Saturday, October 4, 2008

Rushdie unrepentant about Satanic Verses

1st October 2008

Twenty years after the publication of the book that almost cost him his life, Sir Salman Rushdie is still glad that he wrote The Satanic Verses.

In the second of a series of interviews with leading cultural figures filmed exclusively for The Times, he tells Clive James that he “wouldn’t not have wanted” to be the writer asking the big questions about religion and civilisation posed by the book.

His remarks are uncomfortably pertinent, coming at a time when Muslim extremists have again driven a literary figure into hiding. This time the victim is Martin Rynja, a Dutch-born London publisher who had agreed to release The Jewel of Medina, a controversial novel by Sherry Jones about the Prophet Muhammad’s relationship with his nine-year-old bride, Aisha.

Mr Rynja’s home in Islington was firebombed in the early hours on Saturday. Undercover police tipped him off hours earlier and arrested three men from East London.

Rushdie criticised Random House, his own publisher, in August for refusing to publish the book in the United States , calling it “censorship by fear.”

The interview stretches beyond the fatwa against Rushdie. It ranges from the partition of India to how he played air-guitar Elvis on a squash racket when a child in Bombay.

Rushdie says he is an atheist who finds dead religions “much more attractive” but says he has nothing against true believers until their faith spills over into the public sphere and becomes “my business”.

The Times first reviewed The Satanic Verses 20 years ago today. The review carried no hint of the controversy to come but praised the book as “better than Midnight’s Children”, Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning second novel.

The first sign of serious trouble came four days later when India banned the book after complaints that it was offensive to Muslims and protests began in Muslim communities around the world.

In February 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, then supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa calling on all Muslims to murder Rushdie, and the writer went into hiding for the best part of ten years.

Rushdie says: “The question I’m always asking myself is: are we masters or victims? Do we make history or does history make us? Do we shape the world or are we just shaped by it? The question of do we have agency in our lives or whether we are just passive victims of events is, I think, a great question and one that I have always tried to ask. In that sense I wouldn’t not have wanted to be the writer that asked it.”

During his time in hiding there were explosions at bookshops in London, York and High Wycombe, the book’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death, its Italian translator survived a stabbing, its Norwegian publisher narrowly escaped an attempt on his life and 37 people died after a gang set fire to a Turkish hotel where the Turkish translator was staying (he survived).

The writer is more relaxed about his security today but the fatwa cannot be annulled, and when he was knighted last year protests in Pakistan and Malaysia called for his death. No wonder Rushdie prefers “dead religions”.

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