I don't want to hide, says Rushdie, 30 years after fatwa

Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was branded blasphemous and on Feb 14, 1989, Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered his execution.
Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was branded blasphemous and on Feb 14, 1989, Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered his execution.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The author, who has stopped using an assumed name since Sept 11, 2001, says he has been leading a completely normal life in New York for two decades

PARIS • After decades spent in the shadow of a death sentence pronounced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Salman Rushdie is quietly defiant.

"I don't want to live hidden away," he told Agence France-Presse during a visit to Paris.

The novelist's life changed forever on Feb 14, 1989, when Iran's spiritual leader ordered Rushdie's execution after branding his novel The Satanic Verses blasphemous.

Like a kind of reverse Valentine, Teheran renewed the fatwa year after year.

Rushdie, who some say is the greatest writer India has produced since Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), spent 13 years living under a false name and constant police protection.

"I was 41 back then, now I am 71. Things are fine now," he said in September. "We live in a world where the subject changes very fast. And this is a very old subject. There are now many other things to be frightened about - and other people to kill," he added ruefully.

Rushdie stopped using an assumed name in the months after Sept 11, 2001, three years after Teheran said the threat against him was "over".

But armed plainclothes police nonetheless sat outside the door of his French publisher's office in Paris during an interview with Agence France-Presse. Several others had taken up positions in the courtyard.

Earlier, Rushdie had assured a sceptical audience at a book festival in eastern France that he led a "completely normal life" in New York, where he has lived for nearly two decades.

"I take the subway," he said.

The Satanic Verses was Rushdie's fifth book, and he has now written his 18th. Titled The Golden House, it is about a man from Mumbai, who much like the author, reinvents himself in the Big Apple in a bid to shake off his past.

The dark years of riots, bomb plots and the murder of one of the book's translators and the shooting and stabbing of two others now "feels like a very long time ago", he said.

"Islam was not a thing. No one was thinking in that way," he explained of the period when The Satanic Verses was written.

"One of the things that has happened is that people in the West are more informed than they used to be," he added.

Even so, the book was greatly misunderstood, he insisted: "Really it's a novel about South Asian immigrants in London."

Rushdie's friend, the British Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi, reckons no one "would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it."

But even Kureishi, who wrote an acclaimed novel The Black Album in its aftermath about young British Muslims radicalising themselves, admitted that he never saw the controversy coming when he read a proof copy.

He mused: "I didn't notice anything about it that might rouse the fundamentalists. I saw it as a book about psychosis, about newness and change."

Yet the fury it generated was a milestone in the rise of political Islam.

Indian author and journalist Salil Tripathi of PEN International, which campaigns for writers' rights, said he hoped major publishers would still be brave enough to publish The Satanic Verses.

"I have not totally lost hope, but undoubtedly the Rushdie case has created a mental brake.

"A lot of subjects are now seen as taboo," he conceded.

Today, intimidation is carried out by foot soldiers rather than declared by governments, he said, suggesting that now all religious clerics have to do to rouse the angry masses is to voice their dislike for a publication.

Mr Sean Gallagher, of the London-based Index on Censorship, said the world has not moved on much since the Rushdie affair.

"The issues we deal with now are the same. The debate over blasphemy laws is part of a cyclical conversation that is pretty necessary. It's important we continue to be vigilant about freedom of expression and have these cultural dialogues," he explained.

Rushdie himself is equally philosophical.

Asked if he should have written the book, he replied, "I take the Edith Piaf position: Je ne regrette rien (I regret nothing)," quoting the French singer's famous anthem of battered defiance.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2019, with the headline 'I don't want to hide, says Rushdie, 30 years after fatwa'. Print Edition | Subscribe