Salman Rushdie is a literary cat with many lives. Despite personal disasters since infancy, Rushdie has never failed to demonstrate his determination to live. Be it the 1989 Kill-Rushdie fatwa (Islamic decree) issued by Iran’s supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following the publication of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses or his life-in-hiding post-fatwa or his Covid attack in 2020, Rushdie has managed to survive personal calamities. Rushdie’s tortuous life journey could be more thought-provoking than his literary creations.
Reflection of the Raging Battle
On 12 August, the Indian-born British-American writer Rushdie was attacked by a New Jerseyan with suspected Iranian sympathies. Ironically, Rushdie was stabbed at a New York literary event where Rushdie was to speak on how safe a haven the United States is for writers living in exile. As the topic of his talk tumbled down, bleeding along with him, Rushdie’s metaphors sprang up to life.
As Rushdie recovers, the many conflicts and contradictions in his life look as grievous as his stab wounds. Though the attacker’s motive is not yet known, his murderous attempt is a reflection of the raging global battle between creativity and cantankerous conservatism, between protagonists of free speech and purveyors of sectarian toxicity.
Toxic or non-toxic, the Iranian fatwa continues to be in force, despite the demise of Khomeini and despite Iranian president Mohammad Khatami reportedly saying in September 1998 l’affaire Rushdie was “completely finished.” This means Iran is not backing the fatwa now. Yet, this decree continues to be in force, and with a prize money generous to boot.
A Metaphor for Defiance
Such inbuilt contradictions speak volumes of how religious sectarians have made this planet forfeit values of free speech and forgiveness, religious tolerance and right to creative independence. Rushdie had said once: “Free societies…are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom’s existence.” The still-in-force fatwa amplifies the power behind these words.
As Rushdie often found himself lost in the jungles of intolerance, he knows well how his metaphors have set the limits for his own literary existence. Managing to make the best out of his troubled life as a thinking writer, Rushdie need to tell us more about how his life has turned into a metaphor for defiance and deviation from the norm.
The Essence of Freedom
The message of this metaphor is simple. Our planet needs more champions of free speech, dangling swords of dissent-haters notwithstanding. Rushdie views dissent as the essence of freedom. Rhetorically he had queried once, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
Sectarians view this freedom through their tinted glasses and slay the protagonists of free speech. But, free thinkers and free speech champions need to remain loyal to their thoughts, come what may. This is the message filtering through Rushdie’s current bloodied brush with death.
Defiance apart, Rushdie’s life is a metaphor as well for the continuing battle between right to think and right to torch the thinkers. No matter how intensely Rushdie used literary liberties to stress on rational thinking, squeamish sectarians settled down to call the originality of Rushdie’s thoughts as outrageous blasphemy.
The Theme of Upheavals
Rushdie said once, “Faith without doubt is addiction.” Thus, Rushdie’s triumph lies in questioning blind faiths, flagging traditional beliefs as heresies and protecting the sanctity of sacred truths. By doing so, Rushdie could bring about the fusion of righteousness and reasoning. To Rushdie, questioning is the first step towards religious rationality.
Again and again, in his works, be it The Midnight’s Children or The Satanic Verses or Quichotte, Rushdie leveraged his theme of upheavals caused by intellectual unrest and societal imbalances, brought about by dubious ideologies. This is why, for Rushdie, his thinking-writing is more than a career, it is a crusade as well.
As he recovers from his near-fatal stab wounds, Rushdie has once again risen as a never-say-die bugbear of status-quoists and rabid religionists. After all, Rushdie is the one who wrote in The Satanic Verses, “From the beginning, men used God to justify the unjustifiable.” The murderous attack on Rushdie shows these words would remain unpardonable.
Hates to See the Slide
Consider for a moment Rushdie is a Muslim by birth. Yet, he loathes radical Islam and its rabid followers. He contends the religion he was born into does not preach hate and murderous reprisals, and why, no religion advocates them. Despite this, seeing the country of his birth slide into a boiling cesspool of hate has saddened Rushdie to no end. This is evident in many of his works.
What buttresses this theory further is Rushdie’s penchant for using every opportunity to express his pains of rancid religious rabidity. He never tired of lashing at demagogues attempting to create monotheistic
identities in multidimensional societies. This is true of many nations today. Clearly, Rushdie saw his post-fatwa persecution as the first roar of a coming storm. As events elsewhere in the globe prove, Rushdie stands vindicated today.
Statement of Durability
This vindication has brought pains and pleasures to Rushdie. Never wavering from his self-assumed roles of a flag bearer of free speech and a pallbearer of poisonous preachings primed to prune artistic liberties, Rushdie has been firm in his belief in creative freedom. His will to defeat the demons of death now is a statement of durability of his inclusive ideas.
Tragically, he may lose an eye. Sure, he will never lose the eye to see conflicts and calamities in societies taken over by fanatics and fundamentalists. Rushdie effused once by saying, “Free societies…are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom’s existence.” Despite the handicaps the New York attack may inflict on him, Rushdie is sure to live by these words.
After the dastardly attack on Rushdie, the free expression-promoting PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel said, “We can think of no comparable incident of public attack on a literary writer on American soil.” Nossel is right. The Rushdie attack speaks volumes on how liberal societies have been slow-poisoned by sectarianism and how creative thinkers are falling victims to the illiberalists.
As the news of Rushdie’s stabbing began streaming in, Iranian media delightedly described the attack as “divine retribution.” Joining in, Iran’s state broadcaster Jaam-e Jam rejoiced over the possibility of Rushdie losing an eye and declared “an eye of the Satan has been blinded”. Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American writer and author of The Prophet, had anguished over “retributive justice” by saying “An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind.” Sadly, blind hatred continues to hold sway.