bomb in the mall, B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble later announce that they will resume selling the book, when it becomes available again.
In the day’s most intelligent comments, Edward Said, while defending plurality and free speech, articulates these “questions from the Islamic world”: “Why must a Moslem, who could be defending and sympathetically interpreting us, now present us so roughly, so expertly and so disrespectfully to an audience already primed to excoriate our traditions, reality, history, religion, language, and origins? Why, in other words, must a member of our culture join the legions of Orientalists in Orientalizing Islam so radically and unfairly?’ [To carry Said a step farther, it could be argued that Rushdie has in a sense become his own enemy, V.S. Naipaul. Rushdie is, after all, the best known writer of Moslem background in the West, and yet he has now become an “insider, ” writing exclusively for the West, who reinforces the West’s distaste for things and events in the Third World.]
February 23: The Holy War Organization for the Liberation of Palestine, a pro-Iranian group holding three American hostages, vows vengeance against Rushdie.
French and West German publishers, under pressure from writers and newspapers in their countries, announce that they will publish translations of the book, after all.
In London, a nearly forgotten folksinger from the 1970s, Cat Stevens, surfaces as a Moslem convert named Yusuf Islam, and declares that Rushdie should die. Radio stations around the world immediately ban his records, which provokes heated debate in the Top-40 world on censorship and the question of whether an artist can be separated from his political views. Stevens/Islam himself, however, is delighted: since his conversion he has disowned his old records and attempted to remove them from the market
February 24: In Bombay, police open fire on anti-Rushdie demonstrators as they approach the British consulate, killing twelve and wounding forty in a three-hour battle. 1300 are arrested.
In the loftiest assessment to date, Carlos Fuentes in the Los Angeles Times declares that Rushdie is an avatar of the Imagination, of a Bakhtinian dialogue set against the monologue of organized religion, the state, the multinational corporation. The Rushdie case becomes a kind of morality play, where the novel, which only offers questions, is locked in combat with the sacred text, which pretends to have all the answers.
February 25: The British government asks the Soviet Union to mediate on the Rushdie crisis in their forthcoming talks with Iran. Both the Soviet government and Soviet writers have so far been silent on the question. The Soviet Ambassador to Britain states, with no apparent irony, that the situation “clearly shows the need for respect for religious feelings and traditions as well as tolerance for the politics and values of others.”
February 26: A bomb at the British consulate in Karachi, Pakistan kills a Pakistani guard.
The Ayatollah meets with the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and announces that he wants closer ties between the two nations to counter the “devilish acts of the West.” This is the first visit to Iran by an important Soviet official since the 1979 revolution. Khomeini also suggests that the solution to Gorbachev’s problems may be found in conversion to Islam: “I want to open for Mr. Gorbachev a window to a great world–that is the world after death, which is the eternal one.”
In New York, ten to fifteen thousand Moslems demonstrate in front of the offices of Viking/Penguin, chanting-in an unintentional advertisement for Rushdie–“Shame!” It receives almost no news coverage. Thousands demonstrate in the holy city of Qom.
February 28: Iran gives Britain one week to repudiate Rushdie, or it will cut off all political relations. The Soviets offer to mediate, and mysteriously hint that they may be able to affect a solution.
In Berkeley, California, two bookstores are firebombed: a branch of Waldenbooks and the well known Cody’s Books. It is the first actual violence in the U.S., though other bookstores and Viking/Penguin now receive daily telephone threats, and it is said that some Viking/Penguin executives are wearing bulletproof vests to work. President Bush announces that he “will not tolerate” such violence, but offers no specific protection.
The British novelist Ronald Dahl denounces Rushdie as a “dangerous opportunist” who found a “cheap way” of getting “an indifferent book to the top of the bestseller list.”
March 1: Advertisements by the International Committee for the Defense of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers, signed by nearly every well known writer in the world, begin appearing in newspapers around the world.
March 2: Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, reacts to the Iranian ultimatum: ‘We do understand that the book itself has been found deeply offensive by people of the Moslem faith. We can understand why it has been criticized. It is a book that is offensive in many other ways as well.” The Secretary also claims (falsely) that the book compares Thatcher’s England with Hitler’s Germany.
Rushdie, who has remained incommunicado, telephones an opposition member of Parliament to express his anxiety that Britain may be ceding to Iranian demands.
French companies announce they will slow down their purchase of Iranian oil. The U.S. attacks the Soviet Union for “cozying up” to the Iranians. Thousands march against Rushdie in Dakka, Bangladesh.
March 3: Iran utterly rejects Britain’s conciliatory gestures. Khomeini sets a deadline of March 15 for the execution to be carried out.
March 5: Ahmed Jabrill leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–the group probably responsible for blowing up the Pan Am jet over Scotland in December–vows to kill Rushdie.
Former President Jimmy Carter, not exactly known for his savoir faire in dealing with Iranians, publishes an article titled “Rushdie’s Book is an Insult”: “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.” [Rushdie, in Shame, had written: “Autocratic regimes find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith because people respect that language … “]
March 6: The Vatican newspaper condemns the book as blasphemous: “It is certainly fair to ask what kind of art or liberty we are dealing with when, in their name, people’s most profound dimension is attacked and their sensitivity as believers is offended.”
In various places in Italy, bookstores displaying the book have their windows smashed. A bizarre development: in Ravenna, a group calling itself the Guardians of the Revolution threatens to blow up Dante’s tomb unless the Mayor repudiates the characterization of Muhammad in the Commedia. The Mayor refuses–repudiate Dante!–and orders armed guards around the tomb.
In Jerusalem, the Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazic Jews calls for a ban on the book in Israel.
March 7: Iran breaks all diplomatic relations with Britain. In Iran, it is considered a victory for the anti-West, Khomeini faction.
March 8: Britain announces it will expel twenty to thirty Iranians living in England. The Revolutionary Justice Organization, a Lebanese group holding two American hostages, claims it will attack the police protecting Rushdie “in order to reach him and execute him.” A Syrian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, also announces that it will kill him.
Susan Sontag, testifying before a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asks why the U.S. government has not formally condemned Iran. She also points out that federal law enforcement officials are supposed to protect the exercise of Constitutional rights–voting, registering in school, demonstrating, and so on–but have not been called out to defend the First Amendment right to publish, sell, and read books.
The FBI, rather than suggesting there are G-men undercover at the local Barnes & Noble, decides to calm the public by claiming that there are now dozens of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the U.S., posing as students. They offer no evidence.
March 9: In Britain there have been no public events in support of Rushdie for three weeks. Various members of the House of Lords denounce Rushdie for ruining the possibly lucrative relations with Iran. The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth calls for legislation which will ban all inflammatory books. [Presumably he will personally be responsible for measuring the degree of flammability.]
In the U.S., The Satanic Verses appears in the stores again, and immediately becomes the best-selling book in the country.
March 11: In the most embarrassing article of the whole affair, Joyce Carol Oates complains about the pretension of “Insufficiently Famous Writers” attacking “Famous Writers” (she naturally includes herself) for initial cowardice and later “self-promotion and self-righteousness.”
March 12: In the New York Times Book Review, twenty-eight writers from twenty-one countries send messages to Rushdie, most of them notable for their lack of anything to say: “You must be firm and brave”; “Don’t despair”; “Take good care of yourself”‘; and so on. Susan Sontag writes: “I hope you are getting some exercise and listening to music, dear Salman.” In the strangest message, Joseph Brodsky claims that “the book itself asked for it,” and then calls on writers to chip in for a bounty on the Ayatollah’s head. (In an act of similar civility, British press magnate Robert Maxwell had already offered a million pounds to anyone who “civilizes” Khomeini.)
On another blasphemy front, Italian television, under pressure from the Vatican, bans a rock video in which the singer Madonna, wearing a black lace negligee, enters a Catholic church, passionately kisses a life-size statue of a black saint, and receives the stigmata. Responding to the uproar with succinct wit–qualities almost entirely absent in the Rushdie affair-Madonna replies: “Art is controversial.”
March 13: Two members of the Swedish Academy of Literature (which awards the Nobel Prize) resign when a committee statement, deploring censorship around the world, fails to include Rushdie.
March 15: The forty-six Moslem nations, meeting in Riyadh, reject Khomeini’s demand that they break relations with the West, and issue a statement condemning both Rushdie and Iran.
J. Danforth Quayle, currently serving as vice-president of the United States, declares that he has not read the book, but “obviously it is not only offensive but, I think most of us would say, in bad taste.”
Despite the Ayatollah’s deadline, Rushdie manages to live through the day.
In 1984 he had written: “In the jungle of the cities, we live among our accumulations of things behind doors garlanded with locks and chains, and find it all too easy to fear the unforseeable, all-destroying coming of the Ogre–Charles Manson, the Ayatollah Khomeini the Blob from Outer Space.
Postscript: June 1, 1989
Three weeks after withdrawing them, eleven of the EEC nations–all except Britain–returned their ambassadors to Teheran. No economic sanctions were ever imposed, by any country, throughout the controversy.
In Brussels, two men–Abdullah al-Ahdal, head of the local mosque of the World Islamic League and considered the spiritual leader of Moslems in the Benelux countries, and Salem el-Beher, the mosque librarian–were both shot in the head inside the mosque. In an interview on Belgian television, Ahdal had criticized the death threat against Rushdie as contrary to Islamic law. A group linked to Iran, the Soldiers of Justice, claimed responsibility for the assassinations.
Most of the major European publishers–with the exception of Viking/ Penguin, which was not invited-announced that they would be attending a book fair in Teheran in May, sponsored by the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Culture. Two American publishers, originally planning to attend, finally withdrew under pressure.
In a defeat of the so-called “moderate” faction in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini ousted his designated successor, the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, as well as the Deputy Foreign Minister and the representative to the United Nations. In terms of domestic politics, the Rushdie affair was a remarkable victory for Khomeini: in the restlessness and discontent following the end of the Iran-Iraq war, he had rallied the nation and eliminated or converted many of his most powerful enemies. Even speaker of the House Rafsanjani was calling for Palestinians to kill Americans “wherever they find them.”
In Moscow, a group of writers founding the first Soviet branch of International PEN condemned the death threat–the first comment by Soviet writers on the affair. Moscow’s secret plan for ending the controversy was never revealed.
In Lagos, militants called for the death of Wole Soyinka for defending Rushdie. In Bombay, similar threats were made against the poet Dom Moraes and various Hindu leaders.
In Paris, a popular pop singer, Veronique Sanson, withdrew her song ‘Allah,’ after death threats. Cassettes naming various “enemies of Islam” were distributed among the local Moslem population.
On Charing Cross Road in London, the two largest bookstores were bombed for displaying The Satanic Verses. A play on the Rushdie affair, A Mullah’s Night Out, was renamed Iranian Nights after the cast became nervous.
In an obscure controversy in Los Angeles, a low-budget film about Iranian exiles, Veiled Threat, was dropped from the annual American Film Institute festival–according to its producers, because of bomb threats. The Institute, however, charged that the filmmakers had fabricated the treats for publicity purposes.
In New York, the president of the Pakistan League of America politely requested that Rushdie be extradited and handed over for trial in an Islamic court. A group of Ayn Rand followers, the Committee for the Defense of the Free Mind, took out full-page advertisements in the newspapers condemning all anti-rational mysticism, the “religious right and the relativist left, ” and demanding U.S. military action against Iran.
Satanic Verses remained at the top of the best-seller list, and Rushdie had surely become the most famous writer in the world. But, as in a fairy tale pact with the devil, it was likely that he would never be able to enjoy his fame and fortune. In hiding–in his unique form of house arrest–it was said that he spent his days writing thank-you notes to those who had supported him. It is impossible to imagine where, or when, he will ever go out again.