Salman Rushdie and the power of words

Rushdie would not allow himself to be reduced to the caricature his enemies wanted him to be.Photography by Roberto Cacuri / Redux

The terrorist attack on Salman Rushdie on Friday morning in Western New York was triply horrifying to behold. First in its sheer brutality and cruelty, about a seventy-five-year-old man, unprotected and about to speak – no doubt cheerfully and eloquently, as he always did – repeatedly in the belly, the neck and face. Indeed, we accept the abstraction of these words – ‘attacked’ and ‘attacked’ – too casually. To try to feel the feelings of the victim – first shock, then unimaginable pain, then the panicked sense of bleeding life – to engage in the most moderate empathy with the perpetrator is to brand yourself oneself. (As of this writing, Rushdie is believed to be on a ventilator, with an uncertain future, the only certainty being that, if he lives, he will be maimed for life.)

Second, it was gruesome in the madness of its meaning and a reminder of the power of religious fanaticism to move people. Authorities didn’t immediately release the motive for the attack, but the grim fear is that the terrorist who assaulted Rushdie was an American-educated radical Islamist militant – like John Updike’s imaginary terrorist in the novel ‘Terrorist’. , apparently raised in New Jersey – who was carrying out a fatwa first decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, when Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” was published. The diabolical absurdity of the death sentence handed down to Rushdie for writing a book that was actually more exploratory than sacrilegious – by no means anti-Muslim invective, but a sort of magico-realistic meditation on themes from the Koran – was still evident. . (Of course, Rushdie should have been equally invulnerable to persecution if he had written a genuine anti-Muslim or anti-Christian rant, but, in this case, he had not.)

For the next decade, Rushdie was under protection, and although far from disappearing from the world – for the most part he went where he wanted – he was still under surveillance. (I remember him, at least once, with biting humor, going by the nickname Michael Jackson, italicizing his notoriety by hiding under the name of someone even more notorious.) Over time , however, with a courage that seems even more remarkable now than it did then, he abandoned protection and moved unescorted and unprotected – claiming his own humanity while refusing to be made into a special case. of any kind. He would not allow himself to be reduced to the caricature that his idiotic enemies wanted to make of him, nor to the equally caricatured role of a martyr of the truth. He was a writer, with writing hobbies and writing rights. Friday’s attack was a reminder of how relentless these enemies are and a timely reminder that when an autocrat encourages violence, violence happens. When theocrats or autocrats or mere demagogues ignite their followers, fires break out and innocent people are burned even though the time between the lighting of the wick and the explosion of the flame may be longer than one might have expected. ‘to imagine.

Finally, if more locally, it was awful because it seemed to those who knew him that the fatwa had faded in significance and threat, that it had become the subject of retrospective memoirs, as in his excellent, “Joseph Anton”, and even for real comedy. No one can forget — or now wince a little at the memory — Rushdie’s hilarious cameo on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” a few seasons ago, where he advised Larry, then under an imaginary fatwa himself , on the benefits of sex fatwa. Although apologists for the Iranian government insist that the fatwa has been ignored or increasingly neglected by the authorities, none in power have had the decency to reject it, let alone denounce it – indeed, the he current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appears to have reiterated the fatwa as recently as 2019 – and the deadly assault on Rushdie appears to have prompted nothing but jubilation and chanting from holy men in Iran. Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a figure involved in the US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, announced on Twitter that he “will not shed tears for a writer who exposes endless hatred and contempt for Muslims and Islam”.

Of course, Rushdie did no such thing. What makes the story so tragic, and the comedic TV moment so illustrative of its nature, is that Salman, for those who knew him – no, to know he – as a friend, was the kindest of men, the least narrowly dissenting, the most rational and the most within reason guys they would ever meet. Full of tradition and life, with extremely comprehensive tastes and topics, over dinner he spoke as easily and skillfully about films, television series and pop music, which he loved, as he did about literature and religion. . (He also wasn’t reluctant to be a self-deprecating comedian in order to attend a social occasion; I remember he once did a karaoke version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” at a party in London.) In the nearly thirty years that I have known him – far from intimate but constant and always with pleasure – I have always been impressed by the effortless serenity with which, in public from less, he faced his strange fate. (We met when we walked through the great Matisse show from 1992 to MOMA together, at the height of the threat, and he was full of joy in each passing picture, with a pleasant, fully developed if slightly ironic sense of all that Matisse had drawn from Islamic civilization, from Persian ornaments and North African textiles, for his inspiration.)

Because one thing is true, unlike his predecessor VS Naipaul, whom he greatly admired and whom I think he feared not to admire, Rushdie had, and indeed has, no bias “Western”. No one could have been more ostensibly contemptuous of imperialism, more open to mixing postcolonial and Western themes, or more committed to the postcolonial writing project, sympathetic to the efforts of those who are marginalized or constrained to the limits of the acceptable experience to be heard. and have their stories told. Telling these stories – writing about India in English from an Indian perspective – was the subject of his biggest book, “Midnight’s Children”. His commitment to the English language was as real as his commitment to post-imperial writing.

Efforts will be made, must be made, to even out or somehow level the acts of Rushdie and his would-be tormentors and tormentors – to imply that while the insult to Islam may have been misunderstood or exaggerated, the insult must still be seen from the point of view of the insulted. This is a doubly despicable view, not only because there was no actual insult, but also because the right to insult the religions of others – or lack thereof – is a fundamental right, part of the heritage of the human spirit. Without this right to open speech, intellectual life is reduced to simple cruelty and the pursuit of power.

“The most rudimentary thing in literature – this is where its study begins – is that words are not deeds.” These were the words of Soviet dissident author Andrei Sinyavsky as he tried to explain to his judge equally deaf of what a novel is, shortly before being sentenced to the labor camp. Literature exists in the realm of the hypothetical, the suppositional, the improbable, the imaginary. We relish books for their exploration of the implausible that sometimes defines a new possible for the rest of us. Our commitment to this belief – to what is strangely called freedom of speech and freedom of expression – must be as close to absolute as humanly possible, because everything we value in life, including including pluralism, progress and compassion, depends on it. We don’t know what it is possible for us to feel until we are shown what it is possible for us to imagine.

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