Salman Rushdie: His life, his work and his religion

In the 17 years since Ayatollah Khomeini passed a death sentence on Salman Rushdie, the writer's unflinching criticism of the religion into which he was born has never been stifled. Now, as the force of Islamist fury reverberates around the world, the acclaimed Anglo-Asian novelist tells Johann Hari why we're all living under a fatwa now

Thursday 22 September 2011 04:19

And so it begins again: the low rumble of Islamist death-threats against a novelist, simply because he dares to revel in free speech and free thought in a free society. "We're all living under a fatwa now," Salman Rushdie sighs, listing his persecutors' long slew of victims, from Algerian novelists to Bali clubbers to Circle Line commuters. "You can see the fatwa as the overture to 9/11. It's not a direct line. Maybe you could say it was not the same piece of music. But in some way it was a harbinger - a small thing before a big thing. The first crow, you know, flying across the sky."

As we sit in the basement of a lush London hotel he reflects, with calm dignity, on the massed millions of the fanatical who wish to behead him, simply because they think something one of his characters says in a dream in a novel insults a man who died 1,300 years ago. "It was beyond... I can't tell you," he says, a rare moment when his sentences stutter. "I've tried, quite hard, as an act of will, to put it behind me, because I don't want to carry that weight around. And, fortunately, [my wife] Padma didn't experience it. I met her at the tail-end of it, before the Iranians rescinded [the fatwa, in 1998]. That helps."

But Rushdie has been forced to get used to life in a damp mental alleyway where the loudest death-threat in history is forever echoing. One morning, a few days after the fatwa, he woke up and switched on the television to see a British studio audience voting on whether he should be killed. He switched the channel to see tens of thousands of people in Pakistan, a country he had lived in and loved, burning his effigy. He was, he says, "put through a degree course in worthlessness, my own personal and specific worthlessness".

One time, he had to go to hospital to have his wisdom teeth extracted. Afterwards he learnt that the police had contingency plans to remove him if there was an emergency: he would have been carried out in a body bag, in a hearse.

When I arrived at this hotel and waited in the lobby, a strange unspoken conspiracy emerged between me and the receptionist. "There should be a room booked for... uh... Random House books," I said. "Oh yes - the... um... author interview?" Like in some cod James Bond plot, we did not utter his name, as though, almost 18 years after the Ayatollah Khomeini first uttered his call for murder, there are assassins waiting on every London corner for a whisper of his name.

And then Rushdie wandered in, bearing a pile of books, looking like a bustling media don rather than a jihadi-dream-target, with no burly security guards, nobody except a slender press agent hobbling along on crutches. I glance at the receptionist; our silence seems stupid. As we wait for the room, Rushdie chattily talks me through the photo-books he is carrying. "I've just had my picture taken by this guy," he says. I want to hold on to this sliver of normality, to talk about photographers and Borges and Marquez. But the fatwa seems to block out the sky, still.

We walk downstairs and out it tumbles - the story of the plot to kill him. When he first heard the Ayatollah Khomeini's call for him to be killed - on 14 February 1989, "my unfunny Valentine" - Rushdie's first thought was: "I'm a dead man." One of his recent characters has a pre-assassination vision "of his open grave, of a rectilinear black hole huddling in the ground, as empty as his life, and felt the darkness measuring him for his shroud".

This battle was agony for Rushdie, not just because he was wrenched away from his wife, his young child, and the countries and cultures that had always nourished him, but because, as he puts it, "the warring halves of the world - East and West - were also the warring halves of my soul" . He is "the bastard child of history", one of the great hybrid-children produced by the mass migrations of the 20th century. He was raised in the East, schooled in the West, and indelibly crafted by both. Salman Rushdie lives and writes on the great global fault-line - and a fault-line is always a dangerous place to be.

Less than 48 hours after I spoke to him, the tectonic plates rumbled and cracked a little more. Rushdie told the BBC that the battle against the veil was a battle for the freedom of Muslim women like his sisters. "Sheikh" Omar Bakri retorted gloatingly from Lebanon: "Rushdie will continue living his life in hiding. Any fatwa will stand until it is fulfilled. He is always going to be worried about a Muslim reaching him." The message was old and simple and savage. This will never be over.

But Rushdie's stories rarely begin in the middle of the action. He teases out their roots, in places long ago and far away. This story is no different. Before we get to the fatwa, we must burrow into the origins of this story, which lie in a gentler, saner Islam, one that is being steadily subsumed by fanaticism across the globe. It begins in the Edenic valley of Kashmir, more than 80 years ago...

I: In the beginning: A Kashmiri grandfather, and a different Islam

Two of Rushdie's stories begin here: the story of his life, and the story of his shimmering latest novel, Shalimar the Clown. He describes Kashmir as "a tiny valley of no more than five million souls, landlocked, pre-industrial, resource rich but cash poor, perched thousands of feet up in the mountains, like a tasty green sweetmeat caught in a giant's teeth". This was the backdrop for the meeting of Rushdie's maternal grandparents. "My grandmother was very fierce and gruff. She was quite small but she was very wide," he chuckles. "I've always thought that one of the reasons my books are full of ferocious women is because of my granny."

But it was his Kashmiri grandfather who would surprise Rushdie's wannabe assassins. "He was a very devout Muslim. He said his prayers every day five times a day without fail, despite the teasing of his terrible grandchildren, and he went on Haj to Mecca," he explains. "He sort of affected gruffness, but he didn't fool anybody. He was a much beloved figure in [the town of] Aligar, where he was a family doctor. He was a very familiar spectacle on the streets, bicycling around the city going about his daily rounds. When I was a little boy, I used to sit on the back, on the pillion, and see everyone waving to him."

But this devout Muslim was the antithesis of the book-burners who now attack his grandson. He remains, to Rushdie, "the model of tolerance. Whenever I think about open-mindedness, I think about him. You could sit there as an 11- or 12-year-old boy and say, 'Grandfather, I don't believe in god.' And he would say, 'Really? That's very interesting. Sit down here and tell me all about it.' And there would be no kind of attempt to ram something down your throat or criticise you. There would just be conversation."

This culture of enlightenment - of free, open dispute - led his grandfather to take him to the university library, "which for me as a small boy was wonderful to explore, with those giant, towering bookstacks, with those ladders you had to climb up. In my memory, I would take out great stacks of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse, which he would sign out very seriously along with his medical textbooks."

And this easy rationality shaped the lives of Rushdie's parents too. His father found it confusing that the Koran was so obviously "a bit jumbled up - when you read it, the chapter suddenly changes direction, and 70 pages later, the chapter you were reading suddenly, arbitrarily continues". It was clear to him the text had been incorrectly assembled, and he wanted to go through and rearrange the text so that it made a bit more sense - the Islamic equivalent to Thomas Jefferson's rationalist adaptation of the Bible. Rushdie sips some fizzy water and says: "Now I think... it's lucky he didn't do it."

Although they were "almost totally irreligious", people who would visit the mosque three times a year, his parents at some point decided to hire a religious teacher to come to their house and educate Rushdie and his sisters. He says: "Unfortunately, they had also brought us up as extremely irreverent children. It was their fault for raising us as devilish infidels! So myself and my sisters gave this poor guy such a hard time that after about two lessons, he told my parents that he didn't know what to do. And to their immense credit, they said, 'All right, then,' and gave up."

But the Kashmir of Rushdie's grandfather stands for him as an alternate Islam, a radically different way of being Muslim to the Khomeinist and Bin Ladenite head-choppers - a religion of peace, not a religion of pieces. "It's really not so long ago," he says, "and if it's not that long ago, it doesn't have to be gone for ever." As he shows in Shalimar the Clown, Kashmiri Islam was - until the 1960s - a model of pluralist tolerance. It mingled and mixed with Hinduism, with mullahs even compromising on their austere monotheism by directing their followers to worship at the shrines of the local Hindu saints. As he puts it: "To be Kashmiri was to value what was shared far more highly than what divided."

"Indian Islam was like that - and in many ways it still is," he adds. "Even at this moment, when there have been explosions in a mosque or temple - it really hasn't worked. The Muslim population in India is, largely speaking, not radicalised. From the beginning they were always very secular-minded." Whereas the radicalisation of Muslims in Britain is "dreadful", Indian Muslims "are a model which could be beneficially studied about how you show a minority community that their interests are best served by secular democracy, and not by religious communal politics. Because if you play the game of religious communal politics, you will always be outnumbered. That was the argument Nehru and Gandhi took to India's religious minorities, and it worked."

His grandfather's pluralist, peaceful Kashmir has withered over the past 40 years under the burning heat of rival fundamentalisms. In Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie uses the story of the shredding of Kashmir's secularism - of the metaphorical death of his grandfather - as a microcosm of a larger story, the collapse of the secular ideal across the world that has nearly consumed Rushdie himself.

After the partition of India, Kashmir found itself trapped between the two new nations, rubbing like a bed-sore. The valley had a Muslim majority, so many people thought it logically should have gone to the new Muslim state of Pakistan. But Kashmir's Hindu ruler decided to stay with India, because he thought her secular traditions were best able to prevent the valley breaking down into the ethnic cleansing that was causing the new border to haemorrhage so much blood. And so the sharp wedge of communal grievance entered Kashmir.

The mild, mystical Sufi brand of Islam practised in the valley was gradually displaced by an austere Arab version - Islam 3.0. The Indian government reacted with crazed violence, treating every Kashmiri Muslim as a potential insurgent, and even using mass rape as a way to "break" the population. The Muslim population became more fundamentalist, the Indians ramped up the violence again - and on and on, in an intensifying tango of death.

In the novel, Rushdie serves up the response of the Indian government to Kashmiri separatism as "a case study in how to fuck it up". The novel is littered with lines that could have been uttered by an American general from the bloody sands of Iraq - endless bragging about how many insurgents have been "taken out", followed by confused confessions that this isn't bringing down the overall amount of violence. "The trouble is, you don't even have to reach for it," he says. "It's so obvious."

He fears that - in part as a result of this - "the good guys are losing the battle within Islam. There's no question. The Islam that now exists is not the Islam that I grew up with." All over the novel, there drift bleak, depressive clouds where Rushdie seems to fear that his grandfather's Kashmir - and the other brief patches of peace in human history - are only short breaks in the story of a species determined to tear itself apart. One character laments: "Maybe tyranny, forced conversions, temple-smashing, iconoclasm, persecution and genocide were the norms and peaceful coexistence was an illusion... Maybe peace was his opium pipe-dream." Another comments that "the single most obvious truth about the history of the human race" is "the inevitable triumph of illusion over reality." As he hears these quotes, Rushdie nods. "Look at history. It's not the account of a species at peace."

As he says this, Rushdie looks into the distance with a dreamy sadness, as though he is still riding pillion on his grandfather's bicycle, watching his world and his Islam creakily pedal into oblivion.

II: "It's not just about Palestine. It's about pork sandwiches, short skirts and kissing too"

In the long shadow of the World Trade Centre, Rushdie's story - of an Islam spiralling into spite - began to look different. It was no longer possible to dismiss him as an exception; he became a parable. For two decades, he has been scrambling to discover the moral to his story, endlessly tracking the "labyrinthine paranoia of the jihadi mind" as it tried to shred the secular values he knew and loved. The Satanic Verses was his first attempt to understand the new hybrid-humans midwifed by an age of mass migration - to ask what happens to the austere values of the ninth century Arabian desert when they are plunged into the swirling chaos of 20th-century London. In Shalimar the Clown, he ramps up this black exploration, creating a hero who stabs a "blasphemous" novelist in the neck and then heads to a jihadi training camp high in the Afghan hills.

For a time, Rushdie was optimistic about what would emerge from this great churn of people across the globe. He became the poet laureate of mongrelisation, a writer who rejoiced that "everywhere was now part of everywhere else. Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another's, were no longer our own, individual, discrete."

In 1985, he wrote - with soaring hope - that "the effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically new types of human being: people who root themselves in ideas rather than places... people who have been obliged to define themselves - because they are so defined by others - by their otherness." But the gloriously disembodied, pan-national ideology that emerged from this swirl turned out to be his nemesis: Islamism. It is one of the many ironies in Rushdie's irony-strewn life. He sees now that as well as softening and secularising Islam for some, this uprooting has hardened Islam into a sharpened spike for more.

The mass uprooting he celebrated helped to create the Islamist pining for a fictitious lost purity that is trying to kill him, a desperate quest to recreate the Mecca of Mohammed in the world's cold concrete jungles: "I have spent a lot of my life looking positively at the consequences of migration. Now I'm being forced to see that there's a nightmare as well as a dream."

Rushdie sees his career as falling into three acts. In the first, he wrote about his lost homelands - India and Pakistan. Then he wrote about the transition from that world to Britain, the journey across water to the West. "And now I think that the third act is to say, 'All right, all that happened,'" he explains. "The world has become this mixed up place, the age of mass migration has taken place and we live in its aftermath - now what?"

He fears that many people are wilfully misunderstanding the new Islamist virus that has spread through this new world. "People have been so knocked off balance by what's going on that their normally well-functioning moral sense seems to have lost its footing." After 18 years in the Islamist cross-hairs, Rushdie wants - needs - people to understand that this new Islamic fundamentalism is not simply the lump sum of all the bad things the West has done to Muslims, reflected back at us.

At the time of the fatwa, Rushdie was widely known as a fierce and fearsome critic of US foreign policy, a man who condemned Israel's "monstrous" occupation of Palestinian lands, a man who damned Margaret Thatcher as " Mrs Torture" and warned that "British society has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism". He risked his life traipsing through the jungles of Nicaragua to expose Ronald Reagan's illegal funding of a horde of neo-fascist guerrillas trying to topple the country's elected government.

It made no difference. He had questioned the Official Story of Islam, trying to open it up to the mixed, metaphorical dream-worlds of the modern metropolis - and for that, he had to be butchered. "It's one thing to criticise the way in which the American government is behaving, or the British government, and I have a lot of criticisms of that - in fact, nothing but criticisms," he says now. "But it's another thing to fail to see that an enemy actually exists and is extremely serious about what he wishes to do.

"If tomorrow the Israel/Palestine issue was resolved to the total happiness of all parties, it would not diminish the amount of terrorism coming out of al-Qa'ida by one jot. It's not what they're after," he adds, his foot tapping against mine as he leans forward. "Yes, it's a recruiting tool, rhetorically. Many people see there's an injustice there, and it helps them to get people into the gang, but it's not what they want. What they want is to change the nature of human life on earth into the image of the Taliban. If you want the whole earth to look like Taliban Afghanistan, then you're on the same side as them. If you don't want that, you're not. They do not represent the quest for human justice. That, I think, is one of the great mistakes of the left."

Within this Talibanist morality, there is room for great slabs of delusion and hypocrisy. In Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie shows sparingly how the jihadi fighters of Afghanistan have sex with adolescent boys, and the next day chop to pieces men they have dubbed "homosexual". "One of the great untold stories of al-Qa'ida is that they are all these men who fuck little boys. They all have these disciples who they're ostensibly training in the way of the warrior, but they're also enjoying. For a while, then they go off - and they have their wives and families at home. It's like Classical Greece." Does he think Osama bin Laden has done it? "I wouldn't like to say," he says tactfully. "He's an Arab, he's not an Afghan. But Mullah Omar, he's another story..."

He senses soft racism in the refusal to see Islamic fundamentalists for what they are. When looking at the Christian fundamentalists of the United States, most people see an autonomous movement of superstitious madmen. But when they look at their Islamic equivalents, they assume they cannot mean what they say. "One of the things that's commonly said by Islamists is that it's acceptable to bomb a disco, because a disco is a place where people are behaving in a disgusting way. Go away and die - that's all bin Laden wants you to do. It's not just about Iraq, it's about ham sandwiches and kissing in public places and sex with girls you're not married to." He pauses. "It's about life."

It horrifies Rushdie that so many people in his natural political home - the left - don't get it. They seem to imagine that when people call for a novelist to be beheaded for blasphemy, they are really calling for a return to the 1967 borders, or an independent Kashmir, or an end to the occupation of Iraq. As he says this, I blurt out a repellent question: was there a small part of him on September 11 that felt almost relieved - that thought: "Now they'll understand"? He pauses, a long pause, the only one in this interview. Have I offended him? But he answers with the same contemplative calm as before. "It wasn't, actually. What an awful thing to think. But... but I remember after 9/11 that a lot of people did finally get it, and I remember thinking - it's a shame that 3,000 people had to die for something pretty obvious to get through people's heads."

III: The quiet American, and the art of slitting our own throats

Rushdie has looked down the barrel of Islamism, smelt its cordite, and survived. So he is perpetually being asked - how do we lift the collective fatwa on our transport systems, our nightclubs, our cities? How do we scrape meaning from his misery? "When people ask me how the West should adapt to Muslim sensitivities, I always say - the question is the wrong way round. The West should go on being itself. There is nothing wrong with the things that for hundreds of years have been acceptable - satire, irreverence, ridicule, even quite rude commentary - why the hell not?

"But you see it every day, this surrender," he says. He runs through a list of the theatres and galleries that have censored themselves in the face of religious fundamentalist protests. He mentions that the entire British media - from the BBC down - placed itself in purdah during the Mohammed cartoons episode. "What I fear most is that, when we look back in 25 years' time at this moment, what we will have seen is the surrender of the West, without a shot being fired. They'll say that in the name of tolerance and acceptance, we tied our own hands and slit our own throats. One of the things that have made me live my entire life in these countries is because I love the way people live here."

Rushdie sees surrender stamped on every one of the "faith schools" being constructed by Tony Blair. "To say the solution to the problems religion has caused is more religion... it's just crazy," he says. It will only reinforce the sealing off of Muslims from the world that is symbolised by the veil, which he sees as a hideous anti-feminist shroud, "a one-woman tent".

And he has another blast at Blair: looking to the United States as our anti-Islamist saviour is, he explains, a "terrible mistake. America, like all superpowers, uses only the criterion of self-interest. That's the way in which a superpower operates, whether it's the Soviet Union or the United States. The criterion is what serves the interests of the power. When that coincides with what we call liberal democratic values then, yeah, it will be on that side. But superpowers of every stripe have a history of installing puppets which will serve their interests. Whether it's in Nicaragua, or the Shah of Iran. You can't look to a superpower as a moral arbiter, because its job is not morality. Its job is the preservation of its sphere of influence."

I ask what he thinks about Christopher Hitchens' belief that the US has become a Jeffersonian superpower, bent on spreading democracy across the globe. "It's not true. It's just not true," he says. "You know, I met [Paul] Wolfowitz at Christopher's house on one occasion. And Wolfowitz turned out to be a really nice man - very charming, extremely intelligent, quite self-critical. Many things that you might not have expected him to be. But false idealism, as we know from Graham Greene, can be fantastically self-destructive." So Wolfowitz, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, is Alden Pyle, the Quiet American, wreaking havoc in the name of righteousness? "Yes. I do think that someone in the name of virtue can do terrible damage, for entirely virtuous reasons. But I've never seen great power as having a moral dimension." Just after we meet, it is estimated by The Lancet that 650,000 Iraqis have been killed due to Quiet Americans (and Brits).

And the curse of amoral nuclear might applies to another country Rushdie knows well - Pakistan. He says the situation there is "scary, extremely scary" - much more so than the Iranian near-bomb that rivets our headlines. His old country is, he says, "one assassination away from having Islamic fanatics in charge of a functioning nuclear weapon, which they may not mind using". Rushdie feels sick to be "put into the position of hoping that Pervez Musharraf [the country's dictator] has a long and healthy life just because - what is the old rhyme? Keep a hold of nurse so you don't get something worse? Because behind Musharraf there is the possibility of something much worse. He's an arsehole, a dictator, no better than Zia, but in the ISI [the Pakistani security services] there are people much worse, who want a very radical Islamist state."

And there is a serious, searing danger they will wage war with India to reclaim - our conversation has come full circle - Kashmir. It seems a cruelly bleak irony to end on: the possibility of his grandfather's beloved symbol of peace, love and understanding, morphing in one lifetime into the likeliest cause of nuclear war anywhere on earth. It's our final note: his symbol of pluralism and tolerance, reduced to the brink of becoming a smoking radioactive husk.

As we walk out on to the street, exchanging jangling pleasantries after a gruelling conversation, it seems odd - disturbing - to see him walking into a car alone. As he drives away, I think of an old quote Rushdie is fond of. In Saul Bellow's novel The Dean's December, the central character hears a dog barking wildly somewhere. He imagines the barking is the dog's protest against the jarring limitations of dog experience. "For God's sake," the dog is saying, "open the universe a little more!"

That, too, is Rushdie's message in this fight between the democratic-Muslim ideals of his grandfather and the psychotic-Muslim delusions of his assassins. It is a fight between people who want to open the universe a little more, and those who want to shrivel the universe into the stultified vision of one book and one man who lived in a desert more than a millennium ago.

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