Thursday, June 19, 2008

Salman Rushdie's birthday

From Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac:"

When Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, most Western critics didn't notice that it would be offensive to Muslims. In the book, Rushdie makes a lot of obscure jokes about the Islamic religion, he names the whores in a Mecca brothel after the Prophet Muhammad's wives, and he suggests that the Koran is not the direct word of God. The book was banned in India the month after publication and then subsequently in other countries. It was also publicly burned. There were bomb threats called in to the publishing house. Translators of the work suffered assassination attempts; the Italian translator was wounded, the Japanese translator killed, and the fire set by Islamic extremists to the Turkish translator's hotel left 40 people dead.

There was a riot in Kashmir over the book, and the Ayatollah Khomeini saw scenes from the riot on Iranian television in which police shot demonstrators. After that, the Ayatollah announced that "all zealous Muslims of the world" should try to find Rushdie wherever he was and kill him. The order of death came from Iran's leader on Valentine's Day, 1989. The Ayatollah promised martyrdom for any Muslim who was successful in killing Rushdie, and another religious leader promised a million-dollar reward, doubled if the killer was Muslim.

Rushdie had to go into hiding for nine years. On the first anniversary of the fatwa, he wrote, "I feel as if I have been plunged, like Alice, into the world beyond the looking glass, where nonsense is the only available sense."

The death sentence was finally lifted in 1998. Rushdie later said, "The experience taught me ... a lot about the human capacity for hatred. But it also taught me the opposite: the capacity for solidarity and friendship. ... My Norwegian publisher was shot three times in the back and ... his first reaction, upon recovering from the bullet wounds, was to reprint the book. That's courage."

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