As most of you know by now, a mentally ill young man, reportedly a convert to fundamentalist Shia extremism, attacked the well-known author Salman Rushdie on August 12, 2022, as he was about to lecture at the Chautauqua Institute in New York state, stabbing him a dozen times or more before he was restrained and arrested. Rushdie has been under a fatwa — a call for his murder — since 1989, when the Iranian dictator and extremist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put a $3 million bounty on his head after Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, a literary novel that Khomeini, at root just another despicable zealot trying to ban a book, surely didn’t bother to read.
Just as Milosevic stirred up genocide in the Balkans, Khomeini and other extremists have encouraged violence against writers, politicians, and cartoonists who are secular and dare to satirize extremism or poke fun at religious figures, which is their right in a secular society. Several translators and publishers of The Satanic Verses were attacked, at least one fatally.
Fundamentalists often want to force all of us to wear blinders and drive in their lane. We see something of the same thing in the U.S. when Christians falsely claim that our nation is Christian. It isn’t; it’s a country where Christians, and everybody else, are free to practice Christianity, or the religion of their choice, or to live humane but secular lives unrestricted by religious THOU SHALT NOTS.
Rushdie went into hiding for years. Eventually, the fatwa wasn’t withdrawn but it was made known, after Khomeini’s death, that it would not be actively encouraged by Iranian dictators (who call themselves Supreme Leaders), but could not be rescinded. Rushdie moved about in public again; I met him at a reception in 2008 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, for instance, when he read and participated in the University of North Dakota Writers Conference. He was garrulous and convivial, having a grand time as the conference star.
In 2016, though, the bounty was increased by $600,000, reportedly by Iranian media — it makes for good copy in Iran, I guess — where it remains today. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current ‘Supreme Leader,’ renewed the fatwa in 2017.
Rushdie survived the attack gravely injured, with the reported loss of an eye and damage to his liver, and is recovering; it’s not clear if his attacker has tried to claim any of that blood money.
After the bounty was raised, the Swedish Academy, the organization that famously names a Nobel Prize in Literature recipient each year (most famously, perhaps, Bob Dylan, in 2016), commented for the first time on the fatwa as a “serious violation of free speech.”
In the wake of the near-fatal attack, a number of writers and editors familiar in literary culture (which is not to say most readers would recognize their names) have called for Rushdie to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. I should preface my own remarks about whether I think he’s earned such an award by pointing out that he’s been mentioned for the Nobel, given his substantial body of work, long before the attack.
In 2015, for example, Jonathan Russell Clark, in lithub.com, published “Why Salman Rushdie Should Win the Nobel Prize in Literature: A Last-Minute Plea on Behalf of Secular Miracles.” Rushdie was born in Bombay, India, in 1947, the year of India’s independence, Clark tells us, where “rather than religion becoming young Rushdie’s primary influence it was storytelling.” His “fascination with storytelling led him to probably the richest source of narrative outside of Arabian Nights: Islam.”
There’s the rub. Fundamentalism is totalitarian: a fundamentalist requires submission. The word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission to God,’ and Muhammed, born in the sixth century AD, is, like Jesus to Christians, a conduit to God’s revelation. The Satanic Verses is cheeky; Clark points out that it’s “one of the most blistering critiques of religious fundamentalism ever to take fictional form.” Using the techniques of postmodernism and magical realism, it secularizes and historicizes scripture. Unfortunately, “the people who most need to engage with the critique are the people least likely to attempt to understand it.” Clark points out that the novel is 547 pages long and only 72 deal with Muhammed.
But here’s Clark’s money paragraph, that nails why fundamentalists went after Rushdie: “The idea that somehow the text of the Qur’an is more legitimate than the text of The Satanic Verses is absurd. A businessman in a desert city hears an angel, whose words are the perfect word of Allah (so perfect, it seems, that many of the stories were borrowed from the Torah), recites them to scribes who write them down verbatim. That is the story upon which Islam is founded, just as Christianity is founded on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. They are stories. They are, ultimately, only texts.”
Yes indeedy, my friends. There’s the idea that zealots will do anything to destroy. Some people, after the publication of the novel, called Rushdie an intolerant bigot. For me, his postmodern playfulness is liberating but not entirely compelling; I reviewed the book pre-publication for Kirkus Reviews and gave it a positive but mixed review, awed by its juggling and chattiness but put off slightly by its occasional smugness. The idea that a zealot would condemn him to death for it didn’t cross my mind; the people I know who give religion a good name have a sense of humor and don’t pretend to own the copyright on what’s true or false. They practice the Golden Rule.
This August, after the attack, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, a weekly magazine once revered by mainstream fiction writers because it paid well and had highbrow street cred, published his own essay “It’s Time for Salman Rushdie’s Nobel Prize: His literary accomplishments richly merit recognition from the Swedish Academy — and the prize would be a symbolic rebuke to the enemies of the free word.” Remnick points out that the Nobel committee is fallible: “The list of non-Nobelists includes Joyce, Proust, Chekhov, Musil, Wharton, Woolf, Kafka, Brecht, Borges, Akhmatova, Rilke, Orwell, Lorca, Twain, Baldwin, Achebe, and Murakami, and stretches on from there. Despite this folly, the Nobel Prize remains an object of such desire that it can induce a kind of rueful despair in authors who wait in vain for the call from Stockholm. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel, in 2016, Philip Roth told friends how tickled he was for Dylan, and added that he only hoped that the following year’s award would go to Peter, Paul and Mary.”
Remnick argues that giving the Nobel to Rushdie this October would “help correct its woeful hesitation in standing up for the values it ought to champion.” He points out that after the fatwa “The literary world was hardly unanimous in his defense. Roald Dahl, John Berger, and John le Carré were some of the writers who judged Rushdie to have been insufficiently attentive to clerical sensitivities in Tehran.”
Of course, they might have been frightened to stand with Rushdie. but the Swedish Academy itself didn’t condemn the fatwa, as noted above, for 27 years, until 2016 when the bounty was increased.
Once before, in 2001, the Swedish Academy apparently reacted to terrorism by awarding the Nobel in Literature to V.S. Naipaul, the distinguished novelist and writer of travel chronicles born in Trinidad but long a resident of England knighted by the Queen. Though the Swedish Academy’s citation mentions only his “united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories,” among other comments, his critique of extremist Islam, and his warnings about the violence such fundamentalists might undertake, was much on the mind of the Academy’s literature committee after the 9/11 attacks.
So there’s a precedent to award it to Rushdie. We live in a time when authoritarianism and fundamentalism threaten humane, secular values. Zealots despise freedom. Not all authoritarianism is tied to religion. It’s my closing contention that the best among us can be either devout or devoutly secular so long as we practice compassion, oppose extremism of every kind, and demand of leaders a government that does the greatest good for the largest number of its citizens.
A sense of humor and humility doesn’t hurt, either, along with tolerance and discernment. One must follow one’s gaze.
Ladbroke’s, the English gambling conglomerate, gives odds each October on possible Nobel recipients in Literature. In 2021, the Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah received the Nobel. On the odds sheet, he wasn’t even listed. Haruki Murakami and Margaret Atwood were 10/1; Atwood, obviously, in such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale, has been very prescient about what patriarchal religious fundamentalists are capable of doing in the name of their chosen deity (or just for the kick of keeping power and forcing submission). Don DeLillo was rated at 16/1, Edna O’Brien and Karl One Knausgaard at 25/1, Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson at 33/1, Stephen King and William T. Vollmann and Salman Rushdie at 50/1. (You can see the full list at https://lithub.com/here-are-the-bookies-odds-for-the-2021-nobel-prize-in-literature/).
This October, when the odds sheet comes out, Rushdie is likely to be the odds on favorite, don’t you think? (Only living people, by the way, can receive the Nobel.) I’d be happy if he received it; in fact, on last year’s odds list, the only name I was surprised to see is Stephen King. I thought, You must be kidding me.
Dylan won it, however, and there were many among us who were taken aback by his selection; I wasn’t one of them, that’s for sure, but it’s certainly true that a rock star doesn’t need the recognition or the big paycheck, and neither does King, who (as much as I admire his willingness to support good causes and speak out politically) cranks out mostly horror stories whose prose style is functional but pedestrian. Even so, I know from my time in Maine what a beloved figure he is, and how many of his many fans would be pleased if the Nobel committee called his name.
I live in Minnesota, and our own Louise Erdrich should be on the list, I think. I’d include the novelist and travel narrative writer Paul Theroux. I can think of a dozen others, though I haven’t officially nominated anybody. Each of you reading this probably has a favorite unlikely to receive consideration.
When I toured the Nobel museum in Stockholm, the docent told me, when I asked about any controversy surrounding Dylan, that the committee has in place what it calls the Pearl Buck rule, since all concerned felt that Buck, in retrospect, didn’t deserve the Nobel: writers must now be nominated more than once and are never selected the first time they’re discussed as worthy.
Finally, though, the committee is composed of a small group of writers and critics who get together, talk it through, and make a fallible choice. As Dylan said in his banquet speech after he received the Nobel (though he wasn’t in attendance and had the American Ambassador to Sweden read it for him), “The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.”
Watch in October for the odds sheet. What are your preferences?
Start up your own prize if you want, but this essay is about literature, so don’t attack Rushdie for extra-literary reasons, as I’ve seen on social media, where he’s held to account for his failed marriages and denounced as a boorish sexist.
The man was nearly killed, not for anything related to his personal life, but as a representative of free speech and the right of secular society to exist, whatever its many faults or defects, without threats of physical violence and terrorism. Anybody who recruits assassins or brainwashes zealots to turn them into monomaniacal killers, whether it’s Vladimir Putin or an Ayatollah, deserves our condemnation.
Rushdie deserves the freedom to live his own life as he sees fit. However you play the awards game, I hope that all of us can agree that we stand with Salman Rushdie for freedom of speech against authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and fundamentalism.
I’ll give Rushdie the last word, from an essay he wrote after the fatwa: “While I had not chosen the battle, it was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humorlessness, philistinism, and the new offense culture of the age).”