What I knew back in 1989: The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa called for Salman Rushdie’s death. The running joke: Salman is in a rush to die.
I first heard of Salman Rushdie in 1989. I wasn’t yet an English major and knew nothing about magical realism, nothing about his literary talents. What I knew was that The Satanic Verses had been banned in some parts of the world. I knew the Ayatollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, had issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Rushdie went into hiding for much of the next decade.
The running joke: Salman is in a rush to die.
In Publishing The Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie Set Off a Firestorm
Why was The Satanic Verses so controversial? As Todd Green wrote in The Huffington Post, “The novel offended many Muslims because of its portrayal of Islam as a deceitful, ignorant, and sexually deviant religion. … The heart of the controversy had to do with freedom of expression and what limits, if any, should be placed on this freedom when it is used to criticize a minority religious community.”
As Green goes on to say, “Rushdie and his most ardent defenders insisted that freedom of expression was non-negotiable [whereas some] of Rushdie’s critics acknowledged Rushdie’s right to express his opinions on Islam but chastised him for abusing this freedom to malign and ridicule Muslim beliefs.”
The Human Costs of Controversy
Lest we forget, Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, which is stabbed to death on the campus where he gives literature. The Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, what knifed in Milan. William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, which shot in the back outside his home.
In writing The Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie must have paused if even for a moment.In writing The Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie must have asked himself, is nothing sacred? Not even the Bible, the Talmud, the Vedas, the Sutras, the Quran? Should the act of writing controversial fiction be punishable by death? How about blasphemous fiction? I believe the answer to these questions is no. He did too.
What we need is more words, more dialogue, more courage. Not less. The easiest thing in the world is to keep quiet. The bravest? To speak up.
Happy birthday, Salman Rushdie.