Even before a dying Ayatollah Khomeini deemed The Satanic Verses so blasphemous that he issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for Sir Salman Rushdie to be murdered, the author had been defiant. “I cannot censor. I write whatever there is to write,” Rushdie told an Indian magazine before the novel’s publication, in an interview in which he plainly understood the furies that the book would unleash. It was banned first in India and in much of the Middle East. The writer was forced into hiding for more than a decade. But that ordeal never changed his view that artists had the right to offend and to seed “the unceasing storm, the continual quarrel, the dialectic of history”.
The Satanic Verses is laced with often comic magical realism. Iran’s supreme leader is parodied in the novel as an imam grown so monstrous that he eats his own revolution. So what? No piece of writing deserves a death sentence or should be met with the threat of assault. The fatwa has never been revoked, but the threat had receded. And then came Friday’s attack. This was a monstrous act of violence that should be unequivocally condemned. That the author had been preparing to give a talk about the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers only underlines how precious is the right to free thought – and why it should be defended.
Rushdie’s alleged attacker was not Iranian, but born in the US to Lebanese Shia Muslim parents. By all accounts, Rushdie will live but may be badly maimed. Writers can be questioned about why they chose the words they did or chose to frame their ideas in the way they did. They can be criticised for being far removed from the subjects they mock – or challenge. However, when writers face violent intimidation from states or their proxies, or deluded followers of religious orthodoxies, they deserve our wholehearted support. There can only be solidarity with those being menaced. As Ben Okri wrote: “Democracy is built on the right to dissent, on the right for people to hold opposing positions.”
As Rushdie recovers, the world has an opportunity to revisit the essential messages of his work. In exploring the migrant experience, rejecting fundamentalisms and dealing with race, he blazed a trail for a generation of younger writers. His greatest book, Midnight’s Children, sparked a revolution in writing about India in English from an Indian point of view. He saw writers as offering a rival version of history to that peddled by politicians. Both, he wrote in 1982, “try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory. And the novel is one way of denying the official, politicians’ version of the truth.”
The events of the past week are a reminder that the text of The Satanic Verses remains the same, but the context keeps changing. Rushdie’s work should be seen against the rise of an aggressive and polarising politics that draws on a singular race, religion or history to set the “nation” apart. Rushdie repudiated the idea that “intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin” one’s own. Instead the celebration of “hybridity” and “impurity” of peoples runs through almost every book Rushdie has written. Stories can be twisted in the service of religious or political absolutism, but Rushdie showed that they are also powerful weapons in the hands of those seeking to refute such oppressive ways of seeing the world.