Salman Rushdie was a seer, presaging our age of violent religious extremism
Salman Rushdiethe novel midnight children, published in 1981, was conceived as the story of an era – the era of a free India, told by a man who was born at the very moment (August 15, 1947, midnight – 75 years ago today today) where India gained independence from Britain. The novel, Rushdie’s second, was a breakthrough in his career and in writing in English: he received the Booker Prize, the most prestigious book prize in the United Kingdom, then, in 2008, the Best of the Booker, acknowledging it as the most notable. novel ever to get the prize.
But the fourth and best-known of Rushdie’s novels turned out, alas, to have defined an era: satanic verses (1988), a grandiose and extraordinarily ambitious novel featuring the story of two Indian Muslim immigrants in London alongside stories rooted in early Islamic history, with episodes in both narratives turning on sinister and prescient acts of violence provoked by religion.
Our times are marked by violence involving religion, even in – or especially in – supposedly secular societies. This era began with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979 (and the hampered US response to Iran’s kidnapping of American hostages) and extends to the present day. – with the destruction of the World Trade Center by Islamist terrorists on September 11, 2001, at its center. The events constitute a horrifying timeline of fanatical atrocities across the religious spectrum. Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police clash in Mecca. The bombing of abortion clinics and the killing of health care providers. The FBI engages in a deadly shootout with end-times-obsessed Christians at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated by a Jewish extremist in Tel Aviv. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are gathering forces for a holy war against the so-called godless West. Mosques under siege in India. A gunman filled with rage murdering worshipers in a black church in Charleston; a gunman filled with rage murdering worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Islamist fanatics throw an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, behead Coptic Christians in Libya and mindlessly murder across Europe: a filmmaker in Amsterdam, cartoonists in Paris, Catholic worshipers in Nice, a priest celebrating the Mass in Normandy. And so on. Our time is marked – some would say summarized – by acts of violence committed in the name of God or committed by one type of believer against others.
Salman Rushdie witnessed all of this. He grasped the phenomenon very early on. He dramatized it in a work of genius, making it a central character in satanic verses, a Gibreel Farishta, an actor who is tormented inwardly by the loss of his Muslim faith, the torment taking the form of an inability to sleep – and gripping scenarios of belief and disbelief that invade his dreams. Then, suddenly, Rushdie himself was a virtual victim, since Khomeini (whom the author had imaginatively referred to as “the imam” in the book) issued a death threat against him soon after the novel’s publication: the February 14, 1989. The ‘fatwa’ urged Muslims to kill Rushdie and offered a multi-million dollar bounty and the promise of a prized place in the afterlife.
Khomeini’s externalized death threat led Rushdie to live in secrecy for years, a man with “no fixed address” and a major security detail, persevering as a writer even as efforts were made to kill him. even though he was ridiculed by other authors, politicians, and religious traditionalists of all persuasions. Khomeini died less than six months after issuing the death threat, but the fatwa remained for decades, and his successor, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ominously stated that “the arrow … will one day reach its target”.
Now, a third of a century later, Rushdie has fallen victim again. As I write, he is lying in a hospital bed in Erie, Pennsylvania, having possibly lost the sight of one eye and sustained injuries to his arm, chest, thigh, stomach and liver. Fortunately, he is not a martyr: he is alive and able to speak. On the contrary, he is both a seer and a sufferer of the age in which we find ourselves.
Rushdie was attacked: The word – garbled in recent years by countless reports of provocative politicians “attacking” each other – is an accurate description of the act in which a masked man strode onto the scene of the Chautauqua settlement in upstate New York. York, where Rushdie was about to speak, and stabbed and beaten Rushdie again and again. The assailant was restrained and pulled away from Rushdie, who was bleeding profusely. The identity of the suspect: Hadi Matar, 24, from New Jersey. Although Matar’s motives are unknown, it is clear that he wanted to kill Rushdie, not just hurt him. (And he was charged with attempted second-degree murder. A public defender pleaded not guilty on behalf of his client at an arraignment on Saturday.) And it was an unprecedented attack, similar to the stabbing murder of the Japanese translator. of satanic verses, the stabbing of the novel’s Italian translator and the stabbing of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who had spoken out against Rushdie’s wickedness by Muslims. Matar may know satanic verses only by crude paraphrase, if at all. But it’s likely, through his frenzied actions, that he’s quite familiar with the history of violence against the book – a history he’s now joined.