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Salman Rushdie has found peace but the Satanic Verses 'affair' won't go away
The terror of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa has faded but the challenge it posed to artistic freedom has not, as a brush with the Indian authorities has shown
Nick Cohen The Observer, Saturday 28 January 2012 Article history

Salman Rushdie has put the 'affair' of Ayatollah Komeini's fatwa behind him. Photograph: Christopher Jones/Rex Features

For Salman Rushdie, the "affair" is over. When he walks into a Notting Hill restaurant, his eyes do not scan the room for signs of danger. The other diners do not wolf down their meals and scuttle for the exit, in case today is the day when the bomber gets through. They treat the entrance of a writer, who once could not move without a posse of suspicious security guards, as an unremarkable event. Rushdie is fine. More than fine, actually: he's flourishing. Deepa Mehta has filmed Midnight's Children. Rushdie has written the script, so if viewers wish to protest that the film diminishes, trivialises or otherwise fails to match the glittering standards of his masterpiece they must direct their complaints to him. A US cable network has commissioned him to write a sci-fi series and, like so many others, Rushdie relishes the space and freedom American television gives to dramatists. The terror, which once dominated his life and the lives of everyone associated with his work, is history now. When Ayatollah Khomeini ordered Muslims to kill him for his blasphemies, Julian Barnes gave him a shrewd piece of advice. However many attempts were made on his life and lives of his translators and publishers, however many times Special Branch moved him from safe house to safe house, he must not allow the "Rushdie affair" to turn him into an obsessive. Totalitarians are like stalkers or internet trolls. They want their targets to think about them constantly. Rushdie did not become like his enemies. He never replicated the fanaticism they directed against him. He has been a good friend to other victims of religious terror, but in his novels and children's stories he has tackled new themes. Despite the entreaties of his agent, he put off writing his autobiography until he was able

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to view the "affair" with detachment. It should be out in September and I would be astonished if it is not read around the world. Rushdie has had a flat in London for decades, but tells me he spends more and more time in New York. Like Martin Amis, he finds the viciousness of the British media towards writers mystifying. Journalists who rely on their exercise of freedom of speech to put food on their tables and clothes on their children's backs hate a man who had to risk his life to defend the liberties they so thoughtlessly take for granted. I am not going to go into why English literature's first great Asian novelist is the object of such venom, and was cheered to find that Rushdie did not want to speculate either. Aware of the danger of sounding like a moaner, he adds that Americans may not turn on their writers with the passion of the British because they care so little about what novelists have to say that they lack the energy even to loathe them. He laughs and looks every inch an artist at ease with himself. Khomeini is dead and he is still alive. The Satanic Verses is still in print. Film producers, TV executives, publishers and readers all want him. Why shouldn't he relax? When I began a book on modern censorship, it was obvious to me that I could not avoid The Satanic Verses. Before the ayatollahs went for Rushdie, writers in secular or religious dictatorships could find a place of sanctuary in the west. The fatwa stopped all that. It redrew the boundaries of the free world, shrinking its borders and erasing zones of disputation from the map of the liberal mind. The terror that the bombs and the attempted murders spread meant that London, New York, Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam were no longer places of safety for writers tackling religious themes. From 1989 onwards westerners and refugees from religious terror knew that it could happen here because it had happened here. The hypocrisies and evasions that so disfigure our culture began then. As I typed I worried that I was writing for readers in their early twenties who were not even born when The Satanic Verses was published. I shouldn't have fretted. Rushdie has found peace, but the "Rushdie affair" will not go away. It cannot because it is the starkest representation in our times of the conflict between individual conscience and the authoritarian mind, which is never won but must always be fought. I saw Rushdie a few days after India had forced him to cancel an appearance at the Jaipur literature festival. The authorities said his physical presence or even an address via video link might lead to assassination attempts, riots, injuries and deaths. India, a supposedly secular democracy, was now banning its greatest writer from talking to his fellow Indians. As Rushdie realised, religious sectarians and fabulously cynical politicians were once again using The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India, to whip the faithful into line. Although he had visited India many times since 1989 without incident, Muslim leaders saw a chance to create a controversy where none existed. They told the festival organisers that they must not allow "an enemy of Islam" to speak. Rushdie is an atheist. If his intelligence had not already made him one, his experience of fascistic violence would have done the job just as well. But, as he asked the viewers of Indian television, who is the real enemy of Islam here? Rushdie, who used his right to speak his mind to criticise its founding myths, or "various extremist leaders and their followers, who strengthen the extremely negative image of Islam as an intolerant, repressive and violent culture [that] every time it's crossed ... resorts to threats and violence?" Congress, once the secular party of Jawaharlal Nehru, is now thoroughly debased. It is as keen on fomenting communalist scares as its Hindu nationalist opponents. It wanted the Muslim vote to turn out in elections in Uttar Pradesh, the most important Indian

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state. India's Muslims are among the most disadvantaged groups in the country. Instead of offering them healthcare, jobs or anything so radical as education for women, however, Congress politicians schemed to stop Rushdie visiting his native land. As India Today concluded, they manufactured "a massive threat perception" so Rushdie would not appear and Congress could "showcase" itself as the "caretaker of Muslim interests". In You Can't Read This Book, I argue against the comforting idea that progress is inevitable and that we must be freer than our supposedly repressed and stuffy ancestors. Rushdie's case was the best evidence I could find. He and his contemporaries in the 1980s thought they could challenge religions that claimed dominion over minds and bodies. Since then our world has changed, and not for the better. "The change can fit into a sentence," I say. "No young artist of Rushdie's range and gifts would dare write a modern version of The Satanic Verses today, and if he or she did, no editor would dare publish it." Rushdie half agrees, but thinks the cowardice resides almost exclusively in the offices of publishers, broadcasters and newspaper editors. Writers should be braver. Far from being cowed by the clerical-political alliance that targeted him, Rushdie went on Indian television and lacerated the cynics who threatened "the liberty of ordinary Indian citizens to hear differing points of view". The Indian press took up the charge and accused Congress of making their country look sinister and preposterous in the eyes of the world. Congress's attempt to whip up sectarian hatred has exploded in its face. Rushdie's Indian enemies are now in full retreat. As he walked out into London's winter sunshine, I reflected that after all these years Rushdie remained an example worth following. Decline is no more inevitable than progress. You never have to accept it.

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Post a comment Staff Contributor acumen2010 29 January 2012 6:50PM Response to acommenter, 29 January 2012 6:27PM That comment is absoulutley ridiculous. Shall we forget thousands of years of the Catholic church slaughtering scientists and those that opposed the church? Recommend? (3) Respond (0) Report
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Shall we forget the Christian Church fundamentalists in America that actively support the slaughter of other human beings. It sure is nice when you live in a world where you are totally ignorant to history. Islam is barbaric, so is Judaism and Christianity. VarkSoup 29 January 2012 6:53PM It is still going on: the UCL student group that was pressured to retract the posting of a "Jesus and Mo" cartoon and also at the LSE too, also the shameful harassment, again at the UCL, of people wanting to discuss Sharia Law. All this in the last fortnight. miasmadude 29 January 2012 6:53PM Rushdie is a very clever writer. His attitude after the Satanic Verses was published and fatwa-ed, "shock," shock," seems disingenuous, when illuminated by the light of his acknowledged brilliance. The only surprise, really, was the depth and vehemence of the reaction. That is the unforgivable part of the "affair:" not that a provocative novelist provoked an easy target, but that the target came out, guns blazing (literally, alas.) Playmaker10 29 January 2012 7:09PM Judaism, Christianity, Islam and all man made religion is absolute rubbish, devised by men seeking power and used by other evil men, to coerce other delusional men to commit unspeakable crimes against humanity in the name of God. Recommend? (5) Respond (0) Report
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History shows that people are quite stupid enough to commit unspeakable crimes without needing the cloak of religion. Most of the world's human problems are caused by angry, insecure men - sometimes they claim to be religious, sometimes not. Silverwhistle 29 January 2012 7:25PM Good article. I'm very glad that Rushdie is still with us and still writing. His opponents clearly have no understanding of the concept of imaginative fiction: the idea that an author should be endangered because of a fantasy-sequence in the mind of a fictional character undergoing a breakdown in a novel was risible. It's as absurd as wanting to arrest and convict crimewriters for the fictional murders in their novels. At least it flushed out who the idiots were who wanted to appease this kind of vile stupidity. Recommend? (4) Respond (0) Report
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mandelstam 29 January 2012 7:25PM I love all those people proudly displaying that their literary judgement is right up there with Boris Johnson & Peregrine Worsthorne. I hope you are all very proud. Anway, what you might think of the book is beside the point. Threatening to murder someone, and in case you forgot, actually murdering someone, for telling a story is bad. Not in a grey area: it's a bad thing.... focus29 29 January 2012 7:48PM Response to pintooo, 29 January 2012 10:49AM Indeed writings of any writer are subjective Rushdie is no different.. What makes Rushdie different is that his writing perhaps may not have been read or promoted by many had it not attracted controversy it did. Now had you read my first sentence. I do not accept the death threats or violence against him is justified. Like you I have lived through the Satanic Vesres affair and I always saw some one who very much despised the esstablishment until it came to his rescue. lardyscotsman 29 January 2012 7:48PM Salman Rushdie has found peace but the Satanic Verses 'affair' won't go away No it won't and it's hugh time western govermnments and socaled intellectuals decided what they intend to do about it. They can either support free speech and the culture that has developed in the west over the past 3 centuries, or they can curl up in a wee ball like a bunch of spineless idiots and plead with the religious nutters not to hurt them, deluding themselves all the while that they ae being "liberal" by supporting de facto censorship. Its as simple as that. RightKnight 29 January 2012 8:00PM odetojoy 29 January 2012 1:45PM It is sad, really that everything has to be fitted into the "Clash of Civilisations" narrative, the single most evil ideology of modern times, Oh I dunno. I think the left wing and people such as Pol Pot, Stalin and the North Korean dynasty would win that award.

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Flash67 29 January 2012 8:40PM I'm from British Pakistanis background, non religious, every time some Muslim group rally against Rushdie, Rushdie is championed by likes Nick Cohen and the Guardian, now there is article on Rushdie every other week in the Guardian, Most of the Muslims I know don't want Rushdie dead, they got better things to do, like earning a living, but that's not good story for the mainstream media or a angry mob photo, when something like this happens or a terrorists attack, the next day at work this what average Muslim has to put-up with "it's you and your people". That's kind racism Muslims have deal with, but my favourite racist is the White middle class who lives in little Suburbia, you'll find them roaming around Cif, I've tried reading Rushdie, to me his not a great writer, terrible prose, love cormac mccarthy's prose, Playmaker10 29 January 2012 9:01PM Response to Flash67, 29 January 2012 8:40PM I suspect the majority of the no-nothings who contribute their mindless 'Islam is evil' drivel on Cif know very, very few Muslims in real life. It seems like a quick read of 'Atheism For Dummies' justifies the offensive stereotyping of a swathe of the world's population. For what it's worth I like both Rushdie and McCarthy's writing. Rushdie's problem as a writer is the shadow of Midnight's Children - much of his more recent output is (maybe inevitably) a pale imitation. Flash67 29 January 2012 9:28PM Response to Playmaker10, 29 January 2012 9:01PM I'm willing to give another try to "midnight children" or "Satanic Verses", the problem is I've already coming from place who has read great writers like jorges luis borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, Philp k Dick who dealt with alternative realities in far better way, I keep on going back to them, one my favourite writers Isaac Bashevis Singer he's Jewish , theirs lots of devil stories in his work, to me these far superior writers than Rushdie, even Kipling great storyteller, love his short stories, don't agree with his imperial outlook, Playmaker10 29 January 2012 9:50PM Response to Flash67, 29 January 2012 9:28PM Fair enough. I'm reasonably read and I think Rushdie's good (very good at his best). Then again I have quite odd taste.

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Gelion 29 January 2012 10:05PM "The terror of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa has faded but the challenge it posed to artistic freedom has not, as a brush with the Indian authorities has shown" The merits or otherwise of Rushdie aside, I would point out to the writer of this column that most of the world are not Western democracies in terms of free speech, and have no legislation to back it up - Russia, India, China, the middle East, much of Africa, much of South East Asia. I remember the idea that Thatcher and Reagan had "won the cold war" in the 1980s and the hype over not only the idea of the war being won, but also the idea of ideals being won - that Western democracy would fill the gap 25 years later and this seems a joke. Russia, China, the middle East (even with the Arab Spring, freedom of speech does not look like it is catching on anywhere, even in Tunisia). Totalitarianism is alive and well around the world. pintooo 29 January 2012 10:08PM Response to islamophobiasucks, 29 January 2012 4:48PM You mistake me for a Hindu? I am an atheist. Even if I wasn't, I wouldn't accept the "Islam vs other religions" argument. Islamophobia exists because Islam presents itself in a frightening way. What other reaction would you expect? In case you missed it, this piece is highly critical of India, and within that criticism is the fear of reaction from the Muslim population. While the Indian police and politicians have shown a pathetic sense of duty and character, it is also, therein critical of the predictable and mindless reaction we expect from Islamists. I would be as critical of Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Jews. pintooo 29 January 2012 10:13PM Response to Flash67, 29 January 2012 8:40PM "when something like this happens or a terrorists attack, the next day at work this what average Muslim has to put-up with "it's you and your people"" Actually, non-Muslims have to put up with that, too. As long as we're a little dusky, we could be terrorists and believe me, we don't like it any more than you do. As Islam is a conversionist religion, you really can't claim "racism." There's no such thing as the Muslim race. pintooo 29 January 2012 10:20PM

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Response to focus29, 29 January 2012 7:48PM First, I apologise if you thought I was being critical of your post. The piece directed at you was simply on your view of The Satanic Verses. I didn't mean to imply you condoned the threats on Rushdie. I did read your first sentence and understood it. Where I thoroughly disagree with you, though, is that someone who is a critical thinker and commentator should somehow not expect the protection of his country when his life is threatened by another State. If we have freedom, we need to protect it. mintaka 29 January 2012 10:35PM Response to exraf64, 29 January 2012 2:09PM Rushdie has survived, and his book has survived, but we are all self-sensoring now, are we not, fearful that something we say, or something that we are seen reading or buying might attract the attention of some religious fanatic and put us at risk of some form of attack, verbal or physical. No, not in the slightest, but I guess I don't exactly have a high public profile. Noecofascist 29 January 2012 10:40PM I seems to me that the way forward for everybody is to try to live together and push their religions into the places that they deserve, those being the little green weely bins outside their doors. Religion stinks of blood....just try to imagine in the history of the world how many people have died fighting for or against one religion or another. What is all about, population control or just bloody minded power. Even racism is a religion and whether they like it or not, the Jews claiming to be a chosen race are totally barking. Nobody is chosen. We all come into the world in the same way and that makes us all equal. Religion and Racism are home bred diseases and when we arrive we don't carry that baggage...it all comes later. Salman Rushdie is another messenger and we must give him and his publishers some credit for having made a small breech in the bastions that religions all hide behind. Let's have more threats to all of them, mullahs, priests, popes, whatever, even terrorists, they are all the same. They are there to breed hate amongst ordinary people and maybe we should call for the deaths of all their leaders. Mouths of God! what total tosh.... these jumped up little balls of excrement should learn to know what they really are. Why should we be afraid to publish?....what right do these people have to stop us? threats of murder are illegal in most parts of the world, so why aren't the perpetrators put away? There is always more whenever one looks into the hole. Politics, Religion, just the same thing...you vote for us and we will let you threaten out-spoken writers, regardless of the quality of the material. This is the right time for atheism. rise up all you agnostics and shed your dread.

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Laugh with your neighbours and live in peace because you're only here once and when the time comes, there ain't no coming back! mintaka 29 January 2012 10:43PM Response to FlyOnaWindshield, 29 January 2012 3:08PM I read it as a celebration that Rushdie had survived and prospered despite one of the most disgusting episodes in modern history The fatwa was pretty disgusting, but one of the most disgusting episodes in modern history? A history full of wars and state sponsored mass murder? Flash67 29 January 2012 10:44PM Response to pintooo, 29 January 2012 10:13PM What part you did not understand? I don't care about any religion, in the real world outside of white middle class suburbia even Sikhs are attacked by racist who think all Muslims are brown and have turbans, I'm still mostly likely to be vulnerable by a racist and from my past experienced of racism have been because of terrorist incident, and most importantly I dealt with it, you see live in the real world. Like said before my favourite racist are the one that live those pose boroughs, what shall I explain to a racist "sorry the last time I went to mosque when I was eleven", I don't go around blaming all Islamic world. mintaka 29 January 2012 11:08PM The paper has an article about Alice Goodman on its front page. It is also a story of censorship. A subtler censorship achieved without death threats, but apparently a more effective way. I don't mention it in any sense of whataboutery - there is absolutely no question in my mind that the fatwa against Rushdie and the subsequent threats to him are both vile and stupid - but merely to point out that we should perhaps not be so hasty to throw stones. Albieperkins 30 January 2012 12:21AM People or institutions that cannot accept criticism usually have something to hide. Like it or not, Islam cannot return to its glory days and must find a place for itself in the modern world. The dogmas will have to be cast aside if it is to move forward with grace. Islam is not the only religion struggling with this truth. coruja 30 January 2012 3:06AM Recommend? (2) Recommend? (1) Respond (0) Report
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Respond (1) Report And the supreme irony of all this is at half of the The Satanic Verses was very critical of Thatchers Britain, of its demonisation of immigrants. (Hence the very slow response he got from the Conservative gov. at the time, all explained well by Julian Barnes in his Letters from London.) StraightArrow 30 January 2012 5:21AM I read 2 of his novels: "Satanic Verses" and "Enchantress of Florence" and adored both. Paradoxically, as a Westerner, brought up Protestant, I found the satirical style of the "Satanic Verses," made Islam seem more familiar -- less alien and threatening. Because it was satirized similarly to the way I've heard Christianity satirized, it made me feel that Islam was more like what I was used to. It made me feel like I was inside. I learned things about Islamic traditions that I had not known before. Similarly, when I watched "Death of a Princess," which Saudis thought hurt their image abroad, it actually made me feel more comfortable with Saudi dress, because I got to see it coming off. Saudis never seem to understand that covering a woman's face in black represents evil in Western culture -- that it's scary, like witches and vampires. "Death of a Princess" showed real flesh and blood women behind those veils rather than ghouls. Muslims should be grateful for these works that so offend them. They do not understand our culture enough to understand the effect of these works. mintaka 30 January 2012 9:58AM Response to coruja, 30 January 2012 3:06AM And the supreme irony of all this is at half of the The Satanic Verses was very critical of Thatchers Britain, of its demonisation of immigrants. Exactly. Which makes the accusations that Rushdie is a (witting or unwitting) stooge for Western imperialism even more bizarre. pintooo 30 January 2012 11:09AM Response to Flash67, 29 January 2012 10:44PM I understood your first post perfectly and don't get what you were so offended by in my post. I didn't understand your second post as you seemed to be finger-ranting. diggychacha 30 January 2012 11:20AM Recommend? (1) Respond (0) Report
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This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail see our FAQs. SunnyAshawan 30 January 2012 3:36PM Be careful what you say about Congress. They have shown an uncanny characteristic of being arrogantly vindictive towards their critics in recent times. With the opposition parties including BJP in such disarray with half of them facing ludicrous court cases and other half enjoying the fruits of compromise with Congress, they are all set to come back to power in next elections. pintooo 30 January 2012 5:08PM Response to islamophobiasucks, 29 January 2012 4:48PM I just re-read your comment and read your comments on other boards and I am now rather annoyed. In your comments, you take the position of Islam first, rest of the World after (if at all). Frankly, this is very troublesome to me. You also ask me to quote the Koran "not out of context" then spill out a whole bunch of Hindu texts as if to prove me wrong (on what, I don't know since none of this relates to the subject at hand). You should know, well versed as you proclaim to be, that Hinduism does not have a dogmatic doctrine. There is no single source of how to live. But as I said, I will not get into a comparative religions debate because I am not a follower of any faith. In other words, just like you, plus one more - Islam. kanchhedia 2 February 2012 11:47PM The article describes Rushdie as English literature's first great Asian novelist, which is an insult both to R.K. Narayan and to Desani. Further, it claims that Rushdie is Indias greatest writer. Since there is no time qualifier attached to greatest [such as greatest living writer, for instance], the characterization is an insult to Rabindranath Tagore, Iqbal, Premchand, Bankimchandra, Ghalib, Mir, Kabir, Mira, Tulsidas, Khusro, Kalidas, Shudraka, Valmiki, and Vedvyas. Ghalib, Mir, and poets in the Gustakhana Shaayaree tradition in Urdu and Farsi have been provoking fundamentalists in Islam for centuries without inviting fatwas. English, which purports to be the language of la ville mondiale, is in fact the most parochial of all languages in the world, and the so-called cosmopolitan outlook in the West is in fact the least tolerant and the most selfrighteous way of looking at the non-Western world. When a writer chooses a language, she also chooses her readership. English-speaking people have more money than perhaps speakers of all other languages put together, and writing in English is a lucrative trade. To characterize it as art is to indulge in the fatuous self-righteousness typical of the parochial West Recommend? (0) Respond (0) Report
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that pretends to be cosmopolitan. The India that the disgustingly parochial writer of this bilge has in mind has a population of only those 10 million or so Indians who speak English. I imagine that for The Guardian, a putatively liberal voice in the wilderness of English media, those Indians who do not speak English do not exist. Here is a question for Indias all time great writer on the tundish passage from Joyces Portrait, written in 1905 when a much larger part of the Irish had been speaking English for a longer time than was the case with India when this rich Frat boy chose to write in English because India, as he stated, was not ready for the kind of large writing he wanted to do: The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home,Christ,ale,master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language. Would Mr. Rushdie shed light on what happens in the shadow of English to whatever it is that Anglicized Indians have for a soul?

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