Geoffrey Robertson QC
Defended Salman Rushdie in the blasphemy case brought against The Satanic Verses
On Valentine’s Day 1989, the dying Ayatollah Khomeini launched the mother of all prosecutions against Salman Rushdie. As with the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, his fatwa was a case of sentence first and trial later.
Rushdie’s difficulties brought many of his north London friends into a closer and warmer contact with officers of the Special Branch than they might ever have thought likely.
It was not long before a private prosecutor tried to issue a summons against the author of The Satanic Verses to attend, at the Old Bailey, his trial for blasphemous libel. The magistrate refused, so the prosecutor appealed to the High Court, where 13 Muslim barristers attempted to get the book banned, but their action forced them to draft an indictment against Rushdie and his publishers specifying with legal precision the way in which the novel had blasphemed.
Their efforts convinced me that The Satanic Verses is not blasphemous. The book is the fictional story of two men, infused with Islam but confused by the temptations of the west. The first survives by returning to his roots. The other, Gibreel, poleaxed by his spiritual need to believe in God and his intellectual inability to return to the faith, finally kills himself. The plot, in short, is not an advertisement for apostasy.
Our opponents could in the end only allege six blasphemies in the book, and each one was based either on a misreading or on theological error:
God is described in the book as “The Destroyer of Man”. As He is similarly described in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, especially of men who are unbelievers or enemies of the Jews.
The book contains criticisms of the prophet Abraham for his conduct towards Hagar and Ismael, their son. Abraham deserves criticism and is not seen as without fault in Islamic, Christian or Jewish traditions.
Rushdie refers to Muhammad as “Mahoud”. He called him variously “a conjuror”, “a magician” and a “false prophet”. Rushdie does nothing of the sort. These descriptions come from the mouth of a drunken apostate, a character with whom neither author nor reader has sympathy.
The book grossly insults the wives of the Prophet by having whores use their names. This is the point. The wives are expressly said to be chaste, and the adoption of their names by whores in a brothel symbolises the perversion and decadence into which the city had fallen before it surrendered to Islam.
The book vilifies the close companions of the Prophet, calling them “bums from Persia” and “clowns”, whereas the Qur’an treats them as men of righteousness. These phrases are used by a depraved hack poet, hired to pen propaganda against the Prophet. They do not represent the author’s beliefs.
The book criticises the teachings of Islam for containing too many rules and seeking to control every aspect of everyday life. Characters in the book do make such criticisms, but they cannot amount to blasphemy because they do not vilify God or the Prophet.
The case had one very satisfying result: the Home Office announced it would not allow further blasphemy prosecutions, declaring “how inappropriate our legal mechanisms are for dealing with matters of faith and individual belief … the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers”. Amen to that (Pussy Riot prosecutors please note). The crime of blasphemy has now been abolished, although this wretched legacy of English law still permits courtroom persecutions in Pakistan and some other countries of the Commonwealth.
Although Rushdie remains alive and well after nearly 24 years, spare a thought for the families of those who did not get away from this theocratic regime: the 162 democrats and dissidents assassinated in Europe; the thousands of atheist and Marxist prisoners murdered in prison; the green movement protesters and their lawyers (15 so far) who have been sentenced to long prison terms for being their lawyers. Had the world devised a way to bring this regime to justice for devising the Rushdie fatwa, we would not now have to worry about what it will do with nuclear weapons.
Novelist and publisher of Penguin India, 1985-2004
You cannot be fearful or anxious when you have no idea about what’s hurtling out of the future towards you. And so it was, a quarter century or so ago, that the only emotion I felt was excitement when I ripped open the padded envelope, bearing a UK postmark, in Penguin India’s modest offices in South Delhi. The envelope contained the typescript of Rushdie’s latest novel, The Satanic Verses. From the very first paragraph, featuring Rushdie’s memorable protagonists, Gibreel Farishta (partly modelled on the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan) and Saladin Chamcha, it was apparent that the novel possessed the same astounding electricity and storytelling power that had invested his two great subcontinental novels, Midnight’s Children and Shame. It was exhilarating to think that Penguin India would soon be importing, marketing and distributing the novel throughout the subcontinent.
Penguin India, the company I was publisher of at the time, had been founded only a couple of years earlier and had published barely a dozen books. The slew of great novels – The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and many others of distinction – that would come to define the company were yet to be published, so The Satanic Verses was not just another literary novel so far as we were concerned: it was the book that would propel us into the hearts and minds of the Indian reader. But even as we were looking forward to putting out the novel, we received our first reality check in the form of some advice from the great Indian novelist and historian Khushwant Singh, who served as literary adviser to Penguin India. He said to me that we’d get into trouble if we published the novel, because there were passages in it that could be seized on by politicians and mullahs, taken out of context, and used to create mischief. This was news to me, as I was, at the time, largely ignorant of the history of Islam and its sacred texts.
Khushwant’s words proved prophetic. Although everyone at Penguin India, and at Penguin UK, decided that we would go ahead with publication, the decision was taken out of our hands shortly thereafter when the Indian government banned the importation of the book. The early export edition of the novel that had been shipped from the UK was pulped. The news grew progressively worse. We received threats, and security guards were hired for the office and the homes of the executives who were most at risk. Our travails, though, were as nothing compared to the terrible things experienced by the author and the novel’s translators and publishers around the world. Now, decades after I opened the envelope in my Delhi office, the circle closes, and the full story of how The Satanic Verses was born, and made its way into the world, will finally be told. It’s a tale that I am looking forward to reading.
Novelist and friend
The first few months were the worst. No one knew anything. Were Iranian agents, professional killers, already in place in the UK when the fatwa was proclaimed? Might a “freelancer”, stirred by a denunciation in a mosque, be an effective assassin? The media excitement was so intense that it was hard to think straight. The mobs were frightening. They burned books in the street, they bayed for blood outside parliament and waved “Rushdie must die” placards. No one was arrested for incitement.
People were fearful. The first impulse of many was to placate, to apologise on Rushdie’s behalf. There was much ideological confusion. A rump of the left thought (and thinks) that to criticise Islamic attitudes towards apostasy was innately racist. Sections of the right abandoned all principle and preferred ad hominem attacks; wasn’t Rushdie a Muslim, after all, one of theirs? He must have known what he was doing. He had it coming. And how much was his Special Branch protection costing? One had the impression that if it had been, say, Iris Murdoch’s neck on the line there would have been less ambivalence.
Either way, it seemed like the social glue of multiculturalism was melting away. We were coming apart, and doing it over a postmodern multi-layered satirical novel – one that the noisiest spirits in the debate did not intend to read for fear of being spiritually befouled.
As for Rushdie himself, his armed guard shunted him around daily between various cottages, hotels and town houses. He had disappeared, as Martin Amis noted, on to the front page. There were evenings with Salman – tense, sometimes even jovial in a dark way. But for all the expressions of personal solidarity, he was essentially alone. It was him they wanted to kill, not us.
Slowly, the intelligentsia (for want of a better word) found its ground and rediscovered the terms of the debate around freedom of expression – terms that dissident writers in the Soviet bloc had furtively refined over the years and were openly celebrating as the Berlin Wall fell later that year. These same terms have been used many times since, in different circumstances.
In a hopeful attempt to accommodate his opponents, Rushdie spoke of his faith, or lack of it, as a God-shaped hole. His apology was firmly rebuffed by a committee of imams. He had always fought his own corner with eloquence, but now, increasingly after this rejection, he was fighting the corners of imprisoned or otherwise silenced writers around the world. Years later this advocacy culminated in his highly effective presidency of American PEN. He has brilliantly proved the uses of adversity.
The Rushdie affair was the opening chapter in a new unhappy book of modern history. The issues haven’t gone away. For some of us, one lesson is that the novel as a literary form is among the highest expressions of mental freedom and must be treasured and defended. But the difficult questions remain: how does an open, pluralistic society accommodate the differing certainties of various faiths? And how do the enthusiastically faithful accept the free-thinking of others? To the first question one might say that, generally, a secular or sceptical worldview is the best guarantor of religious freedom: tolerate and defend all within the law, favour none. To the second – well, people who are utterly secure in their God should be above taking physical revenge when offended. Perhaps the book-burners and placard-wavers were, paradoxically, troubled by the first gremlins of doubt.
Novelist, 1988 Booker prizewinner
I had written a novel about many things including the Anglican church. Rushdie had written a novel about many things including the Prophet Muhammad. We were both shortlisted for the Booker prize.
This was in October 1988, almost four months before the fatwa. Even so early the accusations of blasphemy were in the air (and in the publishers’ mail room) but the notion that the leader of Iran might pronounce a death sentence on a law-abiding British citizen was not something to foresee on that warm autumn evening, as Salman and I stood chatting outside the Guildhall, where the Booker ceremony is held.
I recall him saying, “I hope you win.” (Which I appreciated.) He also said, “I couldn’t win if I wrote Ulysses.” (Which I thought was probably true.)
I remember the novelist and screenwriter Nigel Williams had temporarily abandoned his ice-cream suit for more formal wear. Was he on duty for the BBC? He joined us with the news that a very suspicious individual had just been prevented entering the Guildhall. The would-be trespasser had claimed to be a reporter, although one without credentials. He had said his name was Salaman.
Williams said, “The assassin always takes his victim’s name.” I was suddenly aware, in spite of my own personal hysteria on this Booker prize night, that this was a moment of significance. I completely underestimated just how significant it was.
I recall two particular moments in that long, dull, tense evening, when I did not know what a fatwa was. I was seated at the Faber table. Faber’s then chairman, Matthew Evans, produced his camera. As it reached the level of his eye, a maître d’ type of gentleman appeared at his side. “Can I just see that sir?” he asked, and inspected the device. Am I wrong to think the Guildhall was swarming with maître d’s from MI5?
Later, when the chair Michael Foot read out the shortlist I observed a well-known critic, a friend of Salman’s, mime the most tremendous explosion. It was not at all malicious, just hysterical.
In my recollection of that night, the Guildhall contains an almost flammable hysteria, which has always precluded an honest answer to the simple question about what it is like to win the Booker prize.
Writer, deputy director of the ICA (1986-90) and former president of English PEN
The world The Satanic Verses fell into in 1988 is strangely difficult to recapture. The Soviet Union was still intact, the Berlin Wall erect, Tiananmen Square hadn’t yet happened. Yet the book’s fraught reception on landing was in many ways a rehearsal for the post-9/11 present. Religion was largely a matter of private conscience, not that blunt and noisy instrument in the public sphere it subsequently (once more) became. Blasphemy was a banner only the Mary Whitehouse anti-BBC vice-squaddies waved, not a call to arms that provoked riots in rapid succession around the globe.
I simplify, but the 80s do in retrospect seem an oddly innocent time. I was working at the ICA and quickly pulled together one of our debates, between representatives of the Bradford mosque and those we were then just beginning to call secular or “sceptical” Muslims. Then came a conference, chaired with great vigour by Alan Yentob, where writers and experts on Islamic politics and religion argued. From those early debates, I learned that intransigence is never so great as when it feels it has a god on its side.
Salman’s purported “arrogance” – so often referred to since he wouldn’t withdraw or cut the book – seemed piddling in comparison. It always astonished me that writers here weren’t wholly united behind him – as they seemed to be in much of the rest of the world. Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, Palestinian Edward Said, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, Germany’s Günter Grass, South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer were just a few of many.
The fear grew. Penguin, which shared in the fatwa, lived behind barricades. London bookshops were fire-bombed. In March two moderate imams were shot by Islamists in Belgium. On the first anniversary of the fatwa, when we had all started to wear “I am Salman Rushdie” pins and Harold Pinter bravely stepped in at the ICA to read his text “Is Nothing Sacred?”, there was airport scanning equipment at the doors. People were constantly looking over their shoulders.
Recognising the sea-change the Rushdie affair represented, Arnold Wesker suggested just after the fatwa that I put together a chronicle. He’d been collecting clippings. Sara Maitland and I set to work on The Rushdie File. Harper Collins had been set to publish, then withdrew. Rushdie in any form was too dangerous a commodity. A tiny new firm, Fourth Estate, was the only one that would step into the breach.
Meanwhile, the Rushdie Defence Committee had been formed – an umbrella group in which PEN and other organisations hoped to use their combined weight to make sure Salman was protected and the fatwa revoked. Frances d’Souza, head of Article 19 and now a crossbench peer, eventually led the campaign. It took 10 years, scores of programmes, articles and meetings with many presidents for Salman to win his freedom.
Presenter, Channel 4 News, 1982-89
There was absolute outrage in the Channel 4 newsroom when the Ayatollah Khomeini declared his fatwa: we had a very motivated group of journalists, who couldn’t believe that someone could effectively be sentenced to death for something he’d written. I was dispatched to do an interview with the Iranian chargé d’affaires, Mr Akhondzadeh Basti, at the embassy in Kensington.
I was as shocked as anyone by the reaction of the ayatollah and I did let my feelings show in the interview. I think the question that really got to the regime was, “Do you understand that we don’t regard it as civilised to kill people for their opinions? Do you understand that people in this country fought a world war to protect themselves and others from being murdered for their beliefs and what they believe to be right?” So it was a pretty combative interview, and Mr Basti was very defensive, but quite polite. He replied that the command to kill Rushdie was based on the purely religious opinion of a religious head. It was very unfortunate, he said, that it was going to be interpreted politically. I think what got up my nose was that he said the British people also had their fanatics. When I asked who they were, he said “football hooligans”. We ran 12 minutes of the interview on Channel 4 News that evening. I felt I’d asked the tough questions and given him a tough time, but afterwards I thought nothing more of it.
However, a few days later I arrived at ITN about 10.30 as usual, and was called up to the office of the editor-in-chief, David Nicholas, who had with him the editor of Channel 4 News, Richard Tait. There were also a number of shadowy men who I learned were from the security services. David came to the point: he said as a result of the Basti interview, it was believed that my life was now in danger as well. There had been a number of phone calls that had been received by the UPI agency. I’ve still got the transcript of the last call that was handed to me by one of the Special Branch men. It ended by saying, “we have a message for Peter Sissons … he will pay the price for being rude and insulting to the representative of Imam Khomeini.”
The call was from a group called the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, one of the first groups to claim responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. David told me that I was going to have 24-hour personal protection for me and my family until further notice – the arrangements had already been made. My new best friends, the men who were to be my family’s constant companions for the next few months, were already waiting to look after me.
Clearly ex-soldiers, probably ex-SAS, these two guys lived in our attic for almost two months, and I was chauffeured to work every day. I got to know what it was like to be someone under threat. God knows how people live with it for years. If you go out for a meal they are at the next table, and if you want to go to the toilet, they go in first to make sure it’s safe. Eventually I said, I just can’t go on like this. They gave me a thorough briefing on how to look after myself, I had a hotline to the local police station, and was trained to look under my car and to vary my route to work every morning.
During that time I had to interview Margaret Thatcher. After the interview she took me to one side and said she was aware of the threat to me and that they would do all they could to protect me. She was very maternal. I thought: gosh, I really do have to take this seriously.
Founder and chair of Muslims4UK
Looking back to the autumn of 1988, I think it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that it was in the heat of the Satanic Verses affair that we first saw the forging of a consciously British Muslim identity in the UK. I was a second-year university student at the time and it was a heady feeling marching and demonstrating alongside others who were from various ancestral backgrounds, including from the Indian subcontinent, north Africa, south-east Asia and elsewhere, but all united by their faith in Islam. Of course, our demands – which included the pulping of all copies of Rushdie’s novel – were, in retrospect, totally over the top and very embarrassing. We may not have liked his book, but there could be no excuse for trying to deny others the right to buy it and read it for themselves. I would hope that if the same events were to be replayed today, UK Muslims would instead respond by publishing their own books offering their own narrative. But you know what? After all these years, I still think Salman Rushdie is a bit pompous.
Novelist and friend
Our families had been friends in Bombay before my father came to England and Rushdie’s family moved to Pakistan. I was introduced to Salman by Italo Calvino in 1983, so we’d been friends for a while by the time of the fatwa. From Ulysses, to Last Exit to Brooklyn, to Baudelaire to Madame Bovary, books have been attacked and condemned by various authorities, but it hadn’t happened for a while in Britain. We’d all become rather complacent. The fatwa is one of the most significant events in postwar literary history; it reminded us that words can be dynamite and that in other parts of the world, particularly in the Muslim world, writers who spoke freely could be in great danger. Through his own writing, and along with his influences Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez, Rushdie showed the rest of the world that literature, language and free speech are always at a premium. One of the most important things about The Satanic Verses is that Rushdie was speaking of uncertainty and asking the questions that anyone who believes also has to ask themselves. This came at a huge price, and all of us should be grateful to him for his bravery in being willing to pay it.
Author and literary editor of the Observer, 1987-89
When we shortlisted The Satanic Verses for the Booker prize in September 1988, none of us on the jury – Michael Foot, Philip French, Sebastian Faulks, Rose Tremain and I – had any idea of the trouble ahead. The novel was bold and imaginative, yes. But blasphemous? How could a late-20th-century novel be that? It didn’t win the prize, but Salman – allegedly a bad loser – was gracious about the novel that did, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.
The fatwa was issued on 14 February 1989, the eve of Bruce Chatwin’s memorial service. Salman attended the service but disappeared straight afterwards. At the time, I was literary editor of the Observer, and Salman had been due to deliver a review of the new Philip Roth novel the following Tuesday. To my amazement, it showed up on time, in the post. Book reviews don’t normally make headline news, but with Salman in hiding this one did. An ITN camera crew turned up and shot footage of the typescript. Salman had scribbled a friendly note at the top and the cameraman, outwitting me, sneaked a shot of it. What appeared didn’t compromise Salman but he was upset and angry, understandably enough.
In time we got over that and he began reviewing again – the only kind of writing he felt up to. He also came round to my flat a few times, for supper – a break from incarceration for him and a way for friends of his to catch up and pledge support. Our kids grew up with the idea that when you give a dinner party armed plainclothes policemen sit watching television in the next room.
A year after the fatwa, the newly launched Independent on Sunday – to which I’d moved – ran Salman’s wonderful essay “In Good Faith”. I did an interview with him, to accompany it, which meant meeting him at a safe house. The paper decided that the interview made me a marked man (a not unreasonable position: editors and translators of his would later be stabbed and shot) and sent a security guard to stay. Nothing remotely threatening happened, but for a week the guard accompanied us everywhere, even on an outing to the gardens at Wisley. I also got out of jury service: the court didn’t want me once they knew who I was.
When Andreas Whittam-Smith, editor of the Independent, and I travelled to Bradford to meet Muslim clerics, to see if they’d disassociate themselves from the fatwa, we didn’t get anywhere. And though things are easier for Salman now, the threat to his life hasn’t gone away. Other writers also suffer at the hands of repressive regimes and religious zealots. No cause seems more important to me than to go on defending them – and their right to imagine.
Novelist and Whitbread prize judge, 1988
The 60 or so novels submitted for the 1988 Whitbread prize were initially divvied up between three judges (Fay Weldon, bookseller John Hitchin and myself). Each of us was asked to read the titles on our list and submit our preferred three, and we would select the winner from the shortlist of nine. The Satanic Verses was on my list of 20. I did not include it in my selection, but the other judges called it in and I was outvoted 2-1 when they insisted on awarding it the prize. I would have chosen Michael Moorcock’s Mother London or Bruce Chatwin’s Utz.
I admired Rushdie’s writing, but The Satanic Verses was not, in my opinion, as successful a novel as Midnight’s Children or Shame. It was close to the last moment when the book could be judged solely on its literary merit.
Publisher of the CCV division at Random House: Jonathan Cape, Chatto & Windus and Vintage, 1993-95
I worked with Salman on two books, The Moor’s Last Sigh and the story collection East, West. The Moor’s Last Sigh was his first adult novel after The Satanic Verses, so it was crucial for both Salman and the book that he should be able to do publicity. I have never had to go to New Scotland Yard to discuss publication before or since. When we suggested the possibility of a reading at the National Theatre, the initial reaction was a mixture of alarm and incredulity. But this stage passed, and we were soon privileged to have Scotland Yard become increasingly inventive about how we might manage a book launch. These ideas, if I am not mistaken, included a sort of a Magical Mystery Tour, which would pick up our audience from the South Bank and ferry them to an undisclosed destination.
The final answer seemed much simpler: a launch at Waterstone’s in Hampstead, albeit under very tight security. But how was our audience to find out about the event at all? Security demanded we refrain from any announcement until the day of the reading. Then we would have to rely on a small blackboard outside the shop.
I have a vivid memory, hours before the reading was due to start, of looking out of an upstairs window while the sniffer dogs disappeared inside the shop, and then seeing a large number of police on horseback coming up the deserted high street. The blackboard, however, was a huge success. We got a crowd, every member of which submitted to the detectors with good will. It was a truly great event.
Salman was always a wonderful ally in making publication happen despite the difficulties and obstacles. He was also able to take immense pleasure in the process of publication, which we had all hitherto taken for granted. We went together to see the first copies of The Moor’s Last Sigh come off the printing press. As Salman picked up the first copy and held it in his hand, it occurred to me that this moment was, literally, publication. I had never valued it so highly in my life.
Reader in Indian history and fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford
The controversy marked the first demonstration of Islam’s globalisation, allowing Muslims from around the world to imitate one another’s protests as seen on TV, without any organisational links. Whatever the local politics involved at each site of Muslim protest, it was the global arena emerging with the end of the cold war that gave the Rushdie affair its meaning. The author and his book were incidental to this mobilisation, which is why so few of its Muslim critics had read the novel. But even after other such controversies, over cartoons or papal comments, all concerned with insults against Muhammad, debate about them is dominated by old-fashioned ideas about free expression. Confined as they legally are to individual countries, such ideas have no standing in the global arena where these controversies occur.
It is also not clear that the Rushdie affair had much to do with religion as an alternative or illiberal order of truth. For despite the occasional invocation of apostasy, which lent Muslim protest a suitably medieval veneer, the closest demonstrators came to a theological argument was to demand that their religion be included under Britain’s blasphemy law. So in the UK at least, the controversy’s only religious element had to do with the desire of Muslim immigrants to be integrated into British society. Otherwise Muslims demonstrating against Rushdie referred to their feelings of outrage at his depiction of Muhammad by using the secular language of libel, defamation and hate speech.
Novelist and friend
In 1989, I wrote a pamphlet called Sacred Cows. It was in response to what I saw as a shocking and unprovoked attack on a friend, colleague and fellow citizen – Salman Rushdie. In Bradford people were burning a literary novel they had not read and were not likely to read.
Salman, in a warning letter to the newspapers, quoted Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books they will afterwards burn people” (which was written in 1823, curiously, in reference to burning the Qur’an). Rather an alarmist fear, we mostly thought. Silly old us. I remember even suggesting to Salman that if he changed the title to The Heavenly Verses, if the novel didn’t look like the Devil’s work in the bookshops, the threat might evaporate. But he wasn’t about to do anything so unliterary, any more than the threat was going to go away. Then came the fatwa, and its addenda: not only was the writer in peril, but the death threat was extended to anyone who had anything to do with the book: publishers, translators, booksellers, the lot. Governments of free countries did nothing other than tut-tut a little – you scribblers, how you do like to make trouble! As a result of this political complacency, publishers today are reluctant to bring out novels in which Islam is presented in an unfavourable light.
Before I travelled to the Jaipur festival last year I had dinner with Salman, who was also to appear there, and he warned me trouble was brewing. I arrived in India only to discover that a “credible death threat” had been received by the Rajasthani police, and accordingly Salman had been forced to cancel his appearance.
A literary festival should be a safe space for free expression, and it seemed to me that we needed to push back against this intimidation. The writer Amitava Kumar and I decided to make a protest. The Satanic Verses is not banned in India (which does ban a lot of other books), but it’s illegal to import a copy. We downloaded two short passages from the internet and read them to an audience who applauded and shouted support. We knew it was a provocative act, but we felt it was a necessary one, because India has a poor record on upholding freedom of expression and we needed to show that threats would not silence us.
By the time we came off stage, all hell had broken loose. The 24-hour rolling news channels were all running the story, and various threats and expressions of outrage had been received. The festival organisers took some legal advice we considered poor, and told us that we had unequivocally broken the law. Things became very strained, as under Indian law they were also legally liable for our actions. My own legal advice was that there was a chance I could be arrested, and as a precaution I should leave the country. By lunchtime the next day I was in Bangkok (the first available plane that wasn’t to one of the Gulf states).
Subsequently seven court cases were brought against me, Amitava, the festival organisers and two other authors who had also read extracts in another event. These cases are still ongoing and may take years to resolve.
Writer and founder of the Jaipur Literature festival
Last year’s targeting of the Jaipur Literature Festival by opponents of Rushdie was a final death-twitch of the Satanic Verses affair. Rushdie had requested we announce his appearance in advance, and as soon as we did so the festival found itself at the receiving end of a series of death threats. There were also nationwide protests by Muslim groups which, encouraged by their political leaders in the course of electioneering, began converging on Jaipur from all over India. On the day of the video link, several hundred protesters marched on the festival venue and entered the auditorium, turfing festival-goers out of their seats and promising “rivers of blood will flow here if they show Rushdie”. We were also passed intelligence by the state government, of dubious provenance, claiming that hired assassins were already in the place, waiting to strike.
Rushdie – who had agreed to appear by videolink after the death threat against him – was sitting in the studio in London waiting to speak, and Barkha Dutt, the gutsy Indian television host who was to interview him, was all set to begin. What do you do in this situation? If you give in to the intimidation, you put at risk all the principles on which literary life is based: what is the point of having a literary festival, a celebration of words and ideas, if you censor yourself and suppress an author’s voice? But equally, can you justify going ahead with a literary event, however important, if you know you will thereby be putting at risk the lives of everyone who attends, knowingly igniting a major religious riot?
Although I fought against the cancellation of Rushdie’s video address by the venue owner, in the end we had no option but to go ahead and televise the interview, but not to play it live in front of a festival crowd that included burly protesters itching for a fight. The risk of violence or a stampede was simply too high: not long before there had been hundreds of deaths at a festival in Jodhpur when there was a rush for the exit, and here we had a situation where even a few people throwing chairs could have ignited a catastrophe. We were, after all, in a massively overcrowded auditorium guarded by a police force that had been accused of shooting crowds of peaceful protesters – as at nearby Bharatpur a couple of months earlier, in an incident that left 10 people dead.
It was as difficult a decision as I have ever taken, and I’m still not sure that we did the right thing, but in the end the interview did go ahead from the festival, and Rushdie got to be seen and heard by millions on TV. We were just unable to show it on our own screens.
• The following three recollections were added on 21 September 2012.
Founding director, Bloomsbury
I first met Salman Rushdie in 1972 when, working at Victor Gollancz, I became a lodger in the house he shared with his future wife, Clarissa Luard. Recently down from Cambridge, the young graduate, sporting a fine set of sideburns, regaled us nightly with his already overflowing fund of stories.
Later, I lived through the excitement of publishing the first three of his novels – the sadly unloved (not by me) Grimus (1975), the internationally acclaimed Midnight’s Children (1981) and the magnificent Shame (1983) – and I was eagerly anticipating publishing his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, at Bloomsbury Publishing, where, in 1987, I had become one of the founding directors.
Salman and I enjoyed a very fruitful and happy relationship, both personal and professional, for many years, and as soon as I told him of plans for the new publishing house, he promised to join me. “I’ll come with you,” he offered before I could ask.
Things didn’t work out quite as I had hoped, and sometime before Salman’s 40th birthday in June 1987, he told me he had acquired a new agent in America. Not long afterwards, he told his long-time UK agent, Deborah Rogers, that he was moving to this same agent, Andrew Wylie, in this country. Deborah had negotiated an agreement between Salman and Bloomsbury, but it was beginning to look unlikely that this would hold. Wylie had urged him to seek the “market value” for his book and to break our agreement. I was stricken, and wrote him a letter full of hurt and anger. We didn’t speak for more than a year.
In 1988, The Satanic Verses was sold at auction to Penguin for a very much bigger advance than the one agreed with Bloomsbury, and just before the book was published I was being badgered by journalists for my memories of “the early days”. Because of this, and also because I missed my old friend, I wanted to re-establish contact, and so we met and buried quite a few hatchets, along with several glasses of red. On 14 February 1989 the Ayatollah issued his infamous fatwa and Salman disappeared from public view.
Over the next 14 years we met in secret, always accompanied by Special Branch. Living as a fugitive with no home, Salman occasionally had meetings in our flat in north London. On one occasion I asked my young colleague Elizabeth West to let him into the flat for a meeting. She was a great fan of his work and took on the task with alacrity. Some time later, she became Mrs Rushdie the third. Salman’s great gifts stood him in good stead during those terrible years of incarceration. His resolve and courage never left him, nor did his fiendish sense of fun, his huge appetite for books, films, music, good food and wine, friends, conversation and much more besides, and all these bolstered his determination never to give in.
Valentine’s Day 1989 was dominated by thoughts of Bruce Chatwin as friends gathered for his memorial. The church, though, was quickly overwhelmed by a tide of persistent whispers spreading word of that day’s awful news – the declaration of the fatwa. Salman, visibly shaken, was hustled away after the service.
When I got home my husband, Michael Berkeley, who had been unable to attend, was stunned by the news but immediately pointed out that since Salman’s recent move from my agency had been aired quite unpleasantly in the press, the last place anyone would expect to find him was at our farm on the Welsh borders. We got a message to Salman saying that he would be welcome to use our house if it would help.
A day or two later, four Special Branch policemen (two drivers and two protection officers) in large Jaguars and Range Rovers transported Salman and his then wife, Marianne Wiggins, to the Welsh marches. Unbeknown to us the police had already made a careful check of the terrain and worked out escape routes across the fields.
Paradoxically, the comparative isolation also made it harder to conceal the comings and goings, since any unexplained presence is conspicuous in remote country communities. Our farming partner, whom we had to keep in ignorance of what was going on, had always prided himself on being able to track movements over the farm but was absolutely mystified by how these vehicles (armoured) left the same depth of imprint as a heavy lorry! The local family-run hotel must have been equally bemused by the repeated appearance of these strangely uncommunicative men.
Salman’s visits continued over a few years – we had to talk carefully with our daughter when she began primary school, a state establishment with a number of Muslim pupils, some of whom became her close friends. A fatwa may seem like a rather extreme way of restoring a warm friendship but – for us and Salman – there was, at least, this element of redemption.
Biographer and friend
As soon as we heard of the fatwa, my wife Margaret Drabble and I agreed that we should offer Salman the use of her house on the Somerset coast as a bolthole. He was to stay there for several months, and I remember wondering whether I could have endured what he was enduring: the inevitable anxieties at night and the inescapable boredom by day – as well as a sense of being imprisoned by people who would never read The Satanic Verses but who wanted its author dead. We occasionally visited him at the house. He was eager for conversation, and I was astonished to see the extraordinary jungle of technology he had spread out across the floor, providing him with entertainment and news. The plainclothes policemen would stroll up and down the pebbled beach in the guise of innocent conchologists – fooling no one, I was later told.
There were some absurd episodes: a bird coming down the chimney being the sudden focus of police revolvers; and the time when the car broke down and a heavily disguised Salman, having persuaded the police to take him out to supper, was obliged to help push the car through the village high street. Later on we invited the playwright Julian Mitchell for a weekend and he, having written a number of Inspector Morse scripts for television, impressed the police as a far more valid and exciting writer.
Then one day there was an alarm and Salman left.
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