I must have been 13, or maybe 14, when I borrowed Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses from my local library. I had no real interest in reading it, and, at north of 500 pages, the novel was far too long for my teen taste. But I had to hold it in my hands. I had to see the danger for myself.
A few days earlier, my religious parents had told me about The Satanic Verses. Actually, perhaps “warned me” is a more accurate description. Here’s what I remember them saying: In 1988, a man with a very Muslim-sounding name (Rushdie comes from a nonpracticing Muslim family) had written a book that offended so many Muslims that it had inspired protests in the Muslim world and had been banned by a number of countries. Worse than the ban, some sheikhs had issued a fatwa about Rushdie, an edict that he was to be killed for his book. The fatwa came with a bounty attached to it. The book, my parents said, was about the Prophet Muhammad, and it described him doing things he would never do. It was a stern warning to stay away.
The ban was intriguing and the fatwa was fascinating, but it was this last revelation that shook me to my core. I grew up watching dozens of shows that chronicled the prophet’s life, and none of them dared to display him. When presenting scenes where Muhammad would speak to his followers, many programs opted to show actors speaking to a beam of light. Instead of a reply from the beam of light, the actors would repeat what the prophet had said so the audience would know his answer. It’s an arduous way to stage a scene, but it was out of fidelity to an important rule: The likeness of the prophet should never be shown in any way. No attempts to paint him, or cast lookalikes. No actors mimicking his voice. Nothing. As it turned out, this rule was much more modern than I thought, but back then it seemed unbreakable. Many people became familiar with this rule in 2015, when two men attacked the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons of the prophet and killed a dozen people.
So when I heard about The Satanic Verses, I had a lot of questions. Who was this guy who had dared to depict the prophet? And why did he defy the rules by publishing a book about him? I had to see it for myself. I took the giant book from the library, careful to go to the desk of the librarian who seemed least likely to raise an eyebrow, and on my way out, I carefully wrapped it in an old T-shirt and put it in my backpack. I felt like I was sneaking drugs into my house. I waited until my parents went to sleep before I cracked it open. I knew if they caught me with it, they would be furious.
When I read it, I distinctly remember two simultaneous thoughts formulating. First: Rushdie didn’t even name this character Muhammad. He called him Mahound, so how could they hold this book against him? (Mahound was the recurring name for Muhammad in medieval literature, often used to vilify the prophet; being 13, I did not know this.) Second: Right now, I am holding the most dangerous thing I’ve ever held. I read three pages and anxiously returned it to the library.
Since The Satanic Verses was published, the saga has become broad cultural knowledge — the story of a confrontation between literature and religion with real-life consequences — and then it had gradually been seen as an artifact of a time gone by. That is, until last week, when that danger found Rushdie again. At an event in western New York, the author was attacked onstage, stabbed and punched multiple times. His condition was critical for several days, though he has now been removed from a ventilator. His agent said he will likely lose an eye; the attack also damaged his liver and severed nerves in his arm.
His accused attacker, 24-year-old Hadi Matar from New Jersey, has been charged with attempting to kill Rushdie and assault. Police say Rushdie’s accused attacker had “sympathy towards Shi’a extremism and sympathies to the Iranian regime.” The fatwa to have Rushdie killed was issued nine years before Matar was even born.
The Satanic Verses wasn’t Rushdie’s first book, or even his second. Published in 1988, it was his fourth novel, and by then Rushdie already had found profound success. His second, Midnight’s Children, won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981. That novel, which deals with India’s postcolonial transition, is so acclaimed and beloved that it went on to win both Best of the Booker awards — one awarded at the prize’s 25th anniversary in 1993, and the other at its 40th anniversary in 2008. Rushdie has published a dozen novels, but Midnight’s Children will probably define his literary legacy.
His personal legacy, though, has been forever marked by the fatwa. It was issued on Feb. 14, 1989, by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world,” the Ayatollah said, “that the author of the Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.” Emboldened by the edict, one Iranian charity set a price on Rushdie’s life: $1 million. Later it was increased to a $3 million bounty.
In 1998, a reformist Iranian president said the country would “neither support nor hinder” any assassination attempts on Rushdie. But by then, deep damage had already been done. In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was killed. A week before that, Ettore Capriolo, the novel’s Italian translator, was stabbed in the neck, chest, and hands. (Capriolo survived the attack.) In 1993, a Turkish newspaper editor who had published excerpts of the novel was the target when attackers set fire to a hotel. The blaze killed 40 people.
As for Rushdie, the fatwa meant hell. He spent some nine years in hiding. In his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton — the pseudonym he used while in hiding, a marriage of the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov — he writes that “to hide in this way was to be stripped of all self-respect. To be told to hide was a humiliation.” With some hindsight, scholars and pundits ruled that the Satanic Verses crisis was likely the start of the infamous war on terror, a clash-of-civilizations campaign that engulfed the West in the late ’90s and the first decade of this century, pitting America and its allies against Islam.
For his part, Rushdie has spent much of this millennium engaged in a kind of intellectual mission against Islam. There are frequent accounts of openly anti-Islam comments from Rushdie. He became comfortable supporting US militarism in Iraq. Many have noted that this is a shift for him — earlier in his career, his most prominent works, including The Satanic Verses, were critiques of colonialism.
Last week’s attack on Rushdie has become a cultural Rorschach test. On the one hand, multiple pundits have made efforts to blame the attack on Rushdie on “cancel culture” and the left’s mantra that “words are violence.” On the other, some see it as an opportunity for liberals to challenge censorship. Readers are also responding. Shortly after the attack on Rushdie, sales of The Satanic Verses spiked. Online bookstores are full of comments defending freedom of speech.
Here’s what often gets forgotten about The Satanic Verses: It’s not a novel about the Prophet Muhammad. It’s an expansive, ambitious novel about migration and place. Rushdie himself has described it as a novel about “divided selves.” Its central plot involves two Indian actors, one a major Bollywood star and the other an accomplished voice actor. A plane the men are on is hijacked and bombed; they survive, but as they are falling out of the sky, they are transformed — one into an angel, the other into a devil.
Yes, there is no question that the author meant to needle his readers — “I expected a few mullahs would be offended, call me names, and then I could defend myself in public,” he told an interviewer shortly after the publication of the book — but the fatwa, and its aftermath, has effectively reduced the novel to a provocation, a geopolitical conflict onto itself, a litmus test for freedom of expression. After serious threats on his life and the lives of booksellers who stocked the book, Rushdie attempted to apologize for causing offense. Years later, he said his apology was the “biggest mistake of my life.”
I grew up with the specter of The Satanic Verses, with the understanding that this kind of blasphemy ought to be punished. Upon reflection, it is scary and astonishing how easy this was for me to accept. For years, Rushdie’s story was a warning sign: Feel free to ask questions, but push too far and you will be sorry. He was my introduction to the idea that a book can be a dangerous thing, which is to say that a thought can be a dangerous thing.
I still have not read The Satanic Verses in its entirety. Rationally, I know that it is just a book, that reading it will not define my moral character before God. But the stakes of this saga are imprinted on me. I picture the potential judgment and disappointment in my parents’ faces, and I want to avoid it altogether. To this day, when I see any of Rushdie’s books in bookstores, I catch myself flinching and looking away. It’s a deep-seated hesitation, well beyond the reach of logic. People can be afraid of books, and crucially, they can make others afraid of them, too.
But the danger has never been in the books. The danger has always been in those trying to make you afraid of them, and what they’re willing to do about it. After flinching from Rushdie’s work, a sense of shame crops up for me. An overwhelming sense that at 34, I should know better than to be nervous about engaging with these ideas, but I still carry the fear that was once instilled about The Satanic Verses.
Right now, the US is embroiled in a significant battle over the danger of books. Works about gender and sexuality, racism, and class are being pulled from school shelves. Teachers in Texas, Tennessee, and other states are being forced to submit books for approval, including popular, mainstream titles like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Conservative politicians have engaged in deliberate and highly organized campaigns to target schools and public libraries.
Rushdie’s alleged attacker didn’t invent the playbook for how to make people afraid of books. He’s simply playing a familiar note, a strategy that says: If you engage with this, there will be consequences. All over the US, young children are learning the same idea from a plague of book banning. For them, as for me, making a book forbidden has the same effect: It makes your world smaller, and makes you subject to your own fear. It’s not a way to live. ●