While he lies in a hospital bed fighting for his life after an unprovoked knife attack, the famous British writer Sir Salman Rushdie is still a vivid symbol of how a literary controversy can turn into a hot political one. Decades after the publication of his book Satanic Verses, which caused an uproar in the Muslim world and prompted the then Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa that he should be killed, the author faced yet another attempt on his life.
A 24-year-old American-born Lebanese man, Hadi Matar, stormed the stage where the author was about to speak and stabbed him more than a dozen times before being apprehended. US law enforcement had little information about the assailant, though some media reports highlighted the fact that he was a Shiite Muslim, with affinity to Iran and its militant militia IRGC (Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps) as his social media accounts show.
World reaction to the assassination attempt on Rusdie’s life seems to differ from what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yet in each case it is a “political”, as one French-Arab writer told Al-Ahram Weekly: “When literary creativity is politicised, it can get to that maximalist point: killing for thought.” He gave many examples. Some were Arabs like “Palestinian cartoonist Nagui Al-Ali who was assassinated in London and Egyptian Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz who was attacked in Cairo by a young man who had never read his novels.”
The main question being asked now by many in the West and in the region is this: how is it that a young man born so long after The Satanic Verses fatwa is still so committed to killing a novelist for something he has written?
In 1998, the Iranian government stopped officially backing the fatwa. Since then, Rushdie had carefully come out of hiding, though he remained under protection because of death threats. Ironically, he told a German magazine earlier this month that he believed his life “had returned to being relatively normal”.
Rushdie became an American citizen in 2016, after living in New York for many years. He was born in Bombay, India, just two month before its independence from British rule. Fourteen years later, he was sent to UK for education where he earned a degree in history from Kings College, Cambridge University. His first book Grimus was not a success, but his second, Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and sold half a million copies.
Rushdie has written numerous other books, but it was Satanic Verses that generated a rather more than literary achievement. Soon after its release, demonstrations by angry Muslims across the globe led to deaths and clashes. Many countries banned the book in fear of what was seen as blasphemy. Even some Westerners proved understanding of Muslim anger. In the title Rushdie refers to verses of the Holy Quran that the Prophet Mohamed removed believing they were inspired by Satan. Two prostitutes are named after two wives of the Prophet Mohamed.
After he gained British citizenship, Salman Rushdie dropped his religion. Yet, as riots escalated he expressed regret that his book offended Muslims. Months later, in 1989, Khomeini issued his fatwa putting a bounty of three million dollars on Rushdie’s head. Western governments strongly condemned the Iranian position and withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran.
The literary controversy turned into a political storm, and the UK government had to assign protection to the writer who thereafter lived in hiding. The literary worth of Rushdie’s novels has always been overshadowed by the Satanic Verses issue.
The aforementioned French writer said that Rushdie could have ascended the ladder of fame on his creative work alone, but politicisation deprived him of that. Oxford University historian Andrew Hammond agrees. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that his best book was his second one: “His second book Midnight’s Children is his best. Satanic Verses was an ambitious but over-the-top rumination on the fragmented identity of Indian Muslim immigrants. It was politicised in Pakistan and then Iran by conflicts that the book had nothing to do with. But these things happen. It made Rushdie and an obscure attempt at magical realism famous.”
That controversy left deaths at the time. Twelve people were killed in riots in Rushdie’s birthplace of Bombay in 1988. The Japanese translator of his book was stabbed to death outside his university office in Tokyo two years later. The Norwegian translator of the book survived a shooting outside his home in Oslo. An Italian translator was also stabbed in Milano, but survived.
The last assassination attempt against Rushdie, who was knighted by the British Queen in 2007 for his literary achievements, stirred a range of political reactions. No understanding of Muslim anger can now justify an attack like that. Condemnations have therefore unreserved. But politics is not spared. The Israeli prime minister quickly took to Twitter to blame Iran. News outlets hurried to ask Lebanese Hizbullah about the assailant, and the party denied any knowledge of him.
“Although the Iranian state later played down Khomeini’s fatwa, the fatwa remained and it was always possible that someone could act on it. Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in 1994 years after his novel Awlad Haretna was denounced after publication in 1959. The Rushdie affair may have disappeared from media concerns, but any follower of Khomeini’s thought could act on it any time. The continuing tension between the Iranian regime and the United States keeps it bubbling away,” Hammond said.
In their quest to explain why the attack happened now, some commentators go further by suggesting that this may be a resurgence of “Islam against the West.” There is near agreement that the politicisation of literature and art is not in the interest of either politics or creativity.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.