Admire Rushdie as a writer and a champion – but don’t forget he is a man of flesh and blood

<span>Photograph: Grant Pollard/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Grant Pollard/Invision/AP

In a 2017 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David launches his idea for a new show on Jimmy Kimmel’s talkshow. It is to be called Fatwa! The Musical – a Broadway rendering of the Salman Rushdie affair. This angers an ayatollah in Iran, who issues a fatwa on David’s life. All his backers vanish, he walks around in a disguise unable to live his life, and hires an overly paranoid, aggressive bodyguard, who also has very demanding taste in food and thread counts.

Fed up, David seeks out, and is granted an audience with Salman Rushdie. In a terrific coup, the man who receives David is played by Rushdie himself. Rushdie sits David down, chides him for being afraid and tells him the biggest secret about being the subject of a fatwa – “fatwa sex”.

“There are a lot of women who are attracted to you in this condition,” explains Rushdie. “The fatwa is wrapped around you, like a kind of sexy pixie dust,” he says, “but you have to stop acting like a wuss. Be a man, stop this, and fatwa sex will follow.” The show’s executive producer has said that the pixie dust line was “100% Salman Rushdie”.

One surprisingly fun thing about this performance, and there are many (the most striking of which is just how good an actor Rushdie is), is how Rushdie voluntarily skewers his status as some priestly symbol. A fatwa bifurcates a person into either a demon or an angel. In this, Rushdie is neither, refusing to play either of the roles that were assigned to him decades ago..

Because, over the 33 years since the fatwa against Rushdie was issued, he has been involuntarily cast as a divisive central character in a series of ersatz cultural and geopolitical conflicts. Like leaders, crises are made, not born. And the timing of the publication of The Satanic Verses teased out many strands of a globe in flux that wrapped themselves around Rushdie.

At the time of the fatwa, the Ayatollah Khomeini had notions not just of “supreme leadership” of Iran, but of all Muslims globally, having stabilised his regime after the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis nine years earlier. The fatwa, in fact, came a whole six months after the publication of the book.

Before Iran, it had actually been India that had first taken action against Rushdie, banning the import of the book in a hapless attempt by Rajiv Gandhi’s government to prevent its “misuse” by religious fanatics. Other governments had their own agendas. I remember the new government in Sudan banning the book to burnish its credentials as a player on the Arab stage, even though the country was impoverished and few had even heard of the book.

Related: A tsunami of outrage: Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses

These cowardices and cynicisms then coalesced into a contour of Muslim identity, one that Muslim minorities in the west could latch on to. All this was then pressed into servicing a “clash of civilisations” course of politics and culture that saw conflict between the “Muslim world”, whatever that meant at the time, and the west as inevitable.

And, for two decades, it seemed like it was inevitable, with western invasions and terrorist attacks defining the era. But the world began to change and interests moved on. Al-Qaida and then Islamic State ran out of steam, then purpose. And with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US and the UK ran out of appetite for costly projections of power when they had more pressing matters to attend to at home.

Since 2016, Brexit and its ensuing economic and culture wars have become the new clash of values. In the same year, the US was dragged into similar discord. The politics of identity became central to these new conflicts, and with them came vexatious questions about the parameters of free speech in societies with vulnerable minorities, the policing of white supremacy and far-right violence, and what constitutes proportional response to offence.

Once again, Rushdie is seen as a totem in these tussles. Someone who stands, even more so since his stabbing, as both an inspiration and a warning to all those who take the right of free speech for granted. The enemies today aren’t Muslims or beardy clerics, but those described as social justice warriors, whose overzealousness in protecting marginalised identities wields what some equate to a fatwa: self-censorship, no-platforming, “cancellation”.

There is an inevitability but also a danger in crowbarring Rushdie as a fixed point of moral centre into these messy and often not straightforward fights – both 30 years ago and today. He is, as both a writer and a thinker, far more and far less than that, one who only a few weeks ago said he was happy that his books were being reviewed on the arts pages rather than in the political sections of the newspapers. A brilliant writer who knows rather too well that he is a brilliant writer, he guarded his position as fatwa oracle less jealously than that of a literary figure.

There are two tragedies to Rushdie’s life. The first is that it has all caught up with him. In the end it came for him no matter how hard he had worked and succeeded in transcending it, no matter how the world had changed. Every era leaves remnants of its darkness with us. The accused attacker was born a decade after the fatwa was issued.

The second tragedy is that he had to work so hard in the first place to get away from the fatwa as both a physical threat and a professional one. And so in his hospital bed he is best honoured not solely with accounts of near martyrdom, but also with a heightened understanding that this is a man of flesh and blood who is not there only to carry the weight of our anxieties, or even his own.

A death threat almost fulfilled is a heavy thing to approach with this perspective, but as Rushdie himself said to Larry David when he asked him how he felt about the risks of the fatwa itself, fatwa sex aside: “Well, you know, it’s there. But fuck it.”

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

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