I was angered but not shocked to hear of the attack on Salman Rushdie. I had been expecting it for decades, as indeed had many others. One of the people who was perhaps not expecting it was Rushdie himself, who seemed to leave behind his ‘Joseph Anton’ alter-ego when he came out of hiding over a decade ago.
I was in Turkey when Rushdie was attacked, surrounded by millions of rather secular Muslims, not one of which would have dreamed of harming Rushdie, no matter how devout their adherence to Islam.
It is in any case entirely reductive to attribute the intolerant attack on Rushdie to Islam itself, given the vast variegation of forms, sects, beliefs and levels of strictness in which Islam manifests across all continents and in almost all nations today. Not that this will prevent commentators from being reductive, of course.
My own relationship with Rushdie was brief, seminal and bittersweet. I was a 16 or 17 year old aspirant writer whose first ever written short story was published alongside Rushdie’s own first ever written short story by the legendary editor Giles Gordon in Heinemann’s Best Short Stories 1988.
I met Rushdie around that time, and he signed my copy of the above collection and promised, should I ever complete a novel, to champion it to his agent and publisher, which was very kind. Of course, only a few months later he was in hiding from the kind of people who consider violence a legitimate form of dispute.
So I have a kind of animus against the Ayatollah, whose inability to tolerate critique led to the fatwah, to Rushdie’s long sojourn in hiding, and also inadvertently to my stillborn fiction-writing career. In any case, to paraphrase Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, besides, the prick is dead.
But alas his ideas, his rigid version of Islam, is not dead. It lives on like an unthinking virus in the minds of many, including the deluded man who stormed a stage at a literary festival to plunge a knife into Rushdie’s 75 year old neck.
I’m neither a Muslim nor a scholar of Islam, but for me it is hard to escape the conclusion that, like every other religion, Islam comes with a day side and a night side. It has transcendental qualities that elevate humanity, and satanic qualities that divide and bestialise us too.
Both of these faces may be encountered, almost too literally, in the two main characters in Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, incidentally. Furthermore, we can also see the Satanic version in the depiction of the Ayatollah himself, and in the desacralised prophet Mahound too, recipient of those infamous verses.
I should add that The Satanic Verses is easily Rushdie’s best book, one which presciently examined immigration and religious fundamentalism before they were the only things anyone spoke about. It is often overlooked partly because of the fatwah controversy, and partly because of the enormous popularity of its predecessor, Midnight’s Children. However, you should read it. Firstly because it’s very good indeed, but also because the violent people, the satanic versions of humanity, really don’t want you to.