The Fatwa at Twenty

Twenty years ago today, Salman Rushdie received what he would later describe as a “funny valentine.” The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Radio Tehran, calling Rushdie an apostate and sentencing him to death for his work of fiction, The Satanic Verses. The fatwa followed weeks of protests by some people within the British Muslim community and led to further protests and riots in parts of the Muslim world. One translator, several dozen protesters, and many supporters were murdered as a result of the controversy. Hundreds of others—editors, publishers, booksellers, readers, bystanders—were injured. Rushdie had to live under police protection for nine years.

Nowadays, Rushdie often quips that, without seeking further argument with the Ayatollah, “I will point out that only one of us is dead.” I’m glad it was the novelist who survived the confrontation, not the politician/religious nutjob. I remember getting my hands on a copy of the book when I was in London in 1990; I couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. But then again, I wasn’t someone whose identity was threatened by novels. The Satanic Verses is not my favorite of Rushdie’s books (those would be Midnight’s Children and Imaginary Homelands). I don’t always agree with what he writes, but whenever I think about what he and his family went through for several years, I feel enormous sympathy for him.

The BBC has a short interview with three people who took part in the original protests in Bradford.  Meanwhile, the Guardian catches up with Iqbal Sacranie (he who said that “death would be too easy” for Rushdie) and Lisa Appignanesi (the novelist and memoirist who tirelessly defended Rushdie.) As for the author, he’s been busy; the paperback edition of his tenth novel, The Enchantress of Florence, was released last month.

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