The Salman Rushdie affair: Thirty years and a novelist later

The novel Satanic Verses was assassinated on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1989.

Salman Rushdie holds a copy of The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie holds up a copy of his book 'The Satanic Verses' at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia in March 1992 [File: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds]

Who still remembers, or cares to remember, or cares at all about the “Salman Rushdie affair”?    

Thirty years ago, on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1989, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, then the supreme leader of Iran, issued a religious decree, a fatwa, condemning the British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie to death.

Up until that fateful decree, the name Salman Rushdie was known only to a community of South Asian literary aficionados admiring a gifted Mumbai-born novelist whose piercing prose and wicked sense of humour had given the world such literary gems as Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983).

What had triggered the Ayatollah’s ire, and indeed the fury of many other Muslims, particularly in Pakistan, was Rushdie’s novel called Satanic Verses which had just come out.

The book was written and published in English. The ayatollah did not read English. He was reacting to the reaction of others who had not read the novel either.

It was all a comedy of terrors.

It was just a novel  

In the events that unfolded 30 years ago, timing played a key role. Satanic Verses was first published in the United Kingdom late in September 1988, around a month after Ayatollah Khomeini had begrudgingly agreed to the end of the calamitous Iran-Iraq War.

At that time, his rule was shaken from the discovery of a scheme in which Iran was receiving arms shipments from the United States – or “the Great Satan” as the ayatollah was publicly calling it – in exchange for its help in securing the release of American hostages held by his client outfit, Hezbollah.  

Between “the Iran-Contra Affair” in 1986, as it was more notoriously known in the US, and the end of Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Khomeini was politically outmanoeuvred and in desperate need of subterfuge for his next moves.

The mass execution of political prisoners in 1986 by his direct order, the sustained course of university purges since the commencement of the revolution, and the engineering of Hezbollah in Lebanon since the Israeli invasion of 1982 were necessary but not sufficient for him. He wanted to guarantee the perpetuity of the theocracy he had established and he had a reason to worry about its future.


Mehdi Hashemi, the Iranian liaison who helped expose the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986, was a close ally to Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, an heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, who had incensed him with his opposition to the mass execution of political prisoners and who was about to be demoted for his disobedience.  

So in February 1989, the Iranian supreme leader was very much preoccupied with guaranteeing the continuation of the Islamic Republic he had established. He needed to order a redrafting of the constitution in a way to allow his devoted follower Ali Khamenei (the current supreme leader of Iran), who had nowhere near the qualifications of Montazeri, to succeed him. He needed yet another smokescreen, just like the American Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981, which had allowed him to consolidate power by wiping out his political rivals.
Rushdie’s Satanic Verses showed up at an opportune time. It had come out of nowhere and the ayatollah would take it somewhere else.

At issue were certain passages in the novel some Muslims had found blasphemous. In November 1988, the book was banned in Pakistan, where demonstrations had broken out. Rallies within expat South Asian communities in the UK also took place. An international bandwagon was emerging and Khomeini readily jumped on it.

On Valentine’s Day 1989, he issued a fatwa (a legal opinion or decree handed down by an Islamic religious authority) ordering the execution of Salman Rushdie. The misfortunate author went into hiding. There was a global outcry against Khomeini’s illiberal book review.

As the mostly Western indignation grew louder, the Ayatollah quickly pushed through the formation of a constitutional assembly to revise the constitution of his Islamic Republic and prepare Khamenei to succeed him. He knew he did not have much time left.

In many significant ways, the “Salman Rushdie Affair” marked the start of the rise of Islamophobia in the US and Europe, affecting millions of Muslim communities and particularly, the refugees forced to flee their homelands.

Rushdie himself became a key culprit in fomenting that hatred against Islam and Muslims. As Ayatollah Khomeini led the militant Muslim fanatics, Rushdie did the same with Islamophobe liberal imperialists like Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, with Muslim communities inadvertently getting caught in between.

The venom Khomeini unleashed onto Rushdie, Rushdie directed at masses of millions of Muslims living dangerously exposed around the globe. Running away from Khomeini’s edict, the author rushed back into his own novel and become one of its characters. He nudged Salahuddin Chamchawala out of the book and took his place.

The death of a novel

Critical theorists as diverse as Jose Ortega y Gasset, Walter Benjamin, and Roland Barthes have written on the idea of the death of a novel as a genre. The heydays of the genre in 18th and 19th century Europe are certainly nowhere to be seen or read any more.

But the European literary theorists could not have imagined the ingenious ways in which postcolonial novelists like Chinua Achebe, Assia Djebar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jamaica Kincaid, or Salman Rushdie would reinvent the genre.  

Rushdie’s earlier books, Midnight Children and Shame, dealing with the banalities of the postcolonial state, were a delightful read. And for those of us who were lucky enough to read it before the storm began (sometime between September 1988 and February 1989), Satanic Verses too proved to be a remarkable novel. It was a masterpiece dealing with the postcolonial immigrant communities moving into the metropole of their tormentors.

But the day after the ayatollah’s fatwa, no one could possibly read it as a novel any more. The Islamophobes had a field day with it, as did their kindred souls and devoted brethren among the militant Islamists.

Satanic Verses was the first casualty of the Salman Rushdie affair and the last novel that Salman Rushdie would write – no matter how many more he published. After February 1989, it ceased to be read on its own merits or maladies. It became an allegory, an icon, a dead certainty – non-Muslims used it to explain or to camouflage their anti-Muslim hatred, and Muslims – to denounce “the West” and its plots against the Muslim world.

There remained no room in between where any sane human being could sit down and read Satanic Verses for what it was worth, form an opinion one way or another, and move on with his or her life. The world demanded a political position on a literary work of art, which had just been “assassinated”. Satanic Verses stopped being a novel and became a manifesto.    

And like his work, Rushdie, too, met the same fate. He continued to write and publish one book after another, but not a single word of fiction he wrote after that fateful fatwa could possibly be read without the prism of “the Salman Rushdie affair”. This was not just the now proverbial “death of the author”, but the death of his fiction too, the art of his ventriloquism, where, when, and how he could be heard speaking in tongues.    

But the world moves and so does the manner in which a genre responds to the changing realities of life. When Rushdie ceased to be read as a novelist, all it took was for Aravind Adiga to come to the fore with his exquisite and powerful The White Tiger (2008) for us to realise what we lost in once a glorious novelist that lived in Rushdie we have gained in a younger, more potent, more grounded, novelist of piercing power.

While Rushdie had begun on the colonial sites of India and Pakistan and moved to the immigrant mayhem of Europe, Adiga would take us back to the pandemonium of the predatory capital now globalised between India and China, made indistinguishable from the amorphous vacuity of the metropole itself.

Who now cares to follow the adventures of Salman Rushdie or what he continues to write? Perhaps only the rare chroniclers of our dreams and despairs like Pankaj Mishra and his saintly patience have the capacity to care what the author of that lost novel Satanic Verses has to say to a world that has moved on from his momentary perils and infinite promises.    

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.