Arts and Culture

Attack on Salman Rushdie sparks surge in interest in author's works

Agence France-Presse
Attack on Salman Rushdie sparks surge in interest in author's works
British author Salman Rushdie poses with his book 'Quichotte' during the photo call for the authors shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction at Southbank Centre in London on October 13, 2019.
AFP/Tolga Akmen

NEW YORK — The stunning knife attack on author Salman Rushdie has fanned interest in his works -- above all, "The Satanic Verses," which left him living for years under a looming death threat.

Different editions of the 1988 book -- seen as blasphemous by Iranian leaders who subsequently issued a religious decree calling for his death -- on Saturday occupied the top three spots on Amazon's "Movers & Shakers" list.

That list, which shows books whose sales have increased the most, had another Rushdie opus, "Midnight's Children," teetering between fourth and fifth place.

Bookstores reported a flurry of interest in the Indian-born author, some from readers too young to remember the original fury he prompted across much of the Muslim world.

The knife attack on Rushdie, 75, which drew international condemnation, took place Friday as the author was about to speak at a literary event in the small town of Chautauqua, in western New York state.

Police and witnesses said 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Fairfield, New Jersey, was wrestled to the ground as he continued his attack, which left Rushdie in serious condition. Authorities have yet to describe Matar's background or say what might have motivated him.

At the sprawling Strand Bookstore, New York's biggest and probably most famous book emporium, the attack brought a spike in interest, and in sales of new and used Rushdie volumes. 

"We definitely had people coming in looking for anything that he's written," said floor manager Katie Silvernail. 

"Some of our younger employees had never heard of him. So it was interesting yesterday to have conversations... with our younger staff about who he was and what his impact was on the literary world."

She added: "Honestly, I feel like people just came here yesterday because they wanted to talk about how they felt about what happened."

On Twitter, some users urged people to buy Rushdie's books in a show of solidarity.

"The Satanic Verses" tells the surrealistic tale of two Indian actors whose hijacked plane explodes over the English Channel. They somehow make it safely to an English beach, one of them now in the form of an archangel, the other as the devil.

Explosively, Rushdie gave prostitutes in the story the names of the prophet Mohammed's wives.

He also created the character of a prophet named Mahound who, under Lucifer's influence, seems to say that one can pray to gods other than Allah -- before realizing his error.

Rushdie, who holds both British and American citizenship, remained hospitalized Saturday in serious condition following hours of surgery.

The fatwa 

Friday's knife attack on Rushdie comes more than 33 years after the fatwa against him by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in which he sentenced him to death.

On February 14, 1989 Khomeini called for him to be killed for writing "The Satanic Verses," which the cleric said insulted Islam. 

In a fatwa, or religious decree, Khomeini urged "Muslims of the world rapidly to execute the author and the publishers of the book" so that "no one will any longer dare to offend the sacred values of Islam."

Khomeini, who was 89 and had just four months to live, added that anyone who was killed trying to carry out the death sentence should be considered a "martyr" who would go to paradise.

A $2.8-million bounty was put on the writer's head.

The British government immediately granted police protection to Rushdie, an atheist born in India to non-practising Muslims.

For almost 13 years he moved between safe houses under the pseudonym of Joseph Anton, changing base 56 times in the first six months. His solitude was worsened by the split with his wife American novelist Marianne Wiggins, to whom "The Satanic Verses" are dedicated.

"I am gagged and imprisoned," he recalled writing in his diary in his 2012 memoir, "Joseph Anton."

"I can't even speak. I want to kick a football in a park with my son. Ordinary, banal life: my impossible dream."

Viking Penguin published "The Satanic Verses" in September 1988 to critical acclaim. 

The book is set by turns in the London of Conservative British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and ancient Mecca, Islam's holiest site.

It centers on the adventures of two Indian actors, Gibreel and Saladin, whose hijacked plane explodes over the English Channel. 

They re-emerge on an English beach and mix with immigrants in London, the story unfolding in surreal sequences reflecting Rushdie's magic realism style.

The book was deemed blasphemous and sacrilegious by many Muslims including over references to verses alleged by some scholars to have been an early version of the Koran and later removed.

These verses allow for prayers to be made to three pagan goddesses, contrary to Islam's strict belief that there is only one God.

Controversially, Rushdie writes of the involvement of a prophet resembling the founder of Islam, Mohammed. 

This prophet is tricked into striking a deal with Satan in which he exchanges some of his monotheistic dogmatism in favor of the three goddesses. He then realises his error.

Khomeini and others insist he had depicted the prophet irreverently.

In October 1988, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi banned the import of the book, hoping to win Muslim support ahead of elections. Some 20 countries went on to outlaw it.

In January 1989, Muslims in Britain's northern city of Bradford burned copies in public.

A month later, thousands of Pakistanis attacked the US Information Center in Islamabad, shouting "American dogs" and "hang Salman Rushdie." Police opened fire, killing five.

Khomeini's fatwa provoked horror around the Western world.

There were protests in Europe, and London and Tehran broke off diplomatic relations for nearly two years.

In the United States, authors like Susan Sontag and Tom Wolfe organized public lectures to support Rushdie.

The author tried to explain himself in 1990 in an essay titled "In Good Faith" but many Muslims were not placated.

Rushdie gradually emerged from his underground life in 1991, but his Japanese translator was killed in July that year.

His Italian translator was stabbed a few days later and a Norwegian publisher shot two years later, although it was never clear the attacks were in response to Khomeini's call.

In 1993, Islamist protesters torched a hotel in Sivas in central Turkey, some of whom were angered by the presence of writer Aziz Nesin, who sought to translate the novel into Turkish. He escaped but 37 people were killed.

In 1998, the government of Iran's reformist president Mohammad Khatami assured Britain that Iran would not implement the fatwa.

But Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in 2005 he still believed Rushdie was an apostate whose killing would be authorized by Islam.

Many Muslims were furious when Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 for his services to literature.

Iran accused Britain of "Islamophobia," saying its fatwa still stood, and there were widespread Muslim protests, notably in Pakistan.

Rushdie was by then living relatively openly in New York where he moved in the late 1990s, and where his recent novels are set.

After many years living in the shadows, he became something of a socialite and is seen by many in the West as a free speech hero.

Until Friday's knife attack, he had very much resumed a normal life. — Claude Casteran


Iran denies link with Rushdie's attacker

Iran on Monday denied any link with the attacker of British author Salman Rushdie but blamed the writer himself for "insulting" Islam in the novel "The Satanic Verses".

"We categorically deny" any link with the attack and "no one has the right to accuse the Islamic Republic of Iran", said foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani in Tehran's first official reaction to Friday's stabbing.

"In this attack, we do not consider anyone other than Salman Rushdie and his supporters worthy of blame and even condemnation," he said. 

"By insulting the sacred matters of Islam and crossing the red lines of more than 1.5 billion Muslims and all followers of the divine religions, Salman Rushdie has exposed himself to the anger and rage of the people."

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Ned Price took issue with the statements by Kanani blaming Rushdie for the attack.

"It's despicable. It's disgusting and we condemn it," Price said.

Recovering but severe injuries

Rushdie, 75, was left on a ventilator with multiple stab wounds after the attack at a literary event on Friday in upstate New York.

But by Sunday he was off the ventilator and "on the road to recovery," though with severe injuries, his agent Andrew Wylie said.

The prize-winning writer had spent years under police protection after Iranian leaders in 1989 called for Rushdie's killing over his portrayal of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed in the novel "The Satanic Verses."

Iran's then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a religious decree, or fatwa, ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie for what he deemed the blasphemous nature of "The Satanic Verses."

The fatwa was never officially lifted and translators of the novel were attacked.

The suspected assailant, 24-year-old Hadi Matar from New Jersey, was wrestled to the ground by staff and audience members before being taken into police custody.

He was later arraigned in court and pleaded not guilty to attempted murder charges.

On Monday his mother, Lebanese-born Silvana Fardos of Fairview, New Jersey, described Matar as "a moody introvert" who became increasingly fixated on Islam after visiting Lebanon to see his estranged father.

She told the UK's Daily Mail her son had "changed a lot" after his trip, adding that he "was angry that I did not introduce him to Islam from a young age."

Rushdie's stabbing comes at a sensitive moment in Iran's talks with major powers on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by the United States in 2018, in return for the re-lifting of crippling US sanctions.

Kanani on Monday stressed Tehran's position that Rushdie, not Iran, was to blame for the attack against him.

Commenting on the novel, Kanani said that "the anger at that time at this inappropriate action was not limited to Iran and the Islamic Republic. 

"Millions of people in Arab, Islamic and non-Islamic countries reacted with anger. 

"Condemning the action of the attacker on the one hand and absolving the action of the one who insults sacred and Islamic matters on the other is completely contradictory."

More than 30 years after its publication, the book and its author remain deeply inflammatory in Iran.

Iranians at Tehran's book market, when asked by AFP on Saturday to comment on the attack, did not openly condemn the stabbing, which has sparked outrage in the West.

The ultra-conservative Kayhan newspaper, whose director is appointed by current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, greeted the attack.

"Bravo to this courageous and duty-conscious man who attacked the apostate and depraved Salman Rushdie in New York," it said.

With the exception of reformist publication Etemad, Iranian media followed a similar line, also describing Rushdie as an "apostate".

One state-owned paper in Iran said that the "neck of the devil" had been "cut by a razor."

Price said it was "deeply concerning" that Iran state media outlets were "glorifying the attack."


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