Keep on Reading Rushdie in the Free World!

It’s interesting to think that just a little more than 20 years ago, Salman Rushdie had the Fatwa declared against him and a noteworthy smidgen of the world’s population wanted him dead.  If you don’t remember the story, essentially, what happened was Rushdie published his 3rd novel The Satanic Verses around 1988 which called under scrutiny the holy book of the Quran, and seemingly overnight swaths of people wanted him dead after one of the ayatollahs issued the Fatwa, a sort of license to kill, against Rushdie.  People marched in the streets holding signs saying ‘kill Rushdie’ or some such invective, and book sellers were harassed and in one extreme case even murdered for having The Satanic Verses on their shelves.  Now, he’s on Twitter.

I have read The Satanic Verses.  One of the ironies of the whole sordid affair was that most of the people who rallied against Rushdie didn’t bother reading it or giving the book even a cursory glance.  Knowing the book’s notoriety, I went into it thinking it’d be this brash, outspoken, revolutionary book, but instead it was simply a fun, Joycean book, full of wordplay and many funny episodes.  Coincidentally, I don’t think The Satanic Verses is even Rushdie’s best book.  I don’t cherish it the way I do with Midnight’s Children.  Still, it struck me as mostly harmless.

Interestingly, American authors have written books similar to The Satanic Verses and never had to face the mob as Rushdie had.  For instance, when I read The Satanic Verses, I was constantly reminded of how similar it was to Thomas Pynchon’s V, in style, structure, and themes.  V though only aroused the consternation of conservative book critics.  For another example, I’ve read Joseph Heller’s book God Knows, which deals with a comical rewrite of the story of King David.  Joseph Heller was an avowed atheist, and yet no one protested or burned God Knows.  In fact, I’ve heard that many Christians enjoyed his book.  God Knows was just as irreverent as The Satanic Verses, but inspired praise instead of paroxysms of rage.

Salman Rushdie makes a similar point in a segment on Bill Moyers: Faith & Reason (now available streaming on Netflix).  He said that some people have said to him “what you did was the equivalent of someone making fun of the pope,” to which Rushdie’s answer was “people do make fun of the pope.”  Which is quite true.  Pope parodies happen everywhere from South Park to Family Guy to Sinead O’Connor performances (her infamous SNL performance).  In the West, most of us are reflexive about our religious beliefs.  Rushdie calls for a similar attitude in the East.

So, to reinstate my point, he’s now on Twitter.  Sure, the social networking site might be one of the most banal things on planet Earth, but him being on it makes it a symbol of a win for free speech.  Unlike Facebook, Twitter doesn’t have an immediate filter process.  You don’t have to send friend requests (except in rare cases when the person’s snooty).  It allows people to connect with just about anyone, even if it’s only in the form of 140 characters at a time.

Salman Rushdie being on there runs the risk of old animosities finding a new outlet.  From what I understand, many people still do want the clever writer dead.  I don’t know why.  His most recent book was a young adult adventure that was less edgy than Harry Potter.  Me, I just want Rushdie writing–books, tweets, anything.

Salman Rushdie can be found on Twitter @salmanrushdie1.  He’s already having conversations with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman.

If you’re inclined, you can follow me on Twitter.  I mostly use the technology for an excuse to write puns and retweet words by artists I’m interested in.

I’ve reviewed Rushdie’s book Luka and the Fire of Life.

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