No writer in our times has been as controversial as Salman Rushdie, no novel has set the impervious Muslim orthodoxy so solidly against the liberal West as his sprawling, rollicking, sad, exasperating, insightful novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). Death threats were made and the supreme leader of Iran, the cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa asking for his head on February 14, 1989.

Why and how Rushdie managed to alienate ultra-orthodox practitioners of Islam, a religion originally of great depth, but over the centuries seized by a benighted but all-powerful clergy, is as important a part of his memoir, Joseph Anton, as his flight from potential assassins post The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie, a Muslim of Kashmiri origin, went to Cathedral and John Connon school in Bombay (now Mumbai), before moving to England and Rugby, a prestigious public school, thereafter reading history at Cambridge University. He was born in an upper-class liberal Muslim family, but as an adult chose not to belong to the Faith.

His intellectual status as an easy going ex-Muslim, the son of the Cambridge-educated lawyer Anis Ahmed Rushdie, who became a prosperous businessman, and his wife Negin Bhatt, was accepted without comment in the Bohemian artistic circles he moved in.

When Khomeini called 'The Satanic Verses' a blasphemous book, he did that because in Chapter IV an exiled Imam returns to incite revolt amongst the people of the country without ever thinking of their safety. This was chicanery of the worst kind. Khomeini himself had behaved in identical fashion, exhorting hundreds of thousands of young men to lay down their lives for Iran, in the prolonged, mindless war against Iraq.

It was really his writing that interested the English literati, principally Angela Carter, who guided him in his early years, possibly to the Booker Prize that he won in 1981 for Midnight’s Children. All was well until his fourth work of fiction came along.

The Satanic Verses had insulted the Prophet Mohammad and hence Islam, it was said by people who, in all probability, had not read the book. Overnight, the English literary celebrity Rushdie had to go into hiding along with his American wife, the novelist Marianne Wiggins, in his beloved London, protected by a special team deputed by the British police.

It was then that he assumed the name of Joseph Anton, composed of the first names of two writers that he deeply admired, the Pole and naturalised Englishman Joseph Conrad, and the Russian Anton Chekhov.

Britain and Iran broke off diplomatic relations on March 7, 1989. In a hotel in Paddington, central London, Mustapha Mahmoud Mazeh blew himself up along with two floors of the hotel, accidentally, due to lack of training, thank God! A Lebanese group, Organisation of the Mujahideen of Islam conferred martyrdom on Mazeh, saying that he died while preparing to assassinate the lapsed Muslim Rushdie.

When Khomeini, “Ruler of Iran”, called The Satanic Verses a blasphemous book, he did that because in Chapter IV an exiled Imam returns to incite revolt amongst the people of the country without ever thinking of their safety. This was chicanery of the worst kind.

Khomeini himself had behaved in identical fashion, exhorting hundreds of thousands of young men to lay down their lives for Iran, in the prolonged, mindless, enormously draining war against Iraq; an exercise that virtually emptied the national exchequer and left a large percentage of the country’s youth injured, maimed, dead or psychologically damaged.

Diplomatic ties Between Britain and Iran were restored on September24, 1998. The Iranian government led by Mohammad Khatami promised neither to help nor to hinder any mission to kill Salman Rushdie.

The writer, till then known as an amiable lothario with a magical command of the English language, was still running from cover to cover as he did earlier, trying to save his own life and that of Marianne, his son Zafar by his first wife, Clarissa Luard, (1976-87) and his sister Sameen’s family.

The fear of being attacked , and worse, killed in his own house kept him constantly on the move.

Scotland Yard, the most reliable internal security agency in the country, rendered yeoman service throughout his flight from would-be assassins. His personal security team, chez HM the Queen, strove valiantly to keep his morale up, his whereabouts and identity a secret; hence the name Joseph Anton.

The master satirical columnist Jeffrey Bernard, while inwardly sympathising with Rushdie’s predicament, made fun of him, in his weekly column in The Spectator. Bono of the Pop music group U2, remembered calling him from the stage every evening on the Zoo TV tour, and then suddenly, Rushdie turned up at a U2 concert in Wembley Stadium, London, on August 11, 1993. Thousands cheered as one man. From then onwards Rushdie often used his backstage pass. It was dangerous, could have been fatal, but it was so necessary to preserve his sanity in such apparently hopeless conditions.

How did things come to such a pass? Surely the Iranians, the principal mischief-makers, were unclear in their minds as to what actually constituted The Satanic Verses?

Khushwant Singh, in his review said 'The Satanic Verses' was sure to inflame the passions of Indian Muslims. The Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government banned the import of the book. He did not exactly cover himself with glory when he suggested that the book be banned. He could have something non-committal like he did not understand modern experimental writing in English.

After all, it went back and forth over centuries from England to Byzantine to supposedly—at least according to the Iranians—the land of the Prophet. Was it because he had named a place ‘Jahilya’, meaning ignorance? Was it also because a major character in the narrative was called Mahound, understood by Muslim fanatics to be Prophet Mohammad. The title of the novel recalls an ancient, now repudiated Muslim tradition, where to the Quran were added three verses (sura) by the Prophet himself, invoking three goddesses who were worshipped in Mecca in those times.

These verses were removed by Mohammad to mark a return to reason and sanity; he was misled by the devil, he said later. Archangel Gibreel (Gabriel) is credited with these verses in the novel, according to the narrator.

Rushdie’s moral dilemma and physical safety were seen as a tiresome burden by the right wing, conservative government in Britain of Margaret Thatcher.

The writer tells his story in the third person, to presumably distance himself from the past. He observes in Joseph Anton: “It was becoming increasingly acceptable to believe that the ‘Rushdie case’ wasn’t worth the trouble it had caused, because the man himself was an unworthy specimen.

Norman Tebbit, one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest political allies, wrote in The Independent that the author of The Satanic Verses was “an outstanding villain... (whose) whose public life had been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality.” 

Interestingly, 160 letters were received by The Independent in support of Rushdie and two favouring Tebbit.

There were equally wounding remarks from other Conservatives: The celebrated historian, Tory peer and ‘authenticator’ of the fraudulent Hitler Diaries, Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper) had wiped egg off his face and declared, also in The Independent

“I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude. Not too comfortably I hope... I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.”

This was upper-class British fascism at its not so silken best.

Rushdie must have wondered how an adrenalin-pumping vaudville entertainment like Verses was considered ultra-subversive material by the powers that be in what had been his country from early adolescence. He was as much an Englishman as anyone else including his critics.

John le Carre, a brilliant exponent of the political thriller, who learnt his trade while with the MI5, the British Military Intelligence agency with fickle morals, upper-class loyalties and a history of betrayals, accused Rushdie of insensitivity because he was not saving the faces of his publishers until calm returned. He felt that those who wrote literature did not necessarily have a greater right to freedom of expression than writers of pulp fiction.

JA/Rushdie wondered what le Carre would have to say about the literary merit of James Joyce’s Ulysses or D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

There were those who thought he was indulging in a bit of literary grandstanding. Others realised how precarious his safety was, and that of his family.

He (JA) observed: “Nadine Gordimer had amassed an impressive list of signatories to her appeal to Iran, including Vaclav Havel (the great Czech playwright and thinker), the French minister of culture and many other writers, academics and politicians... The Gordimer letter was published (in The Times) and made a small stir. Nothing changed.”

In far-off Delhi, Daniel (Daniyal) Latifi, an upright communist barrister was fuming at Rushdie’s ‘’irresponsible, schoolboy behaviour’’. Ever a defender of human rights, Latifi, who had nearly been hanged in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case in Pakistan but rescued at the last minute by Jawaharlal Nehru and brought to India, handed over a mercy petition to Dr Mohammad Ayub Mirza, biographer of the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, with the express instruction of handing it in person to Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan. Apparently Benazir managed to rein in the fanatics who wanted to kill Rushdie.

That cold, bright January morning in 1989, brought good cheer and hope.

This particular incident is not in Joseph Anton. Rushdie, to this day, may not be aware of Latifi’s gallant gesture, but this writer is, having been present when Latifi handed over the petition to Mirza.

One wonders now, at a far remove from the events that were sparked off in 1988, why the Muslim orthodoxy went after Rushdie with such vindictiveness. Was it some resentment, deep down and even unknown to the Mussalman, in his self-proclaimed war against the enemies of Islam, and lamenting the loss of Spain--the glories of Cordoba and Alhambra in the late 15th century? The clergy was then taking over Islam. The glorious tradition of scientific and philosophical inquiry was receding into the distance. Hatred of the Infidel, set off by impotent rage, had begun then.

The Christian world got rid of the Pope and the Church of Rome with Henry VIII, Monarch of England leading the way and founding the Church of England. The reason behind this breaking away was the refusal of permission by the Pope to Henry VIII to divorce his wife Catherine and remarry. This incident strengthened, over time, other Christian religious movements like Lutheranism.

Once the stranglehold of the Roman Catholic Church was broken, other European countries, most notably England, shrugged aside the clergy, which had now become an arm of the state. They rapidly became mercantile and military powers, one complementing the other. Scientific progress was a logical corollary in the realisation of these ambitions. Europeans, in short, became less obsessed with religion and more interested in the new worlds that the far-roving merchant men were uncovering in the course of their travels.

At this time Islam, unfortunately, began the slide into obscurantism. Scientific inquiry increasingly began to be regarded as heretical thus giving the mullas power over the masses. Indeed, independent thinking of any kind was treated with utmost suspicion. Their world became a closed circle. So it remained for the next few centuries.

In such an environment Rushdie was seen as a kafir or infidel who had become a firangi or outsider. He had learnt to live like them, eating, drinking, making merry; enjoying books that were inimical to Islamic ideas; marrying a succession of foreign (read loose) women and fathering two sons in the process; openly declaring himself an atheist, thereby opting out of a Faith in which there was no such provision. He was, then, an enemy of Islam and the Islamic way of life. His elimination from the world of the living was imperative. Satanic Verses provided the opportunity.

Fortunately for JA/Rushdie, his would-be assassins were either too disorganised or too incompetent. The death threats tapered off into rhetoric.

Trips to the United States found him new and old friends and he could feel safe there and breathe as freely and easily as any other citizen. Participating in the Mantova literary festival in Italy was a strange business.

As he had done earlier in Chile, he walked off into the street to enjoy himself. To his consternation he found himself detained for several hours in the waiting room of the police station. The mayor and the police chief avoided a scandal and let him off to do whatever he wanted. They were, to be sure, worried about safety. Back home in London things had taken a turn for the worse.

JA/ Rushdie remembers: Labour home secretary Jack Straw, always keen to ingratiate himself with his Islamic constituents, announced new legislation that would extend the archaic, obsolete and fit-to-be-repealed blasphemy law to cover religions other than the Church of England, thus making it possible, among other things, for The Satanic Verses to be prosecuted again and probably banned. So much for the “government of his friends” coming to power, he thought. Straw’s attempt would eventually fail but the Blair government continued to try to find ways of making it illegal to criticise religion—i.e. Islam—for several years.

An appalling bill was put up in the House of Commons in Parliament for the final vote. The Labour Party whips, misled into believing that a vast majority in the House were against them asked prime minister Blair to go home. The bill failed by one vote. Had Blair voted it would have been a tie!

In India Khushwant Singh, novelist, former editor of the Government-run Planning Commission magazine, Yojna, editor of Illustrated Weekly, in his review said that The Satanic Verses was sure to inflame the passions of Indian Muslims. The Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government banned the import of the book.

Khushwant Singh, no scholar of Islam, and a mediocre fiction writer at best, did not exactly cover himself with glory when he suggested that the book be banned. He could have said something non-committal like he did not understand modern experimental writing in English, and therefore, was in no position to comment on The Satanic Verses.

It is however quite understandable when a politician like Jimmy Carter, former US president, decides to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. Carter defended Rushdie’s liberty as a human being and at the same time castigated him for not respecting the religious sentiments of the Muslims! At a reasonable guess, Carter had neither read the book nor had any grasp of Muslim theology. Appeasing the constituency, even in retirement, was Carter’s stock-in-trade, not Khushwant Singh’s, or should not have been.

A large domestic Muslim population comprising immigrants from the Indian subcontinent had successive British governments—Thatcher’s and Blair’s—on the back foot. Instead of behaving firmly in a secular (worldly) manner, they were busy molly-coddling Muslim bigots within the country. The reason behind such hypocrisy was the challenge that a writer like Rushdie threw to the believers in status quo. Rushdie, a believer in the good life, would be surprised at such an interpretation of events during his “banishment” from upper-class English social life.

In the 1920s, James Joyce, a genius, barely of the Irish middle-class, wrote Ulysses, the book of the century. Its influence permeates practically Rushdie’s every bit of literary oeuvre. Joyce was in “exile” in Paris when charges of obscenity were brought against Ulysses and it was banned. Non-literary Irish Catholics, who were in a majority, thought Joyce was guilty of blasphemy. Literary conservatives in England considered him a subversive. The reputation of the book has continued to grow. What fate awaits The Satanic Verses is difficult to tell, but will Rushdie be able to forget the controversy it aroused? Possibly never.