Issued on February 14, 1989, Iran’s fatwa condemned Rushdie and the publisher of The Satanic Verses, calling on “all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly.” In a series of subsequent statements from official sources in Iran, Rushdie was depicted as a demonic blasphemer and tool of sinister Western manipulators. The speaker of the Iranian parliament saw Rushdie’s novel as the most overt of a series of covert hostile actions against Islam. A report on Iranian radio blamed British intelligence for Rushdie’s book, calling it part of a larger anti-Islamic propaganda campaign. Although Khomeini himself was said to have viewed The Satanic Verses as a calculated move against religion in general, another leader, President Khamenei, detected a broad cultural conspiracy behind the novel. In Khamenei’s view, “aside from being a sin in the eyes of the law, religion and humanity, this dirtying of literature and arts was an ugly deed.” Khomeini’s statement claimed that God himself had revealed the anti-Islamic nature of the novel and wanted it published in order to expose its poison. The statement of President Khamenei viewed Rushdie inconsistently as both a mere stooge of the United States and a “member of the British royal literary society” who “was forced to write a book.”
Rushdie and Modern Fiction
The novel’s “The Parting of the Arabian Sea” passage forms not only the narrative climax to the book, but its emotional highlight. The novel is distinguished both for the Joycean exuberance of its language and the fantastic nature of its plotting, written in the spirit of the Magical Realism of Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez. Because Middle Eastern literature has not developed the range and variety of fiction in the English tradition, it is possible that the Iranian clerics and officials profoundly misunderstood Rushdie’s complex narrative strategy, and consequently misread the novel’s tone, as did the thugs who beat the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz.
Although the novel admittedly treats three of the world’s great religions as absurd delusions, it also shows the potential for human love, action, and profoundly contradictory behavior. So much of its narrative concerns dreams, fantasies, and dreamlike behavior that it is difficult to identify Rushdie’s own attitude toward Islam, beyond an implied playful skepticism about the claims of any religion. Any Western reader willing to read through his complex text would probably concede that he has complicated and perhaps contradictory things to say about race, religion, politics, sexuality, and ethnicity in postmodern society.
The threat of murder by a government against a creative artist with no personal connection or debt to that government is a horrifying demonstration of the worst kind of official censorship. Not only Western intellectuals and proponents of democracy, but also non-Iranian writers and intellectuals have issued sharp defenses of Rushdie’s right to write as he pleases, regardless of the offense that he may cause to religious sensibilities, and to live without the threat of bodily harm. The Tory government of Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher was quick to condemn the Iranian fatwa and to supply security and safe housing for Rushdie, although Thatcher herself was one of the prime targets of Rushdie’s sharp satire.
Other Literary Forms
Best known for The Satanic Verses (1988), Salman Rushdie’s other novels include Grimus (1975), Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). Additionally, he has written a children’s fable, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990); a monograph on cinema, The Wizard of Oz: A Short Text About Magic (1992), and two books of essays: The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (1987) and Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 19811991 (1991).
Salman Rushdie received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1982 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. Shame won the Prix du Meilleur Livre...
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