The book took more than four years to write. Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an “insult,” he wanted to reply, “I can insult people a lot faster than that.” But it did not strike his opponents as strange that a serious writer should spend a tenth of his life creating something as crude as an insult. This was because they refused to see him as a serious writer. In order to attack him and his work, they had to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist who “attacked Islam” for his own personal gain. This was what was meant by the much repeated phrase “He did it on purpose.” Well, of course he had done it on purpose. How could one write a quarter of a million words by accident? The problem, as Bill Clinton might have said, was what one meant by “it.”
The ironic truth was that, after two novels that engaged directly with the public history of the Indian subcontinent, he saw this new book as a more personal exploration, a first attempt to create a work out of his own experience of migration and metamorphosis. To him, it was the least political of the three books. And the material derived from the origin story of Islam was, he thought, essentially respectful toward the Prophet of Islam, even admiring of him. It treated him as he always said he wanted to be treated, not as a divine figure (like the Christians’ “Son of God”) but as a man (“the Messenger”). It showed him as a man of his time, shaped by that time, and, as a leader, both subject to temptation and capable of overcoming it. “What kind of idea are you?” the novel asked the new religion, and suggested that an idea that refused to bend or compromise would, in all likelihood, be destroyed, but conceded that, in very rare instances, such ideas became the ones that changed the world. His Prophet flirted with compromise, then rejected it, and his unbending idea grew strong enough to bend history to its will.
When he was first accused of being offensive, he was truly perplexed. He thought he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation — an engagement from the point of view of an unbeliever, certainly, but a genuine one nonetheless. How could that be thought offensive? The thin-skinned years of rage-defined identity politics that followed taught him, and everyone else, the answer to that question.
The British edition of The Satanic Verses came out on Monday, September 26, 1988, and, for a brief moment that fall, the publication was a literary event, discussed in the language of books. Was it any good? Was it, as Victoria Glendinning suggested in the London Times, “better than Midnight’s Children, because it is more contained, but only in the sense that the Niagara Falls are contained,” or, as Angela Carter said in the Guardian, “an epic into which holes have been punched to let in visions . . . [a] populous, loquacious, sometimes hilarious, extraordinary contemporary novel”? Or was it, as Claire Tomalin wrote in the Independent, a “wheel that would not turn,” or, in Hermione Lee’s even harsher opinion, in the Observer, a novel that went “plunging down, on melting wings toward unreadability”? How large was the membership of the apocryphal Page 15 Club of readers who could not get past that point in the book?
Soon enough, the language of literature would be drowned in the cacophony of other discourses — political, religious, sociological, postcolonial — and the subject of quality, of artistic intent, would come to seem almost frivolous. The book that he had written would vanish and be replaced by one that scarcely existed, in which Rushdie referred to the Prophet and his companions as “scums and bums” (he didn’t, though he did allow the characters who persecuted the followers of his fictional Prophet to use abusive language), and called the wives of the Prophet whores (he hadn’t — although whores in a brothel in his imaginary city, Jahilia, take on the names of the Prophet’s wives to arouse their clients, the wives themselves are clearly described as living chastely in the harem). This nonexistent novel was the one against which the rage of Islam would be directed, and after that few people wished to talk about the real book, except, usually, to concur with Hermione Lee’s negative assessment.
When friends asked what they could do to help, he pleaded, “Defend the text.” The attack was very specific, yet the defense was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, felt that he needed, a more particular defense, like those made in the case of other assaulted books, such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Ulysses,” or “Lolita” — because this was a violent attack not on the novel in general, or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together. He did it for money. He did it for fame. The Jews made him do it. Nobody would have bought his unreadable book if he hadn’t vilified Islam. That was the nature of the attack, and so for many years The Satanic Verses was denied the ordinary life of a novel. It became something smaller and uglier: an insult. And he became the Insulter, not only in Muslim eyes but in the opinion of the public at large.
Even now, the demonization of the writer continues as the Iranian Ayatollah Hassan Saneii suggested in a statement published on Sunday that recent insults to Islam are a result of the fact that Rushdie has still not been murdered: “As long as the exalted Imam Khomeini’s historical fatwa against apostate Rushdie is not carried out, it won’t be the last insult. If the fatwa had been carried out, later insults in the form of caricature, articles and films that have continued would have not happened.”
In another statement (this and the previous one noted by Robert Mackey), Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei references the same “evil chain” of insults.
At this point Rushdie can reasonably include himself among those who have been grossly insulted as his work of literature is now linked to a trashy video.
If the protection of sacredness is itself to be viewed as an expression of reverence, then surely it cannot flay about so indiscriminately.
While Khomeini’s fatwa is frequently referred to as having targeted Rushdie, he also included in his death sentence “all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content”. There is a legal exactness in the fact that he only sentenced those who were aware of the book’s content — not simply all the employees of Viking Press. Yet it begs the question: how aware of the book’s content was Khomeini himself? Less than four months away from his own death I doubt he ever set his hands on a copy and almost certainly never studied its content and yet on his command dozens of deaths followed. Ayatollah Saneii was wrong to say that the fatwa has not been carried out.
Laws about blasphemy have long been employed in the name of protecting religion, yet during what Rushdie reasonably calls these “thin-skinned years of rage-defined identity politics” a few words from a British government minister seem worthy of consideration by members of any faith: “the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers”.
Soon after Khomeini issued his fatwa, Rushdie was interviewed on CBS television and recalls in his memoir (again, referring to himself in the third person):
On air, when he was asked for a response to the threat, he said, “I wish I’d written a more critical book.” He was proud, then and always, that he had said this. It was the truth. He did not feel that his book was especially critical of Islam, but, as he said on American television that morning, a religion whose leaders behaved in this way could probably use a little criticism.
While calculated acts of provocation deserve to be condemned, so do acts of violence carried out in the name of protecting the faith — any faith.