The news coming from New York State that the author Salman Rushdie has been stabbed onstage is both frightening and grim.
It is frightening because, without full details of how seriously injured Rushdie has been, it is tempting to fear the worst. Media reports initially suggested that Rushdie was well enough to walk off stage, but the news that he has been transported by air ambulance to a hospital after being stabbed in the neck suggests his injuries are severe. It is grim because any violence being done to a public figure is abhorrent, but in the case of Rushdie, it is almost inevitable that this particular incident has been occasioned by one of the most notorious cause celébrès that has ever been seen in the publishing world, namely the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988.
When the book was published, Rushdie was already an established literary novelist, a Booker Prize winner for Midnight’s Children, whose every book was making waves in both British and American publishing. It was therefore either a bold or provocative move to write a novel that led to Rushdie being accused of blasphemy. A fatwa was declared upon him at the beginning of 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, which began a tidal wave of violence that included Rushdie’s Japanese translator being murdered, his Italian translator being seriously injured and his Norwegian publisher being shot. There was even a massacre in Turkey, resulting in the deaths of 37 people, and the intended target, Rushdie’s translator Aziz Nesin, only escaped death because his would-be assailants were unable to recognize him.
Leaving aside the literary merit of The Satanic Verses — it is not Rushdie’s most accessible, though certainly his most discussed — it represents a truly vile step for totalitarian thought that an author could be forced into hiding from his would-be killers, as Rushdie was for many years. He wrote about his experiences in his semi-fictionalized memoir Joseph Anton, vividly conveying both the boredom and the fear necessitated by a life where he could never relax, knowing there was a bounty of millions of dollars on his head. He said ruefully in 2012 that the climate of the time meant that his book never would have been published, and that “a book which was critical of Islam would be difficult to be published now.” As he called for publishers to “be braver,” he said, “The only way of living in a free society is to feel that you have the right to say and do stuff.”
Rushdie may have believed that the greatest moment of danger had passed decades ago. Certainly, he had a reputation in London as a clubbable partygoer. I remember him holding court at one soiree and boasting that he was about to dine with David Bowie and Lou Reed. (He has always been a man who enjoys dropping the names of those he consorts with.)
The incident that occurred today at Chautauqua near Erie, as Rushdie prepared to address the Chautauqua Institution in New York State, was both violent and traumatic. As we turn to hoping that the author survives, it’s a salutary reminder that acts done out of extremism continue to plague the world, and that this latest high-profile outrage is both terrifying and deeply sad in what it portends.