On this day 20 years ago, Salman Rushdie was defending The Satanic Verses in a BBC interview, denying it was an attack on Islam. But the first blood had already been spilled with five people killed in violent agitation over the book in Islamabad, Pakistan. And the next day – tomorrow marks its 20th anniversary – Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, calling for the execution of Rushdie.
Now on the BBC you can listen again to that interview with Rushdie.
“I had no intention to be disrespectful towards the religion itself or towards its founder,” he said. “That’s why I thought let’s not call him Mohammed, let’s not call it Mecca, let’s not call the religion Islam. Let’s preserve the echoes of what I know, but let’s put it into a dream, let's put it into a dream of a man who has recently lost his faith and therefore finds it difficult to believe in the literal truth of the revelations, a dream that becomes an expression of the turmoil in him.”
You can listen to the interview if you click on The Strand arts programme on the BBC World Service website.
The interview can be heard about 10 minutes into the nearly half-an-hour-long programme where editors, journalists and publishers discuss the fallout from the fatwa.
The Satanic Verses was Rusdhie’s last great novel, says the writer Kenan Malik.
It won the Whitbread prize – now the Costa prize – for the novel of the year in 1988.
The BBC broadcaster Kate Adie, who was one of the judges, recalls how it narrowly lost the top prize.
Paul Sayer’s The Comforts of Madness won the Whitbread book of the year award, beating The Satanic Verses.
“We were split right down the middle,” says Adie, who voted for Rushdie. The judges were still debating who should get the prize when it became time for the prize-giving dinner. Adie recalls with relish the chief came in and told them: “If you don’t make a decision soon, there will be burnt offerings for dinner.”
Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda won the Booker prize that year, another defeat for Rushdie who was on the short list.
Rushdie survives but there have been other victims: the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was stabbed to death, the Italian translator injured in a knife attack, the Norwegian publisher shot and injured, and the Turkish translator was the target of an arson attack that killed 37 others but not him, recalls the BBC presenter Harriett Gilbert.
Journalist who caused riots
You can also hear another writer who had to flee for her life.
The Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel faced a fatwa calling for her execution after she also offended the Muslims.
Her offence was a sentence she wrote about the Prophet in an article about Miss World contestants in 2002. It sparked riots in Nigeria – more than 200 people were killed and over 1,000 injured.
You can read the article here.
The deeply repentant journalist, now living in Norway, tells the BBC she wrote the sentence on the spur on the moment. The editor of the Nigerian newspaper, This Day, asked her to write the article, she says and adds:
“As I was writing, it suddenly occurred to me that according to Islam a Muslim man is allowed to marry up to four wives and suddenly the thought struck me that wouldn’t it be amusing if the Prophet could have chosen one of these beautiful women for himself as a bride. And that was the idea behind the sentence which caused so much fury. I do understand that it’s probably not a form of humour which a lot of Nigerians could appreciate but I personally found it quite funny and amusing.”
“As soon I heard about the riots and the killings, I was filled with shame, and I blamed myself. I felt that if I had not written the article, so many people would not have died. But as the riots grew and more and more people were butchered in the streets, my feeling of responsibility suddenly turned to anger.
“I regret that so people had to lose their lives over that sentence, but at the same time I feel that it was not a reaction that was proportional to the crime. I did not write that sentence to make a point. It was not a political point about freedom of speech. It was just a silly joke. If I could by refraining from writing that sentence save hundreds of lives, then I would definitely do so. On the other hand, I do feel that it was not a sentence that deserved a fatwa and it was definitely not a sentence that could be a legitimate motivation for going out in the streets of Nigeria and killing so many people.”