Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses

Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses
Update: 15 August 2022 01:07
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Ayse Hur recalls the repercussions of the Satanic Verses in Turkey, with reactions both on the part of Rushdie and Islamists

Historian and writer Ayse Hur wrote an article after the attempted assassination of influential Indian-British author Salman Rushdie in New York.

Below is a translated excerpt of Hur's article titled "Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses," published on Facebook.

Yesterday in New York, during a conference at the Chautauqua Institute, Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie was stabbed repeatedly by 24-year-old Hadi Matar. Rushdie, who was taken to the hospital, is in critical condition. His agents recently announced that he might lose an eye, and that his neck, liver, and the nerves in his arm were severed. This assassination attempt is the outcome of a 33-year-old fatwa. (...)

The author’s novel titled “The Satanic Verses” created a big controversy in Islamic countries when it was published on 26 September 1988 in the United Kingdom. On 12 February 1989, six people died and 60 were injured in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, during protests. The events spiraled out of control after the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iran Islamic Revolution (!), in which he said killing Rushdie and the publishers of the book is the duty of every Muslim, and on 25 February (1989), 12 died, 40 were injured in a demonstrations in Mumbai, India.

Why did the book cause controversy?

The author maintains that the book is about the events surrounding the two characters, two Indian Muslims, who miraculously survived an explosion over London in a hijacked plane flying from India to the United Kingdom. Rushdie points out that the book explores the issues of the eternal battle between good and evil, being a refugee, rootlessness, identity, alienation, exclusion, and metamorphosis.

But the reasons why the novel created such a backlash in Islamic circles include the use of the name of Mahound instead of Muhammad, a derogatory term used during the Crusades; the author names the city Mecca “Jahilia,” which is used to describe the periods before Islam; he names a character “Gabriel;” he calls the character representing the devil “Saladin,” who is glorified as “the conqueror of Jerusalem”; he uses the name Aisha, the name of the wife of Muhammad, for a fanatical Indian girl; the novel includes a brothel in the city of Jahilia having prostitutes with the names of Muhammad’s wives working; the author calls Ishmael, who was thrown in the desert by Abraham, a “bastard”. (...) and makes reference to the myth of Gharaniq, which suggests that there were verses in the Qur’an which were uttered by Satan, and taken out later (...)

Khomeini’s fatwa

(...) Rushdie, who included these controversial topics in his novel, had to hide for 10 years following the proclamation of Khomeini's fatwa on 14 February 1989. Fearing for his life, he announced that he feels closer to Islam, but after he realized that the fatwah wasn’t recalled, he discontinued such statements.

In 1997, the newly elected President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, announced that they were not keen on implementing the fatwa, which relieved Rushdie. But in 2005, speaking on the anniversary of the fatwa, the Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced that the fatwah is still in effect and Rushdie will pay for scorning Islam (...)

In 2007, the controversy flared up again after the Queen of England gave an award to Rushdie. The Pakistani and Iranian ambassadors to the United Kingdom condemned the award while protests were held in Malaysia and Pakistan where demonstrators burned effigies of Rushdie.

Aziz Nesin’s translation

On 11 May 1993, when Aziz Nesin announced that the Satanic Verses will be published, the controversy spread to Turkey. On 27 May, sections of the book began to be published on Aydinlik with the headline “Salman Rushdie: Thinker or Charlatan?”, and in another one, Salman Rushdie was caricatured as the devil. In the following days, more sections were published and Aziz Nesin’s comments made it clear that he was in the camp of those who thought Rushdie was a charlatan.

Murat Belge as the mediator

According to Murat Belge, who was in England at the time, Salman Rushdie heard that the translation was done “carelessly” and decided to sue Nesin. But Belge, acting as the mediator, convinced Rushdie that Nesin did not have bad intentions, and that he was just rushing on with the translation since he was worried about his own health and was afraid that he would die. Rushdie decided not to continue with the lawsuit but instead, Wylie Agency who represented Rushdie wrote a strongly worded letter to Nesin. Nesin published a letter in response on 28 June 1993 saying, “My reasoning behind publishing these translations is neither helping his cause nor angering the conservatives in Turkey. I do not care about Salman Rushdie’s cause. We have our own causes which are more important than his.” Nesin said that he planned on publishing the translations and that he was aware Rushdie could sue him. (...)

The Aydinlik translations were used as the excuse behind the 2 July 1993 Sivas Massacre. Aziz Nesin was accused of being Salman Rushdie’s collaborator and he barely survived.

Later on, Aziz Nesin, speaking on TRGT, claimed that he was not personally involved in the translations, and that he had someone make the translations. He said he did not approve the targeting of the prophet and his family, but neither did he approve the banning of the book or the suggestions to kill the author because the prophet and his family were targeted in the book. He made clear that he was waiting from Rushdie’s agency for permission to publish the translations. This announcement lowered the tension between the sides.

Peace at Wallraff’s House

(...) The two sides met in Cologne at the house of Hans-Gunter Wallraff, the author of “Lowest of the Low” which explored human rights abuses and xenophobia in West Germany.

According to Rushdie: “We flew from Biggin Hill (in London) to Cologne and met at Gunter’s house. The journalist and his wife were loud, happy, and hospitable. Wallraff insisted that we play table tennis. It turned out that Wallraff was a good player and won most of the games. Small, stocky, and silver-haired Aziz Nesin did not come to the ping-pong table. He looked like a man who was unhappy and shaken because of the situation he was in. He sat in a corner and had deep thoughts. This was not hopeful. During the first official meeting in which Wallraff was the translator, Nesin kept on being condescending just like he was in Aydinlik…”

The ice was broken after the team spent two days together and Nesin extended his hand while murmuring. After a short handshake and after an even shorter hug, a photo was taken where everybody looked uncomfortable. Then Wallraff said, “Good! Now we are all friends!” and took everybody on a boat ride on the Rhine. Nesin and Rushdie both denounced religious fanaticism and the lack of reaction from the West. At least for the public, the fight was over. Wallraff’s men recorded everything. Mehmed Ali Birand published this tape on his TV program, 32nd Day.

As far as it’s known, Rushdie and Nesin did not have any other contact. After that day, I do not know whether Aziz Nesin’s views on Salman Rushdie changed or not. (...) But in 2012, in Rushdie’s autobiography, Nesin was called a “liar” and “provocateur,” which meant that Rushdie was not sincere in Cologne.

Other victims of Islamists

Alongside the victims in Islamabad and Mumbai, the book’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991. Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was stabbed on 3 July 1991, but thankfully survived. The publisher in Norway, William Nygaard, was attacked three times in October 1993, but thankfully he also survived. (Some sources claim that in Belgium a mufti and an assistant were murdered because the former had said that the book did not deserve the fatwa.)

Moreover, the leader of the team who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, Omar Abdel-Rahman, nicknamed “the Blind Sheikh,” said that if the Eygptian Nobel-award winner author Naguib Mahfouz was eliminated after he wrote the 1959 novel “Children of Gebelawi,” which was only published in Arabic in 1967 in Lebanon, then Salman Rushdie would not dare write the Satanic Verses. After these remarks, a fatwa was issued on Mahfouz, declaring him “an enemy of religion,” and he was stabbed in an assassination attempt on 14 October 1994. (...)

After years of hiding, Salman Rushdie, who now looked like he got rid of his fears, was traveling more and attending conferences. In 2019, he told the journalists that he receives a “Valentine’s Day” gift from Islamist fanatics on 14 February, the anniversary of the fatwa. He said that the cards read, “we did not forget about you, we will kill you one day,” but he said that he thinks that the threats are not serious but only rhetorical. Turns out Rushdie did not grasp the Islamic fanaticism completely, since he was stabbed yesterday just like Mahfouz. If he survives, it will be difficult for him to be happy again, for he will have to live in fear for the rest of his life.

The Satanic Verses is still not published in Turkish. And if it goes on like this, it is not likely to be either.

Well, let us see how the latest story which claims that Islam is a religion of tolerance and peace will eventually end up.