For Rushdie, there is one last sigh

Seven years after Ayatollah Khomeini decreed he must die, Salman Rushdie is free to step out. But the price, as for so many celebrities, is eternal vigilance. By Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
Salman Rushdie's fatwa is seven years old today. On 14 February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini declared on Iranian radio that the author of The Satanic Verses "and all involved in its publication ... are sentenced to death". He added that anyone who should die in the process of dispatching Rushdie "will be regarded as a martyr and go directly to heaven".

Rushdie and his wife, the writer Marianne Wiggins, immediately went into hiding, and for the past seven years he has lived out a uniquely strange destiny: a nomadic prisoner, under house arrest while effectively homeless; famous and rich beyond other authors' dreams of glory and avarice, yet as furtive as any terrorist or fugitive. The Satanic Verses has made history like no other novel before it - yet complete obscurity must often have seemed preferable.

Yesterday in Strasbourg, Rushdie and Frances D'Souza, the chair of his International Defence Committee, again attempted to put pressure on Iran, via the EU, to sign an agreement promising not to kill or encourage others to kill Rushdie. Once again they failed, as they expected to fail: on 8 March, Iran holds a general election, and no Iranian politician is going to do himself any favours by being seen to submit to such demands.

Yet despite this frustrating impasse, D'Souza and her committee are quietly exultant. "The aims of the fatwa were to suppress the book and silence the author," she points out, "and actually it did not succeed in either aim - witness the success of his new novel, The Moor's Last Sigh."

Furthermore, although Iran cannot be persuaded to sign anything, there are strong indications that the heat is off. Delicate negotiations in train since last spring between EU representatives and Iranian government officials failed to yield an accord, but a verbal agreement is a different matter. "It seems the Iranians have given a commitment that they won't actually kill him," Ms D'Souza says.

In other words, the machinery of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism is not going to be mobilised to liquidate him any time soon. As recently as December last year, the newly-appointed Iranian charge d'affaires to Norway told the Norwegian prime minister that the fatwa was still in place; but other Iranian sources are keen to stress the difference between a religious edict which cannot be withdrawn, and a political decision to put it into effect.

The situation, in other words, is as clear as mud. Such nudges and winks as the committee has been given seem pretty poor material out of which to attempt to construct a more normal life, but Rushdie's situation has undoubtedly eased. His bodyguard has been reduced from three men to two. His address remains a secret, but when he goes out to party he is no longer obliged to pop out of the pudding at the evening's climax, to ensure surprise. Instead he can turn up announced, as he did first at Westminster Central Hall last September, and again last month in New York, when he had a highly visible dinner with the editor of the New Yorker, Tina Brown, and a host of New York literati, and several other well-trailed engagements.

Salman Rushdie's bizarre and unique status is gradually eliding into something far less remarkable: common-or-garden celebrity. Now, a friend says, he is at similar risk, and under comparable protection, to a government minister; in time, and particularly if a stronger, more moderate figure were to take control in Tehran, that might shift again to the status of any other person of outstanding fame - someone, say, like John Lennon.

What if some freelance religious nutcase were to take a shot at him? "No one can ever protect him from that," D'Souza insists. "Anyone with a measure of celebrity runs that risk." In time Rushdie will have to take his chance with the likes of Princess Anne and Madonna and all the others who someone, somewhere considers worthy of being stalked. Notoriety will pale into ordinary fame, terror give way to the occasional frisson of fear. That will be the nature of total victory. He cannot hope for more.

As the nightmare fades, the peculiarity of the fatwa's place in history grows clearer. It occurred just before the most important historical chapter break of modern times. Seven years ago Romania was ruled by Ceaucescu, Britain by Mrs Thatcher, the still-existent Soviet Union by Gorbachev. Germany was divided by the Berlin Wall; Tiananmen Square was just a large empty public space in the middle of Beijing. Emperor Hirohito of Japan was dead, but had yet to be buried. One week before the fatwa, Rupert Murdoch launched Sky TV; 10 months later, Gorbachev and Bush were to announce the end of the Cold War.

The Satanic Verses might be thought of as a deceptively modest-looking explosive charge inserted into the era; it went off with an astonishingly loud bang - no one was more surprised than its creator - and the age split neatly in two. Rarely has any epoch cleaved so cleanly: before, Cold War, Communism, boom, Thatcher; afterwards, the triumph of the West, the collapse of Communism, worldwide recession, the (highly debatable) "end of history" - and the rise and rise of the fanatical Islamism represented by Ayatollah Khomeini.

When the novel was published on 26 September 1988, it was naturally treated like any other novel - or at least, like any other major, highly ambitious, formally extraordinary novel by a writer whose previous works, notably Midnight's Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981 - had marked him out as one of the most gifted and extraordinary talents of the age. Rushdie told Sean French, in an interview that appeared in the Observer in the month of publication, that his new book was "about as risky as I could get". The risks he meant, he went on to explain, were the formal ones of architecture and construction.

It got the reviews that a novel of such high aspiration deserved. "A roller-coaster ride over a vast landscape of the imagination," wrote Angela Carter in the Guardian. "An imaginative avalanche which is both wondrous and uplifting," gushed the Indian Post of Bombay. Yet three days after the Post's review appeared, the Indian Finance Ministry announced that the novel was to be banned, to appease the country's 120 million Muslims. Within four months the fatwa had been issued.

Rushdie's crime, in the eyes of the orthodox, was to have conjured, in the dreams of one of the protagonists, a character taken to be an insulting travesty of the Prophet Muhammad, and to have recounted his adventures in terms which the pious could take to be a blasphemous re-writing of the story of Islam's origins. It is not surprising that the book's non- Muslim reviewers failed to detect the offence that would be caused: only someone steeped, like Rushdie himself, in the religion, could realise what liberties he was taking with the holy story.

What makes the offence far worse for orthodox Muslims than a comparable parodying of the life of Jesus would be for Christians is that, while the prophet himself is considered to be no more than human, the words of the Koran are held to be the direct word of God. To cast aspersions on them - even if only in a fantastic fiction, and for comical effect - is to attack the core of the religion.

Probably no pious Muslim would have found The Satanic Verses an enjoyable read, but the extremism of Khomeini's declaration says much more about the fanaticism of his regime than it does about Islamic sensibilities. Khomeini himself died less than four months after issuing the fatwa - leaving his country to wrestle with the international consequences. Seven years on, they are still wriggling, desperate, given the country's deepening economic crisis caused primarily by plummeting oil prices, to improve its trading relations with Europe, yet politically unable to say the magic words concerning Rushdie that would bring this about.

The Satanic Verses has had a greater historical impact than any other work of fiction. If the American thinker Samuel Huntington is right in thinking that the confrontation of Islamic and Christian civilisations will prove to be one of the most crucial of the post-Cold War world, Rushdie's novel will come to be seen as one of the most important stations on the way.

Both sides - the Western liberals and defenders of human rights on the one hand, the orthodox Muslims on the other - have attained that hard certainty, that sense of mission and purity, that constitute the spiritual preparation for war. Fawd Nahdi, editor of Q-News, a monthly magazine for British Muslims, has said that the Rushdie affair did more to give young Muslims in this country a sense of identity and pride than anything before or since. Likewise, British liberals - so often on the defensive through the Thatcher years - united around a cause that made them feel stronger and more righteous than at any time since the Oz trial of 1971.

It has been quintessentially a dialogue of the deaf: sadly few on either side of the divide had real insights into the motivations of the other - or even seemed to care that much. Now the fatwa fades like a mean Cheshire cat, leaving only a scowl hanging in the air. But given that the fundamental subject of Rushdie's book was the profoundly identity-challenging experience of East-West migration, that legacy of non-knowing, non-caring, is perhaps the most worrying thing of all.