Joseph Anton: Rushdie on Rushdie

I remember watching on CNN the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001.

I could not believe my eyes as the two planes commandeered by al-Qaeda terrorists hit the twin towers, bringing them down in tongues of fire, clouds of smoke.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed and retribution followed with the Americans going after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the war on terror, security stepped up everywhere. Commentators began to talk of a post-9/11 world.

But actually the change began more than a decade ago when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in February 1989, calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for blaspheming the Prophet in The Satanic Verses.

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Salman Rushdie and a fatwa woman

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.

Whitbread prize

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.”

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Updike’s Terrorist and adulterers

The Terrorist by John Updike

India, not Iran, was the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses shortly after it came out in September 1988, reminds the Observer.

The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government banned the book under pressure from the opposition Janata Party. Both wanted the Muslim vote.

It was only then that a group of imams in Iran read a section of the book to Ayatollah Khomeini. We all know what followed.

This February marks the 20th anniversary of the ayatollah’s fatwa, calling for the execution of Rushdie.

Rusdhie lives but others have died, reminds Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:

We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal.

I think it’s only decent not to hurt others’ feelings.

But this media self-censorship, as Hitchens calls it, has resulted in a dearth of good writing on a serious issue.

Few writers have written about Muslim terrorists the way Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and John Le Carre explored previous generations of terrorists and spies.

I haven’t read Le Carre’s latest novel.

But I enjoyed Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, where he wrote about Kashmir and terrorism. A lyrical novel with a violent ending, it’s a thriller full of magical realism.

And there’s John Updike, who wrote The Terrorist. The September 11 tragedy inspired him to write a novel about a terrorist growing up in America.


New Jersey high school senior Ahmad Mulloy is the son of an Irish American nurse’s aide and aspiring painter and an Egyptian father who abandoned them years ago.

Ahmad is outraged by life with his mother who brings her boyfriends home and provocatively dressed girls at school. He seeks refuge in the strict teachings of Islam, but that makes him all the more angry about the temptations he sees. “Devils” is the first word in the book. (Time excerpted the first chapter.)

Devils, thinks Ahmad. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair…

The teachers, weak Christians and non-observant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.

But he hides his feelings, takes part in sports and is a bright student. School counsellor Jack Levy wants him to go to college, but he says he wants to be a truck driver instead.


Levy visits him at home to talk sense into him. He ends up having an affair with the mother instead, dropping by when Ahmad is not at home.

Updike portrays the relationship between Jack and Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, beautifully. She is approaching 40, he is 62, with a wife with whom he still sleeps at home. They both know the affair won’t last, but that doesn’t prevent a growing intimacy. And, along the way, Jack begins to feel like a father to Ahmad.

But Jack doesn’t know the 18-year-old is being manipulated by his religious teacher, a Yemeni imam, who wants him to become a truck driver for a very specific reason. He plans to use Ahmad as a suicide bomber.

Ahmad readily agrees when he learns the plan. But on the day of his suicide mission, he is stopped on the road by Jack, who has somehow stumbled onto the secret.

Jack gets into the truck and tries to dissuade the boy. But Ahmad is adamant. He drives on with Jack sitting next to him. You can almost credits rolling across the screen as they continue their journey. The ending is very much like a movie.

Updike on The Terrorist

The problem with The Terrorist is its central character. Ahmad has a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. He won’t hurt a fly, refuses to have sex until he is married, and yet goes on a suicide mission to kill innocent people. But then who knows how a terrorist’s mind works?

Updike said when the book was published in 2006:

“I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system…

“I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith. The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world.”

Jack and Teresa

And he certainly got Jack and Teresa right. They are ordinary people trying to do their best – he as a counsellor, she as a painter – as they age. They are far from perfect – he is cheating on his wife, she is an indifferent mother – but they are also good, honest and attractive in their own ways. We know Jack won’t leave his wife, Beth, and Teresa will continue to chase her dreams for the right man and as a painter.

And there is Updike’s prose. No one writes better than him. 

Here Jack is watching Teresa – Terry – put on her clothes after lovemaking:

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