Salman Rushdie: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”


Would people defend him today? He thinks not. With Timothy Garton Ash last year. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Charlie Hebdo has announced that they will publish no more cartoons featuring Mohammed, although every other religion and public figure will continue to be fair game. In other words, the terrorists have won. “We have drawn Mohammed to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want… We’ve done our job,” said Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief.

It’s hard to be nostalgic about a fatwa, but Sir Salman Rushdie‘s recent comments in The Telegraph remind us that his Valentine’s Day card from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were the good old days. Leading figures from around the world linked arms to express solidarity with him, and to protest any encroachment on freedom of speech. Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaneyand others stood for Rushdie. There was no backing down. And today?

Said Rushdie, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” The author of the condemned Satanic Verses, told France’s L’Express. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

Everblooming friendship

Thank you, Christopher.

In particular, Rushdie said he was dismayed by the protests that followed a decision by the American branch of the PEN writers’ association to award a prize for courage to Charlie Hebdo after a dozen of its staff were massacred in January. More than 200 writers, including Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, and Junot Díaz, signed a letter objecting to PEN rewarding the satirical magazine for publishing “material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

“It seems we have learnt the wrong lessons,” Rushdie told L’Express. “Instead of realizing that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we thought that we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation.” Cole explained to him that his case was different – 1989 protesters defended Rushdie against charges of blasphemy; Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, he argued, were an expression of Islamophobia.

Rushdie thinks it’s a case of political correctness gone wild. “It’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against The Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” (To be clear, I find Charlie Hebdo cartoons tasteless and not very funny. That’s not the point.) 

Let’s remember Sontag, president of PEN, in that 1989 moment. Hitchens wrote: “Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the Ayatollah. She nagged everybody on her mailing list and shamed them, if they needed to be shamed, into either signing or showing up. ‘A bit of civic fortitude,’ as she put it in that gravelly voice that she could summon so well, ‘is what is required here.’ Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious, too. I loved her. This may sound sentimental, but when she got Rushdie on the phone—not an easy thing to do once he had vanished into the netherworld of ultraprotection—she chuckled: ‘Salman! It’s like being in love! I think of you night and day: all the time!’ Against the riot of hatred and cruelty and rage that had been conjured into existence by a verminous religious fanatic, this very manner of expression seemed an antidote: a humanist love plainly expressed against those whose love was only for death.”


Thank you, Susan.

Sontag and Hitchens were famous people, of course, who lived in high-rise apartments and could go into hiding, as Rushdie did. But a lot of other people put their lives on the line. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death on the campus where he taught, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was knifed in his Milan apartment, and in Oslo, William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was shot three times in the back and left for dead.

Others at risk included bookstore owners, bookstore managers, and the people who worked for them. So let me take a few moments to recall the heroism of one of them, Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, which was bombed in the middle of the night two weeks after the fatwa was announced. On his own blog (he is now a literary agent) he wrote:

I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. … As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent. …


Cody’s in 2006. (Photo: Creative Commons/Pretzelpaws)

One-time heroism wasn’t enough. How were they to react to the attack? Would they continue selling the book? Would they put it at the front of the store, or hide it somewhere towards the back? Or would it, like 1950s pornography, be offered by request only, in a brown paper bag?

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

The story wasn’t over. Rushdie visits the Bay Area regularly (I wrote about his visit to Kepler’s here). And even while in official hiding, he insisted on calling on Cody’s several years later (Berkeley rents finally did what bombs could not, and the valiant bookstore closed its doors in 2008). Ross recalls Rushdie’s appearance at Cody’s:

We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence, had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues – and others get holes.”

Read the whole thing here.

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6 Responses to “Salman Rushdie: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.””

  1. Pakistani Says:

    But you know, this article still doesn’t justify Islamophobia, which is equivalent to racism in the United States. If the latter is wrong and condemnable, why not the former? Hiding it in a garb of “freedom of expression” does not change the fact that it is an overt expression of hate against a community, and the ideals that they stand up for. That is exactly why laws exist to check hate speech. If anti-Semitism is condemned and laws made to check it, why can’t the same be done for Islamophobia? Why the hypocrisy and double standard?

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Rahman, no one is justifying Islamophobia. We are free to condemn the expressions of people we think are giving voice to their prejudices and fears, we are not allowed to call for their murder. It works the same way for everyone else. Many people thought Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was an expression of hatred towards Christianity. He was not tracked down and killed. No doubt the Mormons have strong feelings about The Book of Mormon, a very successful Broadway musical mocking their religion. We tolerate these things not because we endorse them, but because we value freedom of speech and expression. Living in a democracy does require a thick skin.

  3. Lionel Libson Says:

    Islamophobia does not mean hatred of Islam…rather, it’s true etymological meaning is ‘FEAR of Islam’ a correct response to madmen killers.Islam is in desperate need of “enlightenment”, a phenomenon that permitted Christianity into the modern age. The adolescent view of women that characterizes the worst aspect of Islam, is a virulent approach to half the world’s population.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Lionel, I’m not so sure the West’s view of women isn’t much better than “adolescent,” given the pandemic of internet hard-core pornography. I think it is very difficult to generalize about millions and millions of people, nor be so certain that they are in desperate need of “enlightenment.” In this case, Salman Rushdie is Moslem, and part of a very sophisticated international Islamic culture. I have many Muslim friends. Terrorism is another thing.

  5. JIMJFOX Says:

    Islam makes me vomit. As do apologists like you, Cynthia. Pornography is not enforced on women as are the sharia laws of the “religion of peace”. Do yourself a favour- READ some Koran, especially the verses about women, who are “the majority of the inhabitants of hell”; who are stoned to death for ‘adultery’; whose testimony [and inheritance] is half that of a man; who are “deficient in intelligence” and so on… and on.
    You are a disgrace to your gender. Your Muslim friends are IRRELEVANT. It is their ideology that matters, not the practitioners. You make the appeal to numbers, a logical fallacy.
    “A lie is a lie, even if everyone believes it; Truth is truth even if No-one believes it.”

    Islam sophisticated? What the hell are you babbling? Islam is totalitarian, primitive, savage and contemptuous of all that makes us human. The only one who needs ‘enlightenment’ is the naive, ignorant Ms Haven. Really.

  6. Michael katz Says:

    “Read some Koran,” JimJFox writes. And, similarly, Yusuf Islam cites Leviticus (trying to demonstrate equivalency.) Both completely miss the point. Ancient texts aren’t the problem, nor are religions founded on those texts the problem. Fundamentalist religious practice, however, whereby the text (and its imperfect translation) are taken on faith to be inviolate and literal law — Fundamentalism — that’s the problem. Seeking guidance for contemporary times, the religious scholar must read ancient texts as metaphor, to be interpreted, to be argued, to be commented on — to be made relevant to contemporary times. Fundamentalists are the problem, be they Muslim, Christian, or Jew.

    I was raised in a Jewish tradition that understands 1st century commentaries have been commented on by 7th century sages, whose commentaries in turn are argued in following centuries, always in an effort to make a teaching meaningful, to improve understanding, in contemporary times, and to build upon sage advice, century upon century, as a way to keep our ancient text relevant.