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Read more Rushdie to fight back

Torsten Landsberg
August 17, 2022

With hate crimes like the attack on Salman Rushdie, those who target free speech want to intimidate and silence critics. But they seem to be achieving the exact opposite.

A portrait of writer Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie in Toronto, Canada in 2012Image: Chris Young/empics/picture alliance

Acts of terror and hate crimes, like the attack on the British-Indian author Salman Rushdie, aim to intimidate people and silence criticism. They try to show the world that those expressing themselves freely could even be murdered and lead to authors and cultural figures censoring themselves to avoid potential harm.

In May, on the occasion of Freedom of Expression Week, Rushdie said, "Freedom of expression is that freedom upon which all other freedoms depend."

Fortunately, defiance takes over after the initial shock and bewilderment at such crimes. This was the case after the attack on the editorial office of the French satirical newspaper "Charlie Hebdo" in 2015, for example.

Who was 'Charlie'?

Fighting back by reading Rushdie

Critics cannot undo the publication of Rushdie's controversial book "The Satanic Verses," first published in 1988, by trying to kill the author — a fact which highlights the insanity of the crime. 

On the contrary, the stabbing garnered fresh attention for the book more than three decades after its publication. Following the assassination attempt, "The Satanic Verses" topped the sales ranks at online retailer Amazon.

"The best way to fight back is to read Rushdie and expose the writer behind the political figure," says Cornelia Zetzsche, vice president of PEN Center Germany, in an interview with DW. 

"The Satanic Verses" is about two Indian actors who survive a plane crash. One becomes an archangel, the other resembles the devil. The novel's title refers to two verses allegedly whispered to the Prophet Mohammed by Satan. Rushdie's allusions are hard to understand without knowledge of Quranic history.

In February 1989, six months after the book's publication, the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, calling on all Muslims to kill the British-Indian writer for alleged blasphemy.

A portrait of Cornelia Zetzsche, vice president of PEN Center Germany
Cornelia Zetzsche, vice president of PEN Center GermanyImage: PEN-Zentrum Deutschland

Translator murdered

A bounty was placed on Rushdie's head, which over the years has grown to around 4 million dollars through state-affiliated foundations, private donors and state media.

Translators of the book have also been targeted in the past. The Japanese translator, Islamic scholar Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered by an unknown perpetrator in 1991. The name of the person who translated the German version remains under lock and key. Rushdie lived for years under personal protection in unknown places. 

"The fatwa divided his life into a before and an after, as the assassination attempt will probably do," says Cornelia Zetzsche. No one had expected Rushdie to become the victim of such an act after so many years, she says. "He lived comparatively freely and openly for 20 years. It's hard to imagine that he will be able to return to that openness again."

Rushdie's son Zafar also described his father's injuries as "life-changing" on Twitter a few days ago, but also wrote: "His usual feisty and defiant sense of humor remains intact." 

Zetzsche has known Rushdie for more than 30 years. "Salman Rushdie is one of the most powerful writers in terms of language; I appreciate his nonchalance, humor and self-deprecation immensely," she told DW.

Writers Günter Wallraff, Salman Rushdie and Aziz Nesin sitting on a boat on the Rhein in Cologne, Germany
In 1993 Günter Wallraff (center) invited Salman Rushdie (right) and the Turkish writer Aziz Nesin to Cologne.Image: Günther Zint/Panfoto/picture-alliance/dpa

'He always appeared unconcerned'

Journalist and author Günter Wallraff has also known Rushdie for decades — he hosted the writer at his home in Cologne in 1993. He last met the author in Denmark a few years ago.

"He always appeared unconcerned, but his environment made a point of protecting him well," Wallraff told DW. 

For several years, Rushdie has lived in New York, where he largely moved freely and, by his own admission, felt safe.

Wallraff didn't expect someone to try and assassinate Rushdie after so many years. "That the assassin pleads not guilty is significant," Wallraff said. As somebody executing what he thinks is the will of God, the perpetrator feels he is in the right. In the worldwide reactions to the attack, Wallraff recognizes "that there is a broad democratic counterpublic that stands up for freedom and is rather strengthened by this act."

Nobel Prize as an overdue message?

The messages of solidarity should not be underestimated anyway, believes Cornelia Zetzsche: "What helps persecuted authors psychologically is the knowledge that they are not forgotten."

PEN Germany just announced that it will make Rushdie an honorary member, and the international writers' association is also planning digital and worldwide readings of the "The Satanic Verses" — as it did in 1989, after the fatwa came into force.

"The Nobel Prize for Literature for Rushdie is overdue," says Günter Wallraff. Actually, Rushdie should have received it when Khomeini ordered his death, he says, but many institutions, including the Swedish Academy, hesitated for reasons of political consideration and economic interests regarding Iran.

Now is the time to send a message with the award, stresses Wallraff, who adds directly to his suggestions for the Nobel Peace Prize: "Julian Assange and Alexei Navalny!"

This article was originally written in German.