Salman Rushdie on religious insult, freedom of expression and the dark years spent in hiding

A phone call on February 14, 1989, Valentine’s Day, altered Salman Rushdie’s life forever. He was told that Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa calling for his death for allegedly insulting the Prophet and the Quran in The Satanic Verses. His recently launched memoir Joseph Anton is a transfixing account of the nine years spent in hiding that is at once overtly political and deeply personal.

Religion and secularism, truth and falsity, friendship and enmity, hope and despair, bravery and cowardice, love and betrayal, collide in the pages to form a highly-charged battleground of ideas about a world poised for an uncertain future.

In this phone interview, Salman Rushdie talks about the novel that robbed him of a decade and the lessons it has taught him about free speech, religious fundamentalism and the importance of standing up for what you believe in.

It is a coincidence that Joseph Anton is being launched at a time when there is a storm over the “Innocence of Muslims” film and the caricatures in a French newspaper. But since the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, there has been a virtual explosion in what novelist Monica Ali called ‘the marketplace of outrage’ — this phenomenon of people, not necessarily Muslim, being offended and sometimes violently so. In retrospect, do you see The Satanic Verses as the forerunner of this narrative of blasphemy, insult, indignation and violence?

Yes, of course I do. In fact, I explicitly state in the book that I see this as a prologue rather than an isolated event. In the years that followed, there were attacks across the Muslim world on other writers and intellectuals who were accused of exactly the same crimes — these medieval crimes of heresy and apostasy in a language that, in a way, one hadn’t heard since the Spanish Inquisition.

For example, the Turkish journalist Ug˘ur Mumcu was killed by Islamic fundamentalists. In Egypt, the philosopher Farag Foda was killed and Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck. In Algeria, the novelist Tahar Djaout was murdered by Islamic fundamentalists and so on. This has been a broadening attack and the combination of fanaticism and this outrage industry has become a very powerful force in our times.

You have used the expression ‘manufactured’ to describe this outrage, which you now refer to as industry. This is accurate inasmuch as the protests are usually carefully planned and coordinated. But do you think this ignores the fact that people could also be genuinely upset or hurt by what they construe as religious insult?

That’s their problem. The world is full of things that upset people. But most of us deal with it and move on and don’t try and burn the planet down.

There is no right in the world not to be offended. That right simply doesn’t exist. In a free society, an open society, people have strong opinions, and these opinions very often clash. In a democracy, we have to learn to deal with this. And this is true about novels, it’s true about cartoons, it’s true about all these products.

A question I have often asked is, ‘What would an inoffensive political cartoon look like?’ What would a respectful cartoon look like? The form requires disrespect and so if we are going to have in the world things like cartoons and satire, we just have to accept it as part of the price of freedom.

One of the parallels one notices between the nature of the responses to The Satanic Verses and the rage today is the random pattern of the attacks. The U.S. cultural center was attacked in Islamabad back then…..

Which had absolutely nothing to do with the book.

Exactly. And the U.S. consulates have been under attack recently thanks to the controversial film. Is there a larger theme running here, something that emerges from a climate of hostility and distrust of the West, particularly America?

I think you could say that some of it is caused by a particular kind of anti-Americanism, which might well be fuelled by recent American military excursions. You could say that some of it is out of a kind of economic despair, where you have a body of young men whose own prospects are very slim and whose hopes of making a good life are very small. And that engenders all kinds of disappointments and anger which can be channelled in this direction. There is a whole series of causes and they are not the same in every place. In Iran, fundamentalism was fuelled to an extent by the regime of the Shah being supported by the West.

Of course there are geopolitical reasons. But I think there are educational reasons as well. The mistake of the West was to put the Sauds on the throne of Saudi Arabia and give them control of the world’s oil fortune, which they then used to propagate Wahhabi Islam. This very minor extremist cult, Wahhabism, was suddenly propagated across the Muslim world through madrassas and has created generations now who are steeped in this harsher, more paranoid, more confrontational version of Islam.

The book shows you were opposed, or at least left unsupported, not merely by radical Islamists but also those who would regard themselves as liberal, a number of who were on the Left. What was the main reason for this — this opposition, as it were, from within?

I was always bewildered by it. I confess I am still a little bewildered by it.

Could it be because they felt you brought it on yourself? This idea that you knew exactly what you were doing when you wrote The Satanic Verses, or at least the Mahound chapter?

It is a number of things. I think partly, and I think I say this somewhere in the book, it is this kind of reflex of the old Left that the people can’t be wrong. If a large number of people of any community object to a certain person, that person must be in the wrong. It’s not possible that there can be an erroneous mass response to an event.

Or was it also because Left-Liberal opinion has become more and more influenced by a moral and cultural relativism? Have we taken respect for other people’s beliefs and feelings too far?

Of course, that’s true. Moral and cultural relativism is a very dangerous phenomenon. What you routinely hear from some extremist Muslim pundits, whether religious or political, is a discourse that is anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic. The same Leftists would not tolerate that coming from any other group. But somehow people turn a blind eye to it because it is coming from this group.

The book reveals that many people in Britain openly called for the implementation of the fatwa. I was really surprised to read that this included Cat Stevens [aka Yusuf Islam]. I mean this was the man who sang of dreaming of the world as one and invited us to glide on his peace train…..

Yes, the peace train, I know…well, I guess the peace train didn’t travel to this particular station (laughs).

But isn’t exhorting people to kill another person a clear incitement to violence? Isn’t this an offence under British law? Why weren’t people who did this prosecuted?

Not one single person in England was prosecuted for any offence even though thousands upon thousands were demanding my death and standing up in mosques every Friday and saying they were ready to do it. I did ask myself, supposing this had been not me but some other figure in Britain, suppose it was the Queen, for instance. It is impossible to think people would not have been arrested and prosecuted if they were standing up in their thousands and saying ‘We will kill the Queen.’

I am only saying the Queen to dramatise my point. But you see what I mean? It seemed very odd that this particular person could be threatened in that way, whereas other people would never have been allowed to have been.

By ‘this particular person’, you mean a ‘mere writer?’

Or this mere writer. Maybe another writer would have elicited another response.

Hmmmm…

Not a brown-skinned writer.

Ah, I was trying to tease that out of you.

(Laughs)

Joseph Anton reads in parts like a thank you work — a way of acknowledging the bravery and loyalty of the few who stood by you in those years of darkness.

Well, I certainly think that one of the big subjects in the book is the opposition between hatred and love, between friendship and hostility. And I certainly think I was fortunate in my friends, who both publicly and privately, gave me an astonishing degree of support. We have all sat on these secrets for more than 20 years. And it has been a pleasure to say, here is what people did, here is how it was done.

Even the British police came to really admire my circle of friends because they saw how determined they were to keep secrets, to be totally dependable.

Your son Zafar recently told the Evening Standard that he “had no wish that it (the fatwa) hadn’t happened” because it made him who he is — underlining that it taught him to deal with adversity. I am sure it taught you to do so as well, but do you still find yourself wishing it never happened even today? Or do you not think about it at all?

Obviously, given a choice, I would be better off if it hadn’t happened. I would have had a much more pleasant ten years. I was in a very good place in 1988, after the publication of Midnight’s Children and Shame. It would have been much more pleasant to have continued an ordinary literary life and bring up my child in an ordinary way.

Absolutely. But my question was whether you still think about it and wish it had never happened.

You can’t regret your life in the end. And that is what Zafar is essentially saying in that interview as well. What happened is what happened and everybody has learnt from it and moved on. One of the reasons for waiting this long to write the book is that I didn’t want to be affected by ideas of ‘What if’. I didn’t want to be excessively possessed by anger, resentment, whatever. I felt I should wait until I was in a calmer and more peaceful place so that I could look back on this period of my life with tranquillity and objectivity and tell the story as truthfully as possible.

You are pretty hard on yourself about that period when you caved in, apologised and declared you were a good Muslim…

Well, it’s important in an autobiography that the author is self-critical. Because, otherwise, it reads like an excuse, an apology, or a self-justification. The reader needs to feel that the person writing the story has a pretty clear or unvarnished idea of himself. I wanted to make it clear that I know there are all kinds of things I wished I hadn’t done, or should have done differently, or better. And that there are a few things that I am proud of having done. But I think you need to present this just in the same way as you are creating a fictional character. You have to present a three-dimensional character.

You describe yourself as having been stupid in your ‘Why I am a Muslim’ phase. How much of this was a result of sheer despair, of being not in the right mental state? And how much of it was cold calculation — the hope of a deal that would end the torment of hiding?

I will tell you what it was. Reading my journals of this period, it was quite clear the person writing them was in a very low state of mind — something very like despair. So, there was that internal contradiction. But also externally, there was an enormous amount of pressure on me in those days from the media, from politicians and even from opinion polls being taken in Europe.

The general attitude was that this was my fault and I was the one who needed to find a resolution to it — that I broke it, so I should fix it. And when I tried to argue that this was not the case, this was called arrogance. My refusal to withdraw my book was proof of not only my arrogance but also my financial greed. Nobody would see there was a principled reason for doing this.

All of this, over the course of two years, wore me down to a point to which I clutched at a straw. I thought maybe this is a way of breaking the logjam. But of course, this was dishonest, I am not a religious person, and I shouldn’t have said I was. I immediately felt dreadful about it and understood it was a kind of self-betrayal.

But in retrospect, it was a clarifying moment, it made me understand that it was a mistake to go down that road of appeasement. It made me clearer — no more apologies, no more excuses, no more appeasements, no more compromises. I am just going to say my piece, argue my corner, and try and stand up for what I believe in. And if people don’t like it, tough.

That moment of failure turned me into a much clearer, much stronger person.

The book reveals how much of your novels — the people, the places, the events — have been drawn or loosely based on real people, places and events. The novels of imagination are also novels of experience.

If you read the work of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, James Joyce or Marcel Proust, you will probably find there is an enormous amount of personal experience as source material. Now somebody will say I am comparing myself to those writers, but I am not. I am talking of writers I admire.

But the act of writing a novel is a journey. And the beginning of the journey can often be personal experience. The end product is something else. That journey from personal experience to finished book is the imaginative leap. That is the act of writing.

I thought it would be interesting for people to get a sense of how my writing moved from personal experience to finished work. The grandparents in Midnight’s Children are not like my grandparents, but they had things in common. They didn’t look through a hole in a sheet.

You are pretty critical about some people in your book you don’t like. One of them is Marianne [Wiggins, Rushdie’s second wife], who is portrayed as almost delusional. I know she has said and written damaging stuff about you. But don’t you think people like her are likely to be hurt by some of the things you said in the book? Does this bother you?

What bothered me most was to tell the truth. The things that Marianne said about me were extremely unpleasant and characterised by blatant untruth, including allegations that I was interested to have a meeting with Muammar Qadhafi, which is a ludicrous kind of escalation of untruth.

I think you just have to decide when reading the book whether you feel you are reading the truth or not. In my view, I am telling not just the exact truth, but truth for which there are many witnesses.

This is how she behaved and this is the reason why our marriage ended. It was something that made my life extraordinarily difficult.

The purpose of writing a book like this is to say what happened. I am not fantasising, not fictionalising, I am actually toning it down. What really happened was even worse than that.

Did you show any of the parts to people you were once close to? Padma [Lakshmi, his fourth wife] doesn’t get very good press either.

She knows what is in the book. I rewrote a couple of passages that she asked me to. I think I have tried to show there was a long period in which we were in love. And that it was a good relationship for a time. But I said to her, I am talking about the end of the marriage — and it was not my choice to end. So you are going to get that perspective on it.

There are some satirical passages about her having left you for someone with more money.

Yes, I think that was perfectly reasonable. After she talked to me every day for eight years about how I was too old for her, she left for somebody at least a decade older. So you can draw your own conclusions, as I do.

What next?

Truthfully, I don’t know. Obviously, we still have work to do to launch this book for the next couple of months. There is also the movie of Midnight’s Children, which is just about coming out now. I’ve got this TV project, a 60-minute drama series, an idea that I have been developing in America with Showtime Networks called The Next People, which is a kind of political science fiction.

I have some ideas for novels. But truthfully I don’t know whether any of them are any good.

mukund.p@thehindu.co.in