There could not have been a more striking week for Salman Rushdie to discuss how his life changed after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa on him for writing The Satanic Verses than this one. His piece in The New Yorker is written in the third person, which makes sense as a way of examining events that must have been so disassociating that I can imagine it seemed impossible to Rushdie that they were happening to him. And it is a powerful articulation not just of how profound and real the threats can be against people who articulate ideas that fundamentalists find—or pronounce, anyway—abhorrent, but of how these kinds of disasters come to pass, and the dreadful alchemy ideas are subject to when they do.
“Where Americans prize individual choice, Egyptians put a greater emphasis on the rights of communities, families and religious groups,” David Kirkpatrick, Helene Cooper, and Mark Landler wrote in the New York Times today, explaining President Obama’s calls to Egypt in an effort to control the spreading protests at American embassies. And Rushdie writes about attempting to navigate some of those values in his own life as he tried to evade the fatwa: “Yes, we should be conscious of the sensibilities of others, but that did not mean we should surrender to them,” Rushdie writes as the thing he wanted to say when he issued his public statement, on the advice of the British government, after he went into hiding. But this is the crux of the problem that the Times reporters articulated. How do we forge an agreement when one party to a negotiation is demanding the right never to be offended and the other is demanding the right to speak and to be read seriously and thoughtfully?
“The British edition of ‘The Satanic Verses’ came out on Monday, September 26, 1988, and, for a brief moment that fall, the publication was a literary event, discussed in the language of books,” Rushdie reminisces. “Soon enough, the language of literature would be drowned in the cacophony of other discourses—political, religious, sociological, postcolonial—and the subject of quality, of artistic intent, would come to seem almost frivolous.” As much as the right to write and to speak, Rushdie’s Personal History here is about the need for both sides in these conversations to be equally engaged. Just as it’s tragic that the people who pronounced a fatwa against Rushdie failed to read his respect for Muhammad’s repudiation of the Satanic Verses, or to recognize that the insults against Muslims in the novel are spoken by villains rather than heroes, it’s infuriating that the people protesting against Innocence of Muslims, the crude trailer for an unfinished film, produced in a way that deceived even the people who were acting in it, are refusing to consider the film’s utter irrelevance in measuring their anger. If only the people who riot against books and movies, who bomb libraries and attack diplomats, would read them and watch them.
Salman Rushdie and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the force behind Innocence of Muslims, are very different men. The former is an artist, the later a check-kiter, a meth cook, a fraud. And the thing that divides them most is their intentions. “It did not strike his opponents as strange that a serious writer should spend a tenth of his life creating something as crude as an insult,” Rushdie writes of the frustration of watching the reality of his novel sink under the waters of public conversation. “This was because they refused to see him as a serious writer. In order to attack him and his work, they had to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist who ‘attacked Islam” for his own personal gain’…He did it for money. He did it for fame. The Jews made him do it. Nobody would have bought his unreadable book if he hadn’t vilified Islam. That was the nature of the attack, and so for many years ‘The Satanic Verses’ was denied the ordinary life of a novel. It became something smaller and uglier: an insult. And he became the Insulter, not only in Muslim eyes but in the opinion of the public at large.”
Nakoula is, to a certain extent, the thing that Rushdie was accused of being. He described his film as explicitly political—its intent was to provoke, though I doubt whether it will be judged to have met the threshold for inciting violence. A Coptic Christian, he initially presented himself as Israeli and the film as financed by Israeli backers, perpetrating the kind of lie of a Jewish conspiracy to insult Islam Rushdie was accused of being part of. And while, as Rushdie says of his novel in the wake of the fatawa, “the subject of quality, of artistic intent, would come to seem almost frivolous,” it remains relevant here, if only because it is emotionally easier to defend a man like Rushdie than it is to defend a man like Nakoula. The truth, though, is that we must accept the possibility of Nakoulas if we are to have our Rushdies. The challenge, as it was in 1989, is whether it’s ever possible to explain to people who accept the existence of neither why we value the latter enough to tolerate the former.