Salman Rushdie versus Islamism: The world became accustomed to this contest, and even bored by it. Besides, Rushdie wasn’t very nice, was he? He’d brought his troubles on himself, hadn’t he? The Satanic Verses was bound to give offense, and there’s never any need to do that. A memoir just published with the title Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s detailed account of the ordeal he went through, and it serves as a major document of these uncertain times.
Issuing the fatwa that condemned Rushdie to death for blackguarding the Prophet Muhammad, Ayatollah Khomeini was not concerned with theology or literature, and anyhow couldn’t read a book written in English. He had found the pretext he wanted to declare that he would be imposing his version of Islam on the world and was ready to kill to do so. To call for the murder of someone not within the jurisdiction is an enormity, nothing less than the staged opening to a war, the equivalent of the SS storming the Polish radio station of Gleiwitz to launch the Second World War.
Faced with the fatwa, the British Foreign Office reactivated the Chamberlain policy of appeasement. Instead of opposing the Iranians with uncompromising statements that freedom of speech is not negotiable, the officials concerned were always seeking a deal. In other countries, presidents, heads of government, men who ought to have known better, ducked their responsibilities, usually promising help which petered out to nothing. Shameful Western surrender only aroused more Iranian contempt. In a moment of weakness, Rushdie falsely declared that he was a good Muslim. This surrender to intimidation was a Mistake, the word duly capitalized by him.
Representative Leftists like Edward Said or Michel Foucault had greeted the new Islamist Iran with delight as a valuable new source of anti-Americanism. Rushdie’s friends, much praised in this book, are all Leftists of the sort, such as Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Susan Sontag, Harold Pinter and others. The fatwa caused a split between Iran and its potential allies on the Left. The Mistake of the Iranians was to put Rushdie and his supporters in the position of arguing principle while themselves arguing politics, bigoted politics at that.
Full disclosure: I have met Rushdie very occasionally and briefly. Until I read this memoir, however, I had not properly grasped how much we owe him. Armed only with his pen and his wits, this unlikely immigrant from India won the first big campaign in a war most of us don’t even realize we are engaged in.