Tuesday, 22 January 2013


Random House, 2012, 636 pages, $35 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

There was much that was hard to take for the author of The Satanic Verses – not being able to pick up his own mail, not being able to go for a walk without armed police taking an hour to set it up for him, being robbed of the deep concentration necessary for creative writing.  That, and the constant threat of violent assassination.

Salman Rushdie’s memoir of his decade dodging death vividly shows how he (as Joseph Anton, his security alias named after two of his favourite authors – Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov) coped with his loss of liberty and the death threat (fatwa) issued against him in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini by, in the end, taking his fight for free speech to his would-be silencers.

The London-based writer from a free-thinking Indian Muslim family artfully combined left wing politics with the personal in his novels.  In 1981 came the Booker-winning Midnight’s Children, about India’s independence, then Shame, about Pakistan’s military governments, followed by The Satanic Verses, his “origin story of Islam” which scrutinised Muhammad’s ‘divinely revealed’ text, the Qur’an, like any other book, as a human product of history, sociology, psychology and politics.

In Iran, Khomeini headed up a “mullocracy” which had usurped the 1979 revolution - the Ayatollah, says Rushdie, had “murdered those who brought him to head of the revolution” and dispatched others he disliked – “unionists, feminists, socialists, Communists, homosexuals”.  The Satanic Verses had a portrait of an Imam like Khomeini, “eating his own revolution”.  Unpopular because of a disastrous war with Iraq, the ruling clerical caste needed to regain political momentum and found its rallying point in Rushdie and his ‘offensive’ novel.

Iranian government hit squads and a million dollar, quasi-governmental bounty, and British Islamic extremists, meant the death threat “was not merely theoretical”.  Books were burnt, bookstores and libraries fire-bombed, mass ‘KILL THE DOG’ Muslim rallies held in Hyde Park, threatening letters sent written in blood, translators and publishers stabbed, shot and killed.

Rushdie was protected by Special Branch police - their “ordinary human kindness … toward a fellow human being in ‘one hell of a jam’ … never ceased to move him”.  He was less enamoured of their ‘higher-ups’ in Scotland Yard who poorly disguised their distaste for him because he was a Labour man in a Tory administration who, unlike the politicians under their guard, ‘had not performed a service to the nation’.

There were others hostile to Rushdie.  Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would not meet him because this would ‘send the wrong message’ to Iran (it certainly sent the wrong message on free speech).  A meeting with her successor, John Major, was scuttled by a Tory backbench which “by a curious coincidence” allowed a proposed British trade delegation to Iran to proceed.  The historian and Tory peer, Hugh Trevor-Roper, mused on how British Muslims should ‘waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve his manners’.

Labour politicians equivocated, worried about the Muslim vote.  A British Muslim community leader who declared  that ‘death is, perhaps, a bit too easy’ for Rushdie was knighted on the recommendation of Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Prince Charles called Rushdie a bad writer who cost the government too much to protect (the irony detector of this expensive, taxpayer-supported social parasite who has never written anything of interest must have been on the fritz when he said this).  Pop singer and Muslim convert, Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) kept bubbling up in the media “like a fart in a bathtub”, joining the chorus demanding a grovelling apology from Rushdie for causing religious ‘offense’. 

The tabloid media banged on about the ungrateful reprobate who ‘hated Britain’, with the Daily Insult maintaining a steady character assassination (he was ‘bad-mannered, sullen, graceless, silly, curmudgeonly, unattractive, small-minded, arrogant and egocentric’).  The ‘liberal’ media found the usual two sides to it all, “shifting the blame from the men of violence to the target of their attack” because Rushdie had ‘brought it on himself’.

Many more, however, sprang to Rushdie’s defense.  With moral support, solidarity declarations and safe houses, writers rallied to his side universally (apart from John le Carré, nursing a grudge about a negative book review Rushdie had once written of a le Carré novel, saying that Rushdie had been ‘impertinent to great religions’ and was engaging in ‘cultural intolerance masquerading as free speech’).

Many people bought Rushdie’s book as an act of solidarity, and wore ‘I AM SALMAN RUSHDIE’ badges.  Building workers guessed why bullet-proof glass was required in the ground-floor windows in a house they were renovating for Mr Anton but staid mum because they “understood that this was an important secret to keep; and so, quite simply, they kept it”.

Warmly-received, surprise appearances at literary events were life-giving whilst, on airlines which allowed the terrorist target to board, he found spontaneous “friendship, solidarity and sympathy” from the passengers.  Eighty thousand U2 fans cheered him on stage at Wembley Stadium.  When nervous bookchains in North America withdrew the book from sale, their staff unions protested and volunteered to stand next to plate-glass windows with the book display.

On a world book tour, an Algerian restaurateur named Rouchdy (pronounced Rushdie) was proud of the high-risk name-association - ‘I was always getting mistaken for you!  I say, no, no, I am much better looking!’.  In Australia, an ambulance officer who attended a near-fatal crash between Rushdie and a semi-trailer on the Princes Highway was delighted to ask for his autograph.

This  determination of his supporters “not to allow the darkness to prevail” strengthened Rushdie’s “battle against hopelessness”, making him straighten his shoulders and campaign against the fatwa.  Staying low, and trying to love and be loved by his enemy, had proved futile.  “Enough of invisibility, silence, timidity, defensiveness, guilt”, he resolved – “there was more dignity in being a combatant than a victim”.
Pugnacious ripostes to all his detractors were delivered with elegant scorn and Rushdie also took up his case directly with world leaders, slowly making the tide turn.  Rushdie suspected that he was “being used by the West as a pawn in a larger game” of geo-political power plays in Iran and the Middle East but he quite justifiably used this to grab his life back.

In 1998, Iran formally ended the fatwa, a victory won by “ordinary people”, says Rushdie, for the principle of free speech.  All those who vacillated, who demanded apology and compromise, who dragged the red herrings of taxpayer cost and Rushdie’s personality across the free speech trail, who muddied the waters in the name of opposing ‘Islamophobia’, were objectively on the side of the book-burners and assassins.  Rushdie is wholly persuasive about this.

What he is less than convincing on is that “Islam itself”, and not just the radical fringes of its one billion followers, is fatally corrupted by religious intolerance.  Some of Rushdie’s toughest defenders were Muslims, who were assaulted or killed by their fanatical brethren for their pains.  Rushdie’s attempt to taint all Muslims with the “bloody theocracies” of dictatorial Islamic states, as with his glib parallel of equating Marxism with repressive Stalinist states, is not compelling.

Part of a critique of “religious unreason” is how power inequalities between the West and the Muslim world are refracted through religion, not caused by it.  A radical anti-Islam stand can lead to uncritical support for the hypocritical donning of the mantle of ‘freedom’ by Western powers in their political crusades against Muslim countries, and, sure enough, Rushdie fell into trap of supporting the US-led war against Afghanistan on anti-terrorism grounds. 

As Rushdie would no doubt accept, however, the “ability to quarrel”, over his politics as with religion or anything else, is fundamental to a free society.  His own determination to fight violent censorship, and his brilliantly-written memoir, have strengthened the right to free speech.

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