That Salman Rushdie was nearly murdered at an event in New York while talking about whether the United States was a safe haven for exiled writers is an irony he’d have rejected as too far-fetched in even his most fantastical novels. That he was talking at all at such an event – with no personal security, no special precautions – will have been a shock to many, given that he will always be best known, to his chagrin, not for something he did, but for something that was done to him, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him in 1989.
But even then, when the threats against him seemed to be at the most heated, he refused to be cowed, always looking straight ahead when he walked slowly from his hiding places to his security detail’s car, never bowing his head, never scuttling. If you succumb to the fear, he writes in Joseph Anton, his memoir of that period, “you will be its creature for ever, its prisoner.”
“One thing I feel, well, proud of, let’s say, is if you knew nothing about my life, if all you had were my books, I don’t think you would feel that something traumatic happened to me in 1989. I thought : be the writer that you want to be,” he said when I interviewed him last year.
Yet I persisted in asking, to his irritation, questions about how the death threat had affected him. Because I couldn’t see how it had: in person, he is warm, interested in everything and always one of the most fun people at a party. Only last week I sent him an email, and he wrote back at once, always happy to talk about anything (as long as it’s not the fatwa). He hates how the fatwa shaped perceptions of him as much as he resents how it shrank his life from him when he lived for a decade in hiding. “It destroys my individuality as a person and as a writer. I’m not a geopolitical entity. I’m writing someone in a room,” he said to me. And so, with great determination and courage, I have retained his individuality from him by choosing freedom, with all the risks that he entailed.
So the fact that Rushdie was speaking at a book event when he was attacked is entirely in keeping with the man. Even more characteristic was what he was speaking about: the rights of writers who face persecution. People who have endured far less than him have found themselves lured by the siren song of reactionary conservatism; Rushdie’s great friend Christopher Hitchens was not immune to it, and all that happened to him was he aged.
But Rushdie’s moral compass has never wavered, and he remains a fearless defender of the freedom of expression. In 2015, he was scathing about the authors who objected to PEN America honoring the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, months after the murderous attacks on its staff by Islamic extremists. Peter Carey condemned PEN’s “seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its obligation to a large and disempowered segment of the population”. Rushdie, an atheist who was raised Muslim, retorts: “What I would say to both Peter and Michael [Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Ignorant people have been trying to school Rushdie from the moment the extremists began to come after him. Looking back on news coverage from 1989, it’s striking how little sympathy there was for Rushdie then, on the left or the right. There was a general sense that he had brought this on himself because he had offended extremists. It would be extremely wrong to believe we live in more enlightened times now. Three years ago, a columnist in the Independent, who had not read The Satanic Verses, wrote, “Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation.” Two years ago, Rushdie, along with JK Rowling – herself no stranger to death threats – was mocked for signing what is known as the Harper’s letter, which argued against censorship on the left, as well as the right.
“There’s a youthful progressive movement, much of which is extremely valuable, but there does seem to be within it an acceptance that certain ideas should be suppressed, and I just think that’s worrying,” he said to me. He has been thinking about these issues for longer than some of his critics of him have been alive. In 2005, he gave a speech, Defend the Right to Be Offended, in which he said, “It seems to me to be a liberal failure to say that even though we don’t understand what is upsetting those who say they are offended, we shouldn’t upset them … People have the fundamental right to take an argument where somebody is offended by what they say.” This is not a very fashionable argument now, when Rowling’s name is now considered analogous to Voldemort in progressive circles, and comedians such as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are physically attacked on stage because someone was offended by something they have said.
Rushdie has always stood against all this, and he stands for much more. It is completely devastating that he has been attacked. The rest of us should think how lucky we are that we only need to look to him to see what true courage looks like. And he should take enormous pride in knowing that he really is both the writer and the man that he wanted to be.
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