Image that you have written a book that a group of people hate so profoundly they want you dead. This scenario is pretty much what happened to Salman Rushdie when he published The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s.
On Valentine’s Day 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, placing a million dollars on his head and calling for all Muslims to kill Rushdie. Umberto Eco has called the fatwa against Rushdie the worst review one could ever have the bad luck to receive. All kidding aside, Rushdie’s “death sentence” rallied an international community of writers (and others) to his side.
Always a writer on the margins, the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 catapulted Rushdie onto the periphery as never before. Now Rushdie found himself confined to various covert operations that were put into place “just to keep safe.” The life that Rushdie found himself leading was one that was simultaneously confining and threatening. Combined with the fact that The Satanic Verses was first banned in India, Rushdie could no longer travel the world in the freedom that a writer (one whose very being is informed by a cross-cultural experience) required. “Writers,” Rushdie states, “are citizens of many countries: the finite and the frontiered country of observable reality and everyday life, the boundless kingdom of the imagination, the half-lost land of memory, the federations of the heart which are both hot and cold, the united states of the mind (calm and turbulent, broad and narrow, ordered and deranged), the celestial and infernal notions of desire, and—perhaps the most important of all our habitations—the unfettered republic of the tongue.” The cosmopolitanism of writers in the postmodern world has no better spokesman than Rushdie. Following the issue of the fatwa, Rushdie found himself condemned to death precisely because of something he had written. The irony of this is most resonant when we acknowledge the fact that Rushdie has constructed a home for himself through the agency of writing, yet that writing was the cause of his being forced to live covertly, spectrally. During the decade of the fatwa Rushdie did indeed become a specter, haunting the margins of the literary community and the cosmopolitan community of the world at large as well. As he prophetically writes in The Satanic Verses, “Exile is a soulless country.”
Now, 22 years later, it is something of a miracle that Rushdie is alive and able to live a relatively normal life. The fatwa was lifted, but only after Khomeini died. As I understand it, the only person able to lift a fatwa is the one who decreed it. With Khomeini dead, it is impossible for him to lift the sentence. That means, at to least some, the fatwa is still active against Salman Rushdie. It’s ironic and completely accidental that my class on “Books to Die For” begins discussion of The Satanic Verses this week. I wonder how these students will view the novel.
Freedom of speech is the chief hallmark of a democracy. When we begin to persecute writers, artists, musicians, actors, university professors, and any citizen for saying something, anything, that those in power disagree with, we have sold our souls to a particularly sinister devil. We should defend free speech as if our lives depended upon it.
Because, in fact, it does.