WORLD/COVER

THE ‘SATANIC’ FUROR

RUSHDIE’S NOVEL PROVOKES MOSLEM RAGE—AND AN EXECUTION ORDER

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 27 1989
WORLD/COVER

THE ‘SATANIC’ FUROR

RUSHDIE’S NOVEL PROVOKES MOSLEM RAGE—AND AN EXECUTION ORDER

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 27 1989

The Prophet begins to pronounce the sentence of death. “Your blasphemy, Salman, can’t be forgiven. Did you think I wouldn’t work it out? To set your words against the Words of God. ” —from The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

In his controversial novel, author Salman Rushdie imagined such a confrontation between a prophet he named Mahound and a character he called Salman Farsi—“some sort of bum from Persia.” The fictional Salman begs for forgiveness and his plea is answered. But for the real-life author, there was no forgiveness last week. In an episode with eerie echoes of Rushdie’s own fantastic stories, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned The Satanic Verses as blasphemy against Islam—and sentenced the writer himself to die. “I inform the proud Moslem people of the world,” declared Khomeini, “that the author of The Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.”

The Ayatollah’s chilling call for Rushdie’s execution transformed the controversy over the book from an intense debate over spiritual values into an international incident. Khomeini urged Moslems everywhere to execute Rushdie, who was raised as a Moslem in India but has lived in London for 20 years. And an Iranian cleric, Hojatoleslam Hassan Sanei, offered a reward to anyone who kills the 41-year-old writer—$3.5 million for an Iranian or $1.2 million for a foreigner. Then, officials of the home town of the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had added a similar reward of $3.5 million. On the weekend, Rushdie offered a public apology to anyone who was offended by the book, but Iranian officials said that his statement was unacceptable.

Violent: The Ayatollah’s statement came after months of mounting protests against The Satanic Verses by outraged Moslems, who accuse Rushdie of insulting their religion. Starting with a campaign by British Moslems that involved burning copies of the book, the protests spread last week to Pakistan and India, where seven people died in violent demonstrations. Across the Moslem world, even in areas where Khomeini’s uncompromising Shiite interpretation of Islam carries little weight, The Satanic Verses—or secondhand accounts of what the book contained—provoked deep outrage.

In his weekend statement, Rushdie said he regrets the distress that his book has caused for followers of Islam. He added: “As author of The Satanic Verses, I recognize that Moslems in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.” But Iran’s official news agency said that Rushdie’s comments did not constitute full repentance and that he had failed to withdraw the book. As a result, his death sentence remained in effect.

Threat: Khomeini’s command—in effect a demand to murder a citizen of another country—angered Western leaders. The Netherlands’ foreign minister, Hans van den Broek, cancelled a trip to Tehran in protest, and, in Strasbourg, France, the European Parliament condemned Iran and called for severe sanctions against the country if the sentence against Rushdie is carried out. But the threat did intimidate some publishers, who announced that they would not issue new editions or reprints of the book, and some booksellers, who withdrew it from sale.

In Ottawa, the federal government protested the call for the author’s death in a statement to Iran’s chargé d’affaires. But, at the same time, the customs branch of Revenue Canada announced that it had ordered any new imports of The Satanic Verses to be held pending a review of the book to see if it fit the definition of hate material under the Criminal Code of Canada. A spokesman for publisher Penguin Books Canada Ltd. said that it was expecting new shipments of the book from Britain and the United States.

Khomeini’s edict also led to a crisis in relations between Iran and Britain, which had been attempting to resume normal diplomatic ties. In London, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe said that his country would not go ahead with plans to increase its diplomatic representation in Iran. “Nobody has the right to incite people to violence on British soil or against British citizens,” said Howe. “Ayatollah Khomeini’s statement is totally unacceptable.” Added Cyril Townsend, a Conservative MP: “This takes us back to the Middle Ages.”

The Iranian leader’s call also created divisions within the Moslem world itself. Although almost all Moslem leaders condemned The Satanic Verses as deeply offensive, many disassociated themselves from Khomeini’s sentence of death. Among the estimated 90 per cent of Moslems who follow Islam’s mainstream Sunni tradition, in particular, many expressed fear that the Ayatollah’s appeal would discredit Islam. In Paris, Hamadi Essid, the head of the Arab League mission in France, said that the Iranian reaction would create an impression that Islam was “so fragile, so inconsistent, that it could be shaken by a novel.”

For Rushdie himself, a prize-winning author and a leading figure in London’s literary world, Khomeini’s pronouncement posed an immediate and pressing danger. Even before the Ayatollah spoke out, Rushdie had received many death threats. And experts on terrorism said that Khomeini’s appeal to Moslems to execute the writer could well be carried out by his followers—and that his life will be in danger for years to come. Within hours of Khomeini’s call, Rushdie went into hiding with his wife, American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Police stood guard at their home in the Islington district of North London and also at the London offices of Rushdie’s British publisher, The Penguin Group. Rushdie himself cancelled a planned three-week promotional tour of the United States—which was to have started last weekend.

Defiant: Before he went into hiding, however, Rushdie was in a defiant mood. “Frankly,” he told a television interviewer, “I wish I had written a more critical book. Religious leaders who are able to behave like this, and then say this is a religion that must be above any kind of whisper of criticism—that doesn’t add up.” He added, “It seems to me that Islamic fundamentalists could use a little criticism right now.”

Rushdie is accustomed to controversy. Midnight’s Children, his 1981 book that won Britain’s respected Booker Prize, upset many Indians and led India’s then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi, to sue him for suggesting that she caused the death of her husband. In 1983, he published Shame, which satirized Pakistan’s political leaders and was banned in that country. Shame was also nominated for the Booker Prize, and Rushdie was so deeply disappointed when it failed to win that he publicly denounced the judges. But those disputes paled in comparison to the furor that erupted after The Satanic Verses was first published last September.

Sprawling: The 547-page book, for which he was paid an advance reported to be as high as $1.5 million, has been a critical success: it was one of the finalists for last fall’s Booker Prize and, in January, won the best-novel category of the Whitbread Prize, another leading British award. It is a complex, sprawling book that mingles the past and the present amid switches between London and Asia. Much of the plot concerns two Indian characters named Gibreel and Saladin, who fall out of an airplane—and are somehow washed ashore on an English beach.

But the most controversial parts of the book are sequences in which Gibreel apparently dreams of the rise of a religion similar to Islam—Rushdie calls his imaginary religion Submission, which is the literal English translation of “Islam.” He writes of a prophet named Mahound, who bears similarities to Mohammed (page 20). Historically, Mahound is a name used for a satanic figure in medieval times. At one point, an angel named Gibreel, who parallels the Archangel Gabriel in Moslem tradition, describes laws that tell the faithful “how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual positions had received divine sanction, so that they learned that sodomy and the missionary position were approved of by the archangel.” And in one lengthy passage, Rushdie writes of a brothel called The Curtain in which the prostitutes adopt the names of the Prophet’s wives in a successful effort to attract more customers.

Despite those parallels, however, Rushdie has insisted that his book is not really about Islam at all. He has described Submission as “a fictional departure from Islam.” In an interview before Khomeini’s threat, Rushdie explained: “Islam is, after all, one of the greatest ideas that ever came into the world—I suppose the next idea of that size would have been Marxism—and the chance to study the birth of a great historical idea is interesting. The one thing you learn as a historian is just how fragmented and ambiguous and peculiar the historical record is. So I thought, well, let’s not try and pretend to be writing a history. Let’s take the themes I’m interested in and fantasize them and fabulate them so that we don’t have to get into the issue: did this really happen like this or did it not?”

Insults: But Moslem leaders insisted that the book profaned their religion to the point that even the title was offensive. The Satanic Verses alludes to an Islamic legend in which Mohammed was at one point misled by Satan into corrupting the text of the Koran by introducing into it two false verses. Particularly insulting, say many Islamic scholars, are references to the brothel. “The Curtain” echoes the Arab word hijab—which literally means “veil” but has broader connotations relating to the values of female modesty that are highly prized by Moslems. “My mother wears hijab, my wife wears hijab, my daughter wears hijab," said Hesham El-Essawy, chairman of the London-based Islamic Committee for the Promotion of Religious Tolerance. “Rushdie doesn’t only insult someone who lived centuries ago: he insults my family and he insults me as I am now.”

El-Essawy and other Islamic leaders say that because Rushdie was raised as a Moslem—although he says he now follows no religion—his offence is particularly grave. Indeed, when Khomeini pronounced the death sentence, he labelled Rushdie a murtad—a born Moslem who has committed the crime of apostasy, the renunciation of religious faith, and joined the enemies of Islam. “We make a distinction between an insult committed out of ignorance and a malicious insult committed by someone who knows the truth,” said El-Essawy, a native of Egypt who condemned Khomeini’s death threat. “Rushdie knows the truth—and he knows exactly where to stick the needle in to make his insults as hurtful as they could possibly be.”

But even Islamic leaders who rejected Khomeini’s position insisted that they could not regard the matter simply in terms of Rushdie’s freedom of speech. Some Canadian Moslems compared Rushdie to James Keegstra and Ernst Zundel, both of whom were convicted on charges related to their provocative public denials of the Holocaust. Said Anab Whitehouse, general secretary of the Canadian Society of Muslims: “If it were Jewish or Christian people, you would have a lot more people saying that unjustified attacks were being made. When it comes to Islam, people say they should be able to say whatever they want—and I don’t think it's fair.”

In a letter to the Prime Minister, redirected to Revenue Canada last week, a Calgary-based Moslem group demanded a ban on imports of the book. Under the tariff codes, Revenue Canada can prohibit the importation of materials that are obscene, treasonable, seditious or constitute hate propaganda. According to Linda Murphy, acting director of the department’s prohibited importations branch, Revenue Canada responded to the letter by instructing its regional offices to confiscate any copy of the book brought into the country—even by an individual with a single copy. It remained to be seen whether Revenue Canada’s action would affect Penguin’s import plans.

The debate over the book also underlined fundamental differences between the Islamic and Christian attitudes to their holy writings: while most Christians regard the Bible as open to interpretation, Moslems do not see the Koran in the same way. In the Islamic tradition, the Koran is literally the Word of God, transmitted by the Archangel Gabriel through the Prophet Mohammed. The resulting work is considered sacrosanct—and not a fit subject for the type of sardonic wordplay employed by Rushdie. Said Sir John Moberly, a former British ambassador to Jordan and Iraq who is now a Middle East specialist with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London: “In that sense, every believing Moslem is a fundamentalist.”

Tolerant: Still, the unbending interpretation of Islam espoused by Khomeini and some other Shiites represents just a minority of the Moslem world. In most Moslem countries, where the majority Sunni tradition dominates, strict adherence to the word of the Koran is tempered by more tolerant interpretations of Islamic law. At al-Azhar, the 1,000-year-old mosque and university in Cairo that is regarded as one of the Sunni world’s most authoritative centres of Islamic teaching, scholars last week criticized Khomeini’s action.

And Egypt’s most prominent author, 77-year-old Naguib Mahfouz, rejected Khomeini’s ruling. Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature, told Maclean’s in Cairo: “To kill, this is a crime. It is horrible, like blasphemy, so I categorically refuse it.”

The protests over The Satanic Verses, however, took on overtones that were not purely religious. In Pakistan—where six people died after police opened fire on a demonstration against the book in Islamabad—the protests were denounced by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as an attack on her new government. One of the main architects of the campaign, Moulana Kausar Niazi, is a long-standing opponent of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. Said Bhutto, whose government has banned The Satanic Verses in Pakistan: “The old order always likes to give a few kicks before it goes to rest.”

In addition, many experts on Iranian affairs speculated that Khomeini’s concerns went beyond religion. In the past several months—and especially since the Ayatollah decreed last July that Iran should accept a ceasefire in its war with Iraq—Khomeini’s role as self-styled guardian of Islam has diminished. Some experts interpreted his gesture last week as an attempt to reassert himself as the pre-eminent defender of Islam—and to thrust Iran into the forefront of the worldwide Moslem fight against The Satanic Verses. “After he accepted the ceasefire, the Ayatollah said that the war will continue in other ways,” noted Hans-Heino Kopietz, a Middle East specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Now, he is using the literary tool to assert his leadership.”

Dangers: Across Europe and North America, the threat against The Satanic Verses had a mixed effect on sales. Many bookstores quickly sold out when the controversy raised demand for the book—which has been printed in a hardback edition of roughly 100,000 copies worldwide, retailing in Canada at $24.95. But several major book retailers, including Waldenbooks, the largest U.S. chain, and Coles Book Stores Ltd., one of the biggest in Canada, ordered copies removed from its shelves, citing possible dangers to staff members. And while Penguin in London announced that it would launch a paperback edition, several European publishers backed off. Companies that had agreed to publish French, German, Spanish and Greek translations of the book announced that they were suspending their plans because of the terrorist threat.

At week’s end, the controversy showed few signs of dying down. There were new demonstrations against The Satanic Verses in northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—where right-wing Moslems demanded that Rushdie be hanged. And despite Iranian President Ali Khamenei’s initial offer of a reprieve in return for Rushdie’s repentance, the rejection of the writer’s weekend statement indicated that the bitter dispute could well continue to inflame emotions in the Moslem world.