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The Salman Rushdie Case

Further evidence of Rushdie’s failure to ever be quite as tough on himself as he is on others is provided by his amused recollections of his American and British publishers’ behavior during the fatwa. Peter Mayer, head of Penguin, and Sonny Mehta, at Knopf, published the hardback editions of The Satanic Verses, but equivocated over and finally backed out from publishing the paperback. That both of them had responsibility for the safety of large staffs—men and women who were included in the terms of the fatwa, but who did not have the benefit of around-the-clock police protection—does not strike Rushdie as a sufficient justification for their decisions and he has much comic sport with what he regards as their “spineless” conduct.

Robert Gottlieb, the former editor in chief at Knopf, with whom Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, is also chastised for having once suggested that Rushdie would not have written his book if he had known it was “going to kill people.” Rushdie was so disgusted by this comment, he tells us, that he never spoke to Gottlieb again.

Readers will differ in their opinions of whether the free speech represented by The Satanic Verses paperback was worth upholding at any cost. But even those who take Rushdie’s side on this will be hard pressed to match his scorn for the opposing point of view. By the time the Rushdie Affair was over, it had resulted in the deaths of more than fifty people. The questions that Mayer and Mehta and Gottlieb raised about the wisdom and the morality of continuing to publish in such circumstances seemed then, and seem now, perfectly reasonable and humane.

Oddly enough, when Rushdie recounts the unhappy episode of 1990 in which he met with Muslim leaders, and agreed not only to withdraw the paperback but to proclaim his faith in Islam, he berates those who failed to show “compassion” for his “Mistake.” Compassion is certainly what he was owed during that troubled era. It is only regrettable that this quality should be so signally lacking from his own judgments on former friends and colleagues.

Of all the retrenchments and narrowings of viewpoint that are on display in Joseph Anton, the saddest, perhaps, is his altered attitude toward Islam. Throughout the fatwa, Rushdie carefully resisted the temptation to make Islam itself the enemy. “The thing called Islamism is not the same thing as Islam,” he told David Cronenberg in 1995. “This political thing which we call fundamentalism, everybody is scared stiff of it. It is not a religious movement, it’s a political fascist movement which happens to be using a certain kind of religious language.”2

But his tolerance for this sort of distinction has since waned. Now he regards any efforts to separate reactionary forms of Islam from Islam itself as dishonest and wrong. They are, he claims, embarrassing corollaries of the old attempts by Western Marxists to separate the “true” Marxist way from the horrors of Soviet communism. Islam is not after all a heterogeneous entity but a sickening, murderous monolith, and Western “respect” for the religion—to be placed, at all times, in scornful quotation marks—is only ever “Tartuffe-like hypocrisy.”

How are we to reconcile these sentiments with the gratitude that Rushdie expresses elsewhere in the book for Muslim writers who supported him during the fatwa? Or with his belief in the artist’s role as a promoter of human tolerance? The job of literature, he instructs us in the final pages of this memoir, is to encourage “understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself…to make the world feel larger, wider than before.” Some readers may find, by the end of Joseph Anton, that the world feels rather smaller and grimmer than before. But they should not be unduly alarmed. The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small.

  1. 2

    Interview with David Cronenberg, Shift, June/July 1995. 

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