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LiteratureGlobal issues

Salman Rushdie releases new novel, 6 months after stabbing

Silke Wünsch
February 7, 2023

More than 30 years after a fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie, the author was brutally attacked in the US. But he completed his much-anticipated new novel, "Victory City," which is out now.

Salman Rushdie holding a microphone.
Salman Rushdie at an event in Vienna, in 2019Image: Herbert Neubauer/AFP via Getty Images

Bradford, in northern Great Britain, on January 14, 1989. It is a quiet Saturday morning. Suddenly, the city awakens: Hundreds of angry people run through the streets and gather in front of the city hall. They are protesting against a book and ultimately burn copies of it.

It is "The Satanic Verses" by the Indian-British author Salman Rushdie. There are outraged speeches denouncing the novel as blasphemy and calling it an intolerable insult to Islam.

Global indignation and even a death sentence

But as the ashes and charred shreds of the banned book pages waft across the square, even the most militant leaders of the protest have no idea of the worldwide fire they have just ignited: There are book burnings in numerous countries, attacks on bookstores, deaths at demonstrations, bomb threats against Rushdie's publishing house as well as against the airline British Airways, and stones thrown at British embassy buildings.

Around the globe, police, parliaments and governments are in an uproar.

Finally, on February 14, 1989, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issues a fatwa — a religious decree — ordering Muslims to murder the writer Salman Rushdie, as well as those involved in his book's publication, for alleged blasphemy.

Black and white image of Ayatollah Khomeini sitting in front of a microphone and surrounded by his followers.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini surrounded by his followersImage: navideshahed

In "The Satanic Verses," Rushdie had fictionalized parts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, which enraged many Muslims.

Even before the fatwa, the book was banned in multiple countries, including India, Bangladesh and Sudan.

'The Satanic Verses' intended as a satire

Salman Rushdie was born on June 19, 1947, in Bombay, India, now Mumbai. He grew up in India and England, and was raised as a Muslim. He renounced his faith as a young adult. In his adopted country of England, he published several half-realistic, half-fantasy novels, garnering initial success.

Black and white photo of Salman Rushdie in 1986, gesturing with his hands.
Salman Rushdie in 1986Image: Reg. Innell/ZUMA Press/IMAGO Images

The "Satanic Verses" was published in 1988. The satirical fairy tale deals with good and evil, dream and reality, as well as home, migration and identity — themes that accompany Rushdie as a migrant in Europe.

Devils and prostitutes

What outrages the Islamic world are the allegories Rushdie uses in his book, for example, the Prophet Muhammad is given the archaic, insulting nickname Mahound — demon or false idol — on whose birthday the crisis of his life begins: "There is a voice whispering in his ear: What kind of idea are you? Man or mouse?"

Moreover, in the book, 12 prostitutes serve as the wives of the Prophet. Ultimately, verses inspired by Satan undermine the divine revelation of the Koran.

The novel's approach proves intolerable for many in the Muslim world. Shortly after the book's publication, protests erupt around the world, culminating in the fatwa. Furthermore, a bounty worth millions is placed on Rushdie's head.

Protests against Rushdie in Pakistan, with men holding a banner and walking through the street.
Protests against Rushdie in PakistanImage: Mk Chaudhry/epa/dpa/picture alliance

A high price to pay for global fame

Rushdie is forced into hiding, aided by the British police, and changing his hideaway every few days until a top-security safehouse is created for him. Meanwhile, he tries to lead as normal a life as possible and continues writing.

Following the fatwa, in February 1989, the then 41-year-old Indian-born British writer attempts to smooth the waters by offering an apology.

''As author of 'The Satanic Verses,' I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel,'' Rushdie said in a brief statement. ''I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam.''

''Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others,'' he said further.

Life hidden away

Rushdie stays underground for many years. The fatwa is not revoked. From his hiding places, Rushdie repeatedly speaks out, and in the 2000s he is also chairman of the US branch of the international writers' association PEN.

In 2007, Queen Elizabeth II knights him, which again leads to worldwide protests in the Muslim world.

Several novels by Rushdie are published, and the author is repeatedly awarded prestigious literary prizes. His best book is considered to be his autobiography "Joseph Anton: A Memoir," in which he discusses his years in the underground.

Eventually, he moves to the United States. Although the fatwa has still not been withdrawn, he now moves more freely, refusing personal protection. He attends events and makes public appearances.

An attack on Rushdie's life

But in August 2022, it becomes apparent that years-long hatred by Islamist extremists has apparently not abated.

Salman Rushdie lying on the ground, with people surrounding and helping him after the attack in August 2022.
An injured Rushdie is attended to after the attack in August 2022Image: Joshua Goodman/AP/picture alliance

A then 24-year-old man stabs Rushdie multiple times with a knife on stage at a literary event in western New York, seriously injuring him during the author's lecture about the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers.

The writer, who had turned 75 two months previously, still struggles with the consequences of the stabbing today: He is blind in one eye and can no longer move one hand.

Nevertheless, his new book "Victory City" is now out in English. Rushdie tells the story of the Indian orphan girl Pampa Kampana, who is gifted with supernatural powers by a goddess and founds the city of Bisnaga.

It is a fictional retelling of the fallen Indian empire of Vijayanagar, which was founded in the 14th century and covered much of the region of southern India.

Rushdie will not be embarking on a book tour or attend promotional events. He does, however, frequently post on Twitter, currently using it to display reviews of his new book.

This article was adapted from German.