Everyone has seen photos of the Indian author with the hooded eyes and recognizes the title of the fourth of his thirteen books, “The Satanic Verses”, though few of us have read it. 1989 will be remembered for the wall that came tumbling down in Berlin, and for the unknown hero defying the tanks in Tiananmen Square (the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” in Chinese …). It should also be remembered for the first fatwa in history against a writer in the Western world. Rushdie rightly calls 1989 “a turning point in History”.
In France we had offered hospitality – generously, naïvely, blindly – to the Ayatollah Khomeini before he returned to Iran and a triumphant welcome – followed immediately by the installation of a totalitarian theocracy. (It was not the first nor the last time we backed the wrong horse : in 2007 Muammar Gaddafi was fêted in Paris and in 2008 the guest-of-honor at our July 14 Bastille Day parade was Bashar-al-Assad !) The fatwa forced Rusdie to live in terrified hiding for nine long years, protected day and night, until it was lifted in 1998 : a salvation of sorts.
The author had been raised in a non-practising Muslim family living in India, which, like 100 million other Muslims, opted not to emigrate to Pakistan because they were at best lukewarm in their faith and because they identified themselves as Indian. Rushdie has always defined himself as a writer of fiction, and he defines fiction as “the creation of imaginary worlds”. “Literature”, he said in an interview published in “L’Express”, July 22, 2015, “does not exist to give lessons. I don’t like books that preach or works of art that carry a message.” His reference to the Prophet in “The Satanic Verses” concerning Mohammed’s initial tolerance of other gods before renouncing this view in favor of an absolute monotheism, was viewed by the mollahs as a deformation of the sacred text. The “blasphemer” was condemned to death and his future assassins promised a generous reward.
It is extraordinary that anyone could accept that people with power, the result of a coup d’état or even of a valid election, can decree death for even fantasizing in a work of fiction about their religion. Up until the Protestant Reformation, Catholic and Calvinist Christian denominations were as guilty as Islamic despots and other dictators in executing dissenters and “blasphemers”. Salmon Rushdie’s salvation, after nearly a decade of living (?) under the threat of assassination, was the result of luck and professional protection. Since then, how many others, unprotected, have been less lucky and assassinated in the name of Allah ?