On February 14th, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwā against the Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie, in retaliation for Rushdie’s allegedly blasphemous book The Satanic Verses. Stripped of context, what this event signified was the theocratic leader of a foreign country openly offering money for the murder of an author living 3,000 miles away, as punishment for the crime of writing a novel.
But with that declaration, the distance between London and Tehran took on darkly allegorical shades, too. In this twisted reworking of the Athens-Jerusalem paradigm, forces of barbarism and fanaticism around the globe were quick to riot against Rushdie, burning copies of his book and effigies of him. Judging by sales, a majority of these rioters had not read the novel, and a large majority of that majority probably couldn’t have read it if they’d tried. Nevertheless, Rushdie immediately went into hiding as Hitoshi Igarashi, the novel’s Japanese translator, was stabbed to death, and Ettore Captiolo, its Italian translator, was gravely wounded. Rushdie’s wife Marianne Wiggins would later recall that in just the first three months after the fatwā, the couple moved 56 times.
In 1998, the newly inaugurated Iranian President Mohammad Khatami revoked the fatwā. That decade, which was in certain ways a prelude to the events of 2001, had begun with one of the most momentous events in modern literary history. A field of battle had been cleared, and down its center a line was drawn. On one side, a culture that sections off certain sacrosanct ideas, censoring them from inquiries and perceived insults; on the other side, a culture that categorically affirms no individual can be killed for what he or she says or writes.
Below are two striking personifications of this split. First, Yusuf Islam’s (née Cat Stevens) response to the fatwā. Second is Rushdie’s response, 20 years later, to Islam’s (the musician) take. While short, their responses are enormously suggestive about where ethical and free people must stand in this ongoing struggle for the freedom of expression.
On February 21, 1989, Yusuf Islam was asked by a student at Kingston University about whether the fatwā against Rushdie was Quranically justified. He replied, “[Rushdie] must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear. If someone defames the prophet, then he must die.”
Two months later, Islam was a panelist on the BBC program Hypotheticals, which was moderated by Geoffrey Robertson. There the two men exchanged the following words:
Robertson: You think that this man deserves to die?
Islam: Who, Salman Rushdie?
Islam: Yes, yes.
Robertson: And do you have a duty to be his executioner?
Islam: Uh, no, not necessarily, unless we were in an Islamic state and I was ordered by a judge or by the authority to carry out such an act – perhaps, yes.
Robertson: Would you give him shelter?
Islam: Yes, I’d try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is.
Robertson: Would you go to a demonstration where you knew that an effigy was going to be burned?
Islam: I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing; but actually, no, if it were just an effigy I don’t think I’d be that moved to go there.
Two decades after these remarks, Salman Rushdie, now out of hiding and promoting his memoir about those harrowing days, sat for an interview about about Yusuf Islam and the fatwā with George Stroumboulopoulos.
Stroumboulopoulos: The “Rally for Sanity” just happened, with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, and Yusuf Islam performed… he kind of laid it on you during the fatwā. How did you feel about that?
Rushdie: Not good. Not good. Actually, you know, he’s dropped the ‘Islam’ now for mysterious reasons. Yes now he’s just ‘Yusuf,’ like Cher or Madonna, except with a very big beard.
No, but I actually think it was a mistake to have invited him, and I called up Jon Stewart and we had a couple of conversations, and I think that, by the end of it, he was pretty clear that is was probably a misstep.*
Because he’s is not a good guy. It may be that he once sang “Peace Train” – and there was a point when I was a college student when I had a copy of Tea for the Tillerman – but he hasn’t been Cat Stevens for a long time. He’s a different guy now.
Stroumboulopoulos: Are you a different guy from the guy who wrote that book?
Rushdie: I’m older. But I’m the same writer. You know, I feel very proud of that book. And I think one of the great things about the time having passed, is that now people can read The Satanic Verses as a novel… And so now some people like it, some people don’t like it, but that’s the ordinary life of a book.
Stroumboulopoulos: Is there any fear in you that now you’re going to reprint and relive that stuff?
Rushdie: No. I think we have to stop thinking like that. That’s pussy thinking.
*In 2012, Stewart commented on Rushdie’s allegations, saying, “I wouldn’t have done [the bit], I don’t think. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have done it. Because that to me is a deal breaker. Death for free speech is a deal breaker.”
For more on this subject, take a look at two recent works by Rushdie: Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 and Joseph Anton: A Memoir.
The great voice on this subject, as with so many other topics, was Christopher Hitchens’s.
Dennis Perrin, a friend and protégé of the Hitch, recounts a moment in 1991 when the two men were conversing in a D.C. pub and Cat Stevens’s “Moonshadow” began to waft from the jukebox:
Hitch stops talking. His face tightens…
“No,” he said, shaking his head, exhaling Rothman smoke. “No–get rid of that!”
Bartender asks, “Excuse me?”
“Get rid”–gesturing to the music in the air–”of that.”
“Can’t. Someone played that song.”
“Well, fuck it then.”
Don’t know if Hitch is serious. Yes, his anger about the fatwā is real and understandable. And the fact that the former Cat Stevens, Yusef Islam [sp], endorsed the mullahs’ death sentence clearly enraged him. But getting shitty over “Moonshadow”?
“You know,” I say, “Yusef Islam [sp] renounced everything about his past. He hates Cat Stevens more than you do. He gave away or destroyed all his gold records. If you really want to show your disgust for him, embrace Cat Stevens. Play his stuff loud and often. Whistle ‘Peace Train’ or ‘Oh Very Young’ when you pass the local mosque.”
Hitch listens, head down, fresh Rothman lit.
“No. Never. Fuck them both.”
In one of Hitchens’s smoothest rhetorical flourishes, he riffed on this issue as a guest on Question Time in 2007. His argument is a full-throated defense of not only Rushdie, but absolute free expression and the value of our language. (London Mayor Boris Johnson’s more comical take is also worth a listen.)