Author Recounts Life in Seclusion Under Iranian Fatwa

Salman Rushdie’s new book “Joseph Anton: A Memoir” details his personal fight for freedom of expression.

October 10, 2012

By Jay Conley

Salman Rushdie believes the backlash against freedom of speech and free expression of thoughts and ideas may be more violent and widespread now than in 1989 when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini branded the author’s novel “The Satanic Verses” blasphemous to Islam and called for his execution.

Back then, Khomeini’s fatwa, or religious edict against Mr. Rushdie, who was born in India but living in England at the time, put a multimillion dollar price on his head and sent him into hiding for more than a decade. Today, an anti-Islamic film posted on YouTube has caused widespread deadly violence across the Middle East.

Neither type of religious extremism should be tolerated, said Mr. Rushdie, who argues that the freedom of speech and thoughts are the biggest and most important freedoms one can have.

Mr. Rushdie was at GW’s Lisner Auditorium Monday night to talk about his recently published work “Joseph Anton: A Memoir,” which details his experiences living in seclusion with the threat of a pursuer lurking around every corner. The title refers to his pseudonym that he used while in hiding, composed of the first names of two of his favorite authors: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

The death threat was essentially lifted in 1998, when the Iranian government stated it would no longer support the fatwa. But it may always hang over the author’s head. Under Islamic law, the only way such an edict can be rescinded is by the person who issued it. Khomeini died in 1989.

Mr. Rushdie spoke humorously and provocatively Monday night in a conversational format that was facilitated by Robert Siegel, host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” The event was presented by the Center for Inquiry-D.C. and Politics & Prose Bookstore.

Mr. Siegel amusingly described the cloak-and-dagger setting behind his first interview with Mr. Rushdie in March 1992 in Washington, D.C.  After being instructed to meet a stranger in a hotel bar carrying a copy of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Siegel then followed the man to an undisclosed location near Dulles Airport to meet Mr. Rushdie.

“I recall you saying I really think that before this year is out, this thing will be over,” said Mr. Siegel.

“I was only off by 10 years,” quipped Mr. Rushdie, who prior to the Iranian death threat was a rising literary star in the 1980s, receiving wide praise as the author of “Midnight’s Children.” The book won the Booker Prize in 1981. By the end of the decade, after publishing “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, Mr. Rushdie was in hiding under police protection, and unsure of his future.

“The problem of how long it went on was very difficult to write about, the duration,” Mr. Rushdie said Monday night before an audience of more than 1,000 people. “It wasn’t like there were people shooting at me through the window. It wasn’t dramatic. It was just this sense that it was never going to end. It just went on and on and on.”

And yet, Mr. Rushdie said it was the solitary nature of his profession as a writer that equipped him to handle the long stretches of seclusion and spurred him to continue writing a range of books, short stories and articles.

At other times, he felt overwhelmed by the constant presence of security guards.

“It was the opposite of isolation. It was living with four enormous men with guns,” Mr. Rushdie said.

Along with a number of humorous anecdotes and quips shared by Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Siegel, there was serious discussion about the importance of a writer’s role to speak freely and to voice the concerns and thoughts of a generation.

“Writers have always taken on tyrants and called them by their name,” said Mr. Rushdie. “It’s the history of literature.”

With a nod to America’s upcoming presidential election and the combative campaigns undertaken by both parties, Mr. Rushdie said the power of democracy lies in the belief that people can openly disagree and express their ideas without becoming violent.

“The nature of democracy is disagreement,” he said. “But I’ve come to believe that the argument itself is freedom.”

Mr. Rushdie also believes that same freedom of expression belongs to everyone, even the producers of the low-budget anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims.” A portion of the film was recently posted on YouTube and has sparked riots throughout the Middle East.

“Freedom of speech includes freedom to speak crap,” said Mr. Rushdie. “We should try and not live in a world in which the threat of violence determines what we say or don’t say.”

Among his varied writing awards and accomplishments, Mr. Rushdie is the former president of PEN American Center, is an honorary professor in the humanities at M.I.T., and a university distinguished professor at Emory University, where he has placed his archive of work. A film adaptation of “Midnight’s Children” is due to be released this month.