Salman Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, closes as its author emerges in 2002 from years in hiding; he bids goodbye to members of the security detail that has guarded him since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa called for his death. “That was it,” Rushdie writes. “More than thirteen years after the police walked into his life, they spun on their heels and walked out of it.” Still, he wonders whether “the battle over The Satanic Verses” has ended in “victory or defeat.”
This may seem a strange question. Rushdie’s novel had not been suppressed; in fact, its literary and political significance was widely recognized, and its author was alive and well. Both Rushdie and those charged with his protection believed that the threat against him had abated enough for him to return to public life. Yet Rushdie ends his memoir on a note of concern: he writes that the “climate of fear” had intensified since the fatwa was issued, making it “harder for books like his to be published, or even, perhaps, to be written.”
As it happens, he had cause to worry. In the intervening years, support for Rushdie and for free expression has narrowed—a fact made particularly clear since his August 2022 stabbing by an American of Lebanese descent who expressed admiration for Khomeini and condemned Rushdie after reading “a couple pages” of The Satanic Verses. The assault, which put Rushdie in intensive care and left him blind in one eye, would have been unimaginable without the fatwa, yet many have been content to treat it as a random act of violence by a lone madman.
An August 19 New York City rally of writers gathered in support of Rushdie reprised a 1989 demonstration against the fatwa in which Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Christopher Hitchens, and others participated, but the later iteration “paled in comparison,” a Le Monde editorial remarked. Across social media, writers expressed concern for Rushdie’s health, but an instinctual solidarity with him and the sense—so strong at the time of the fatwa—that his fate spoke to all of us as members of a liberal society did not materialize. Even among his defenders, free speech took a back seat.
Why? One reason is fear. In 2009, the British writer Hanif Kureishi told Prospect Magazine that “nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses.” He might have added that no one would have the balls to defend it. Most writers, Kureishi continued, live quietly, and “they don’t want a bomb in the letterbox.” [Continue reading…]