Before there was the fatwa, there were protests, bans, and deaths. The first inkling of controversy came just before the book's publication, when an Indian journalist broke the publishing embargo on writing about a book before it is available for sale. Madhu Jain's article, "An Unequivocal Attack on Religious Fundamentalism," was published in the magazine India Today in September 1988, and three weeks later The Satanic Verses was banned in India, Rushdie's homeland. Three days after that, he received his first death threat. Jain has recently responded to Rushdie's accusation that her review was "the match that lit the fire."
Not long after being passed over for the Booker Prize that fall, which went to Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, Rushdie was scheduled to appear in Johannesburg at a conference about apartheid and, ironically enough, censorship. That week, the South African government also banned his novel, and the conference organizers were forced to withdraw their invitation to Rushdie, despite a very public debate over the matter between J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.
In December of 1988, there was a demonstration against The Satanic Verses in Bradford, a Yorkshire city with Britain's largest Muslim population. Footage of Muslim men burning Rushdie's book aired on television that night. Next day, photos were in all the British newspapers and the country's largest bookseller withdrew the book from their shelves.
The following February, two thousand demonstrators showed up at the U.S. Information Center in Islamabad, Pakistan, to protest Rushdie's book. No explanation was given for why the United States was targeted. The protestors threw bricks and stones, and the Pakistani police responded by open firing into the crowd, killing five people. The next day, there was another riot in Kashmir in which one person was killed. It is said that these two incidents are what prompted Ayatollah Khomeini to issue his death sentence the following week.
The story of Rushdie's fatwa began on the book pages of newspapers around the world (like The Guardian and the New York Times). The words of the Ayatollah had been broadcast on Tehran radio: "I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses book which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them."
There were many absences and gaps in the unfolding story. Because Rushdie's first novel, Midnight's Children, had been well-received in the Islamic world, English language copies of The Satanic Verses had been for sale in Iran for fully six months without arousing religious ire. The mosque leadership likely never read the book, which was not translated into Persian. No one initially cited specific passages that were offensive, though later thirteen Muslims brought Rushdie to court in Britain for six blasphemies, a charge which was dismissed and which later led to the crime of blasphemy being abolished in Britain. The opposition to The Satanic Verses appears to have been a top-down, strategical ploy on the part of the dying Ayatollah to regenerate support for his regime and to engage British Muslims in Iranian politics. As Rushdie notes, a fatwa is usually "a formal document, signed and witnessed and given under seal." No such document was ever produced.
In 1998, in response to international diplomatic pressure, the Iranian foreign minister announced, "The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has no intention, nor is it going to take any action whatsoever, to threaten the life of the author of The Satanic Verses or anybody associated with his work, nor will it encourage or assist anybody to do so." But many insisted that the fatwa was still in effect and could never be revoked because the Ayatollah Khomeini had died without withdrawing it.
There is still a $3.3 million bounty on Rushdie's head. For those who weren't yet born when the fatwa went into effect, there is a videogame in development to introduce and re-demonize the author, who now lives openly but carefully in New York City.
The image is an undated photo of Ayatollah Khomeini who led the 1979 Iranian Revolution to overthrow the Shah, and was then Supreme Leader from December 1979 up until his death in June 1989.
This article is from the October 3, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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