Twenty years on, was The Satanic Verses worth the fatwa?
SOME YEARS ago there was a motion proposed at the Philomathean Society, the oldest continually existing literary society in the US, to kill Salman Rushdie for the yet-existing bounty on his head so that the society’s members might not have to pay their future dues. Thankfully for the author, the motion was defeated.
The writer had prophesied such puckish arguments in his fierce essay One Thousand Days in a Balloon, where he described how “debating societies everywhere regularly make such choices without qualms… the assembled company blithely accepts the faintly unpleasant idea that a human being’s right to life is increased or diminished by his or her virtues or vices… And while it may not be very nice, it does reflect how people actually think.”
Celebrations are in order. It’s been exactly two decades since the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran unsuccessfully ordered the murder of an author, of and in another country, for the act of imagining and writing down a story. One can reflect that the Ayatollah died still put out with the knowledge that Rushdie yet lived and wrote; The Satanic Verses yet sold; and readers still read, among other things in the novel, a devastating portrait of a character called ‘the Imam’ based on that migrating expatriate, the fanatic Khomeini himself. One can measure the distance travelled since then by the two parties: Khomeini’s grandson has advocated a complete separation of religion and state in Iran, while Rushdie has added layers of prestige like a British knighthood that fatten his cultural value.
Readers everywhere should lobby the Indian state to repeal the book’s ban. The Rajiv Gandhi Government was the first to ban the book, months before the rest of the world caught on. The Indian Finance Ministry declared the ban and explained it as a pre-emptive measure to deny fuel to religious extremists. This peculiarly Indian sequence of free-speech denial — where something is suppressed in fearful anticipation of it causing cultural or religious offence — has become a global phenomenon today. Following this trail of cowardly logic backwards places the largest onus now on Hindu politicians and liberal Muslims to act to reverse the ban.
As you anticipate that magical coalition, do read the novel in its easily available pirated version. It is still a vital exploration of the birth of the last great monotheism, the convulsing, liberating effects of migration, the corrosions wrought by a modern, sprawling metropolis like London. What is often unpublicised is that it’s also a very funny read, with insider Bollywood jokes and the antic preenings of babu anglophile Indians. And what has been utterly lost in the hubbub and fury of its phenomenon is that the book remains keen specifically for that which it is supposed to negate — it is a supremely sensitive examination of our need for religious feeling.
THIS LAST element is what makes the novel a permanent, essential masterpiece. It will shake any hard-crusted atheist with its tender accounts of the impulse to believe — religious and otherwise — and its willingness to enfold all believers into its circle of enrapture. Rushdie is sympathetic to exaltation and eviscerating of exultation. And with the capering imagination there is the muscular and witty writing to look forward to on almost every page:
“He told her: he fell from the sky and lived. She took a deep breath and believed him, because of her father’s faith in the myriad and contradictory possibilities of life, and because, too, of what the mountain had taught her. ‘Okay,’ she said, exhaling, ‘I’ll buy it. Just don’t tell my mother, all right?’”