In 1989, following the 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran accused the author, Salman Rushdie of blasphemy and issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill him. This sparked worldwide protests, threats, violence, and bombings of bookstores. Rushdie issued an apology, to no avail, and ultimately went into hiding.
Many years have passed. The death sentence against Rushdie stopped being formally backed by the Iranian government in 1998 and, since then, the author has enjoyed some level of freedom despite lingering underlying threats—until a few days ago. This past Friday, he was attacked and stabbed. He has been in critical condition, but it is now being reported that he is showing improvement.
Rushdie has long been a controversial figure. His writings have been critical of colonialism, political manipulation of religion, and the policies of several countries, including the United States. The Satanic Verses was the only book that sparked a global outcry and fatwa. This speaks to cultural differences in the core values of the Muslim and Western worlds. Western culture professes to support freedom of speech whereas many Muslims believe that it is blasphemy to criticize Islam. Of course, freedom of speech can have harsh consequences, particularly hate speech. But those consequences don’t come in the form of fatwas. There is a big difference between being cancelled and having a price on your head. (A subject for another blog post perhaps.)
I discuss the fatwa and the controversy around Rushdie in my Geckos & Guns book. During our time in Pakistan, this issue reared its ugly head from time to time in the form of protests and political tension. One day I had an in-depth discussion with my Pakistani assistant regarding Rushdie’s book. She agreed with the fatwa. When I asked if she had read The Satanic Verses, she was appalled. Why would she read such things? I asked how she knew the book was blasphemy if she hadn’t read it. She said that she believed the statements of the religious authorities.
This declaration speaks volumes. I wonder how many Muslims have read The Satanic Verses. I suspect that many of them haven’t. They may have read bits and pieces from reports or had someone tell them what was written. This book was written in the genre of Magical Realism. How can an individual even begin to understand the underlying themes and context of the book without actually reading it? Did Rushdie’s recent attacker read the book? I doubt it.
I read The Satanic Verses during my summer visit to Canada after that conversation with my assistant. I found it thought-provoking, but I wasn’t offended. However, I am not Muslim. There are books, movies, or paintings that I sometimes find offensive. There is some pretty extreme stuff in the world. Regardless, I have never once thought that those pieces of art should be destroyed or that their creators should be punished let alone killed.
The literary world has been shocked and appalled by this attack on Rushdie. Rightly so. Let it be a reminder to all of us. We don’t have the right to condemn something that we haven’t taken the time to read, research, or understand. And following that, we don’t have the right to destroy cultural works of art or take human lives even if we are offended. An important lesson in this 21st Century world of increasingly offended people.