It was always likely that someone would attack him. Iran never withdrew the fatwa. Indeed, in 2019 the Twitter account of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei was briefly suspended for reaffirming it. The chance that someone out of the hundreds of millions of people who had been ordered to hate him would act on their hatred was always there. It took a lot of courage to appear in public.
Let’s not forget that Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered. The offices of a New York newspaper which defended him were firebombed. A Turkish hotel in which one of his sympathisers was participating in a literary conference was burned down, killing 37 people. That sort of anger doesn’t just evaporate.
Indeed, jubilant hatred is being expressed across social media. One man posted a photo of “the lion-hearted youth who attacked Salman Rushdie” and received 800 retweets. Where the courage in stabbing an unarmed old asthmatic author lies is beyond me. Ali Waqar, a journalist writing for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, praises the “young freedom fighter” who assaulted a man who “hurt billion-plus Muslims”. Those billion-plus Muslims were free not to read the book.
Most of the people celebrating the attack on Rushdie appear to be Pakistani (perhaps because Twitter is blocked in Iran) and many of them are followers of a cleric named Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Rizvi, who died in 2020, founded the organisation Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan — primarily to defend the nation’s blasphemy laws. Rizvi spent the last years of his miserable life campaigning for the Christian mother Asia Bibi be killed for allegedly making blasphemous remarks.
I can understand why hearing and seeing blasphemy hurts religious believers. It is troubling to see that which we consider beautiful degraded. I feel troubled when I see images of clerics burning The Satanic Verses. It is blasphemy against civilisation.
Your rage is compensating for a lack of love
But when you go looking for blasphemy, and are driven to such morbid depths of bloodthirstiness, you have no sense of beauty. Your guiding impulse is profoundly negative. Like an insecure man who barks “lookin’ at me” at any random stranger in a pub, external strength is caused by inner weakness. Your rage is compensating for a lack of love.
Rushdie’s case has cousins, of course. Others have died, or had their lives threatened, in similar circumstances. Theo Van Gogh was murdered for making a film. The Charlie Hebdo staff were murdered for making cartoons. Samuel Paty was murdered for showing cartoons. A British teacher is still in hiding after doing the same. Let me repeat that: a British teacher, in Britain, is in hiding for showing cartoons.
There are no easy solutions to be found here. The simple fact is that Islam, as it is understood by most Muslims, is profoundly intolerant of disrespect. That does not mean most Muslims support violence, of course, but it means enough Muslims support it that violence takes place. It will take a theological and cultural sea change for this to be untrue.
That means scorning people who appease murderousness
What we can choose is whether to accommodate or oppose aggression. I think any self-respecting person should support the latter. That means scorning people who appease murderousness, like Keith Vaz, the long-serving Labour MP, who apparently told Rushdie that he would support him before joining a protest against his book, or Sean O’Grady, an idiotic Independent columnist, who said in 2019 that Rushdie’s “silly, childish book” should have been banned. People who take more offence at controversial books than at a widespread violent response have discluded themselves from civilised discourse.
Certainly, there are complex debates to be had around freedom of expression. I don’t think we should blaspheme for the sake of blaspheming, because being boorish is being boorish whatever the context. But even if that were true of The Satanic Verses — and it is not — it would be less than relevant when people are trying to kill its author. As it happens, I have deep literary and political disagreements with Mr Rushdie. But, again, that is irrelevant when people are trying to kill him.
Sometimes, societal issues really are this simple: you are either with the novelist or the people trying to kill him. I know that sounds crude and unsophisticated, but if you found a young man trying to stab an old man in the street would you think hang on, maybe the old man said something offensive, or perhaps the young man has valid grievances? Only if you have the brain and heart of a mollusc.
Our disagreements were mainly about his India books, and his reactions to India in general. Those were serious disagreements, but they didn’t affect my admiration of his best work.
Art transcended disagreement. I hope all of our disagreements will be transcended by the right to make art without being killed.
My thoughts go out to Mr Rushdie and his family. May he return to health, and to writing, soon.
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