CRF Blog

A Fundamental Fight

by Bill Hayes

In A Fundamental Fight for Vanity Fair, Paul Elie looks back on how Salman Rushie dealt with the fatwa against him because of his book The Satanic Verses.

There are plenty of moments from 1989 when the world changed: the meeting of man and tank in Tiananmen Square, the release of the dissident Czech playwright Václav Havel, the unbricking of the wall in Berlin. But nothing shook the world of belles lettres like the moment when an Islamic dictator said an Anglo-Indian deserved to die for writing a novel. “When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes,” Rushdie has written, and the ordeal of The Satanic Verses presaged the ways the world would change. The big themes of the past quarter-century were previewed there: the rise of Islamist fanaticism; the inequities that sparked a growing rage toward Western values; the impact of media in a global epoch.

The controversy made Rushdie, for his day, an archetypal man on the run — as Edward Snowden is for ours — and he has spent his life since then trying not to be defined by it. Underground, he was forced to take an alias, and he compounded the first names of the authors Conrad and Chekhov into a nom de guerre. He titled his 2012 memoir of the ordeal for this alter ego — Joseph Anton — and wrote it in the third person, as if to slip out of the skin of his notoriety. It is a bold, brave book: the narration makes us feel the fatwa closing in around him, and the story is one Kafka or Kubrick might have imagined, a religious war waged against an ordinary man.

It works so well that it keeps us from seeing how powerfully the novel and the fatwa defined the age for the people who knew Rushdie then, worked on the book, and stood up for it. Twenty-five years later, they decided to retrace those terrifying months, as did the author, who opened up to Vanity Fair.

The Satanic Verses is the first chapter of the very long and unpleasant story that has, as one chapter, 9/11,” Ian McEwan says. “I initially read the book in purely literary terms — as an extraordinarily playful, exceedingly intelligent novel — and it’s taken all this time to wrench it back into the realm of the literary.”

“It was the first taste we had of the theocratic sensibility,” remarks E. L. Doctorow, who was active in a campaign by PEN (the global organization devoted to defending free expression) in support of The Satanic Verses. “It was our first taste of the relationship between faith and violence in that part of the world.”

Martin Amis (who in a 1990 piece in Vanity Fair profiled his friend who had “vanished into the front page”) says the controversy forced writers to be “more serious” about their work — and their rivals’ work, too. “The notion that writers are a bitchy, touchy, catty, competitive crowd, always scoring points off each other — this was absolutely obliterated by the Rushdie affair,” he believes. “Any writer who was bitchy or catty looked very trivial after the fatwa, because it was a matter of life and death.” [more]

For a free, related classroom lesson, see Blasphemy! Salman Rushdie and Freedom of Expression from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.