Salman Rushdie visited Washington in 1992

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This story, originally published on March 25, 1992, was republished in 2022 following the August 12 attack on Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua facility.

Author Salman Rushdie arrived secretly in Washington this week to plead that his fate – a million dollar bounty placed on his head by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini three years ago – should not be forgotten.

Rushdie went underground when his novel, “The Satanic Verses,” prompted a death sentence against Khomeini for blasphemy, and it was only recently that he began appearing frequently in public.

He has become more visible, he said in a two-hour interview Monday at a hotel in suburban Virginia, because he no longer has to worry that his statements will harm efforts to free Western hostages in Lebanon. .

But their recent outing, he said, “was a cutting edge moment.” Although the release allowed him to speak out for his cause, “there was a great danger of apathy setting in” with the hostages outside.

Their release did not eliminate the late Khomeini’s religious edict, called a fatwa, against him, Rushdie said, and he is still moving under tight security. Investigators are met at a location and then brought to him.

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Rushdie said he intended to have a number of private interviews and meetings in Washington.

At the only public event – a speech last night at a free speech conference in Rosslyn – Rushdie distributed the first paperback copies of his book. Even his appearance at the conference, sponsored by the American University School of Communication and the Freedom Forum, was closely watched until word gradually spread in recent days. Security during the session was reinforced. Everyone who attended went through metal detectors and no one was allowed to leave until Rushdie was gone.

CBS correspondent Mike Wallace was on the invitations as a speaker, but he instead featured Rushdie, who pleaded for “the United States government to show itself a true friend of ‘freedom, which has “acquired many powerful enemies” in the world.

“I am no longer certain of the commitment of the British authorities to the task of protecting me,” he said. “I ask America to come on board” and join Britain and Europe. “The case of Iran’s fatwa against ‘The Satanic Verses’ must be closed.”

But his request for support from the US government appeared fruitless. He said a meeting that was set up today with representatives and senators – whom he declined to name – was canceled for reasons he was unsure of. There may not be time to reschedule the meeting before Rushdie leaves, conference organizers said.

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In the interview, Indian-born Rushdie, who considers himself a “secular” Muslim, admitted that when he wrote “The Satanic Verses” he fully expected a strong reaction. Muslims and non-Muslim opponents have denounced it, saying its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is an irreverent and offensive attack.

“Obviously I knew what I was doing” writing the controversial passages, Rushdie said. But “you don’t think the world is going to fall on your head”.

“You think, yeah, okay, some right-wing religious figures are going to get upset and they’ll write things about it or they’ll rant about it and I’ll respond and there’ll be a bit of a debate and maybe that debate will be constructive and it will say some things that need to be said – end of story.

It didn’t work that way. The book, published in September 1988, was banned in countries in the Muslim world and in countries, such as India, with large Muslim populations. There were book burnings and violent protest demonstrations in which several people died and dozens were injured. “People were holding up signs of me with my eyes bulging,” Rushdie recalled.

Then it seemed the world had indeed fallen on its head, with Khomeini being sentenced to death on February 14, 1989 for blasphemy. A $1 million reward was offered. Everyone who published the book was also targeted. The paperback version is published by a secret consortium that will not identify any of the participating publishers.

The bounty was scrapped after protests from Western nations, but a semi-private religious foundation renewed it and the fatwa was reaffirmed last month, on the third anniversary of its issuance.

“The fatwa introduced the element of state-sponsored terrorism,” Rushdie said. “I’m not particularly afraid of hotheads” in the Muslim community in England, he said. “But I don’t know how to defend myself against state-sponsored terrorism. They have grenade launchers and they also have mega bucks.

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That’s why Rushdie has had to, as he puts it, “deal with this particular existence for so long. And I have no way of knowing how real or imagined this threat is. But what I do know is that I have been informed, at various times during these three years, of intelligence reports of serious attempts. He declined to say how he arrived in this country, but it is believed he arrived on a British government plane.

Two translators of the book, one in Japan and the other in Italy, were victims of stabbings in July. The Italian translator was injured and the Japanese translator died. “What’s happening is that the fatwa is actually being implemented,” Rushdie said.

He said his life has not been easy. “The scariest moment was at the very beginning,” he said, “because we had absolutely no idea what was happening to us. The newspapers were full of stories about the death squads. British police have never had to deal with a situation like this, so we were making it up as we went along. We didn’t know what the right answer was and we couldn’t be sure it would be enough” to deter an assassination. “You never know when it will succeed.”

He and his second wife, American writer Marianne Wiggins, were constantly on the move to avoid detection. He could talk on the phone but could not see his 12-year-old son from a previous marriage. Her marriage to Wiggins eventually broke up.

Rushdie said perhaps the lowest point came after December 1990, when he announced he had embraced Islam and agreed to suspend publication of a paperback edition of the book to allow a period reflection.

Muslim opponents saw it as a ploy. His supporters were outraged. In an interview with the Sunday Times of London, Wiggins accused him of being weak and self-obsessed and of failing to live up to his historic role as a champion of free speech, not using the publicity than to advance his own career.

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Rushdie said he did not regret the reconciliation effort but regretted “the so-called statement of conversion [which] wasn’t even written by me. But I was asked to put my name on it and I did. . . . I shouldn’t have done it. . . . There was not the slightest shred of compromise on the other side. I mean not a single thing.

Rushdie is frequently criticized in the British press, who claim the novel made him rich as taxpayers pay $1million a year to protect him – a figure he says is inflated. Critics point to his left-leaning politics and his criticisms of the Conservative government that are keeping him alive.

Rushdie said that in England there was “a certain sort of finicky bitch that creeps into certain speeches”. By contrast, he felt that Americans “seem to get the point. . . that is, you don’t kill people for writing books. Full stop. The book doesn’t matter. . . . ”

In response to criticism, Rushdie said, “I think I haven’t done well every bit of the last three years. There are times when you don’t feel like a hero, you don’t feel like fighting today and you want that to go away and you don’t want to stand up for freedom today. [You say] “You do it today, I’ll do it next week.”

He constantly receives advice. Sometimes he would say, “I thought, you know, if you think you can do better, come stand here, you know. And anyone who feels like switching places, at any time, if they think they can do better, they are absolutely welcome to try it.

He estimated he had stayed at 30 locations over the past three years, all of which were guarded by British police. “It’s true that sometimes I was only there for two or three days. Sometimes it’s been for much longer periods. The moves were sparked by intelligence reports indicating efforts to attack him.

“There are calmer periods and there are less calm periods and what I obviously hope is that now, gradually, the calmer periods will become longer and longer. He’s written two novels in the past three years and has been walking around, apparently enough to have a social life.

Rushdie said he was in one of those quieter times now. Iran has not bothered to note its increased visibility, and its supporters recently met with officials from the Iranian embassy in London to discuss the situation.

“I think now British Muslims are saying ‘we’re not interested in that anymore’, and Iranians, I think, are shaken by the [international] pressure,” he said. “So what we need to do is shake them up even more.”

Rushdie said the executive order needed to be lifted if he was to be able to resume some semblance of normal life. Even then, he says, he will never be sure he is safe.

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