When he was a child, Salman Rushdie’s father read to him “the great wonder tales of the East,” from the great Arabic and Sanskrit and Persian tales of the Thousand and One Nights, the Panchatantra, the Kathasaritsagara and the Hamzanama. Rushdie learned “two unforgettable lessons” from these tales. First, that “stories were not true … but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him.” And, second, that all stories “belonged to him … and to everyone else.” Most of all, the young Rushdie learned that “Man was a storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away.”
Except that by the time Rushdie was old enough to read these stories to his own son, that was exactly what many people wanted to do. And to take away not just his birthright but his life, too. When the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Valentine’s Day, 1989, for the “blasphemies” of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was in effect sentenced to death for writing a story. Many were to be killed for translating and publishing that story. Bookshops were bombed for stocking it. It is a measure of the strangeness of the world in which we now live that storytelling can be such a hazardous craft. “It would be absurd to think that books can cause riots,” Rushdie told an Indian journalist shortly before the publication of The Satanic Verses. In today’s world, we know that not just books but films, plays, cartoons, ideas, even obscure and barely watched YouTube videos all can cause riots. Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir, is the story of how that world came to be.
The book is, in many ways, as disconcerting as the story itself. The title comes from the name that Rushdie was forced to adopt during his years in hiding, a name stitched together from two of his favourite writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. Rushdie has chosen to write his memoir not as a straightforward autobiography, but in the third person. This conceit is highly disorienting for the reader. The effect, however, is to give a sense of the alienation that Rushdie himself must have felt living the life of Joseph Anton.
Rushdie begins his account with his childhood in Bombay in the 1940s and ends with his induction into New York life at the turn of the millennium. The heart of Joseph Anton lies, however, in the story of the fatwa and the decade spent in its shadow. Cloaked as it is in that shadow, The Satanic Verses has come to be seen purely as a novel about Islam. Rushdie was, in fact, trying to write a novel about the migrant experience through which he could explore “how the world joined up, not only how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East, but how the past shaped the present while the present changed the understanding of the past.”
But “when a book leaves its author’s desk,” Rushdie observes, “it changes.” It becomes “a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker.” When The Satanic Verses left its author’s desk it became not a means of making sense of the migrant experience, but a weapon to be wielded by Islamists in their war with each other, with secularists and with the West. In particular, it became a weapon in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia had made the initial running, funding the campaign against the novel. The fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle back the initiative.
None of this mattered, of course, on Feb. 14, 1989. All that mattered was that a writer had been sentenced to death for writing a story. The immediate response to the fatwa was one of bewilderment. No one really knew what a fatwa was, or how far the Ayatollah’s writ truly ran. When Rushdie first went into hiding, virtually everyone thought that the storm would blow itself out within a few days. In fact, the operation to protect Rushdie turned into the longest, most complex protection program in the history of British policing.
Joseph Anton provides a brilliant account of the dislocation of the fatwa years. Rushdie writes eloquently of the emotional toil wrought by the continual move from house to house; by the constant scrutiny of every stranger, every shadow, every sound; by the need to schedule, and receive permission for, as simple an act as going for a walk. Day after day, year after year.
Rushdie writes eloquently, too, of his deep sense of shame, that “to skulk and to hide was to lead a dishonourable life.” Most of all, Rushdie’s account portrays both the courage and the cowardice of those around him. On both sides of the Atlantic, his friends, from Martin Amis to Edward Said, rallied to the cause. Many whom Rushdie had treated less than honourably – his first wife Clarissa, for instance, or his former agent Deborah Rogers, whom he had sacked for a big-money move to Andrew Wylie – offered not just support but sanctuary, too, some even giving up their homes for Rushdie to find refuge.
Equally striking are the instances of cowardice and spite. “I would not shed a tear,” wrote the historian Hugh Trevor Roper, “if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.” The novelist John le Carré dismissed Rushdie’s plight with the insistence that “there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” Norman Tebbitt, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest lieutenants, described Rushdie as “an outstanding villain.” Neither Thatcher nor any other British government minister would agree for years to meet with Rushdie.
The moral of the response of both liberals and of Western governments to the fatwa was best summed up by Shabbir Akhtar, the Muslim philosopher who acted as a spokesman for the anti-Rushdie campaign. “Vulnerability,” he wrote, mocking the equivocations of Western liberals, “is never the best proof of strength.” The more you cave in to those who would censor, the more they wish to censor. It is a lesson that remains unlearned.
It is in exploring the wider issues of the Rushdie affair that Joseph Anton is, perhaps surprisingly, at its weakest. The memoir is extraordinarily rich in detail. And yet that detail is rarely used to illuminate the big picture, to explore the cultural and political changes that the Rushdie affair has wrought, or at least symbolised. The changing nature of Islam, and the growing importance of its radical strands; the emergence of Islam as a domestic, rather than simply a foreign, issue for Western nations; the shaping of political discourse, in both the West and in Muslim countries, by the idea of the “clash of civilizations”; the growing importance of cultural identities, and of faith as the anchor of such identities; a fundamental change in the meaning of “tolerance” from the acceptance that others have the right to promote ideas you don’t like to the insistence that you have the right to force others not to promote ideas you don’t like; the growing view of speech not as inherently good but as inherently problematic – all these developments helped shaped and were, in turn, shaped by the Rushdie affair. Few people are better placed than Rushdie to link the details of those years to these historical shifts. Rushdie provides a blow-by-blow account of the meetings, the arguments, the feuds, the emotions, but without the wider context it can feel like someone trying to set the record straight, and settle scores, rather than placing the events within a broader frame to further understanding.
Whether the battle over The Satanic Verses has ended “in victory or defeat” is, Rushdie writes, “hard to say.” Rushdie survived the fatwa, The Satanic Verses continues to be published. And yet, “a climate of fear” has developed that makes it “harder for books like his to be published, or even, perhaps, to be written.” There has developed over the past two decades a much stronger sense that it is morally unacceptable to give offence to other cultures or faiths. The campaigners against The Satanic Verses lost the battle but they have won the war. The fatwa has, in the West, effectively become internalized. That is why Joseph Anton, both the man and the book, are so important. They are vital reminders of the continuing importance of an unswerving defence, in Rushdie’s words, “of debate, of dispute, of dissent.”
Kenan Malik is an India-born British scholar and current-affairs broadcaster, and the author of several books including From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy.