“A bullet that doesn’t stop until it hits its target”

For most of his entire writing career spanning five decades, Sir Salman Rushdie has always been the subject of death threats. He is one of the most popular and successful British authors, but his work also caused quite a bit of controversy, which almost cost him his life.

On Friday, August 12, the writer was seriously injured after being stabbed on stage at an event in New York state.

His condition remains critical at the moment, but “his usual fighting and defiant sense of humor remains intact,” according to his son Zafar Rushdie. According to him, his father suffered life-changing injuries, but at least he can now talk to his family.

Charged with the attack is 24-year-old Hadi Matar, who stabbed Rushdie at least 10 times in the face, neck and abdomen. Matar has pleaded “not guilty” to attempted murder and assault charges brought against him in what prosecutors described as a “premeditated” crime.

But what could generate such hatred in such a young person?

Matar grew up in California, but his parents were immigrants from southern Lebanon. The initial investigation showed that in recent years the young man had become a deeply religious supporter of the Shiite extreme fundamentalist group Hezbollah and its affiliated Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, two entities that have long targeted Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie himself was born in India in the family of a successful businessman of Muslim origin. At the age of 16, the future writer went to Great Britain, where he received a prestigious education at the famous high school in the city of Rugby, and then graduated from Cambridge University.

In the 1970s he settled in London, where he worked as a copywriter, and his first novel Grimus was published in 1975. This was followed by the contemporary Indian story Midnight’s Children in 1981, which brought Rushdie numerous awards and international acclaim.

Shame (1983), based on the politics of Pakistan, also became popular, but his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, met with a completely different reception – provoking both recognition and immense hatred.

The story is in the style of magical realism and examines the contemporary problems of immigrants and immigration, the impossibility of assimilation and integration into a new culture, as well as the inevitability of returning to the roots. This happens through a narrative filled with mysticism, fantastical experiences and, above all, a religious view of the past and the present.

The title of the book derives from a legend about the Prophet Muhammad, described in his early biographies, according to which in several verses of the Koran he praises old pagan gods of Mecca. The verses were subsequently withdrawn from the book on the grounds that the devil had tricked him into uttering them.

There is considerable controversy in Islamic culture about this moment in Muhammad’s life, and there is no proof of the veracity of what happened.

Still, the legend serves as a major part of an important subplot in the novel, which involves a character based on Muhammad (called the Ambassador or Mahund in the book). In one of the episodes, Mahund, under pressure from the leaders of Mecca (in the book the city is called Jahiliyyah), agrees to recognize that several pagan goddesses have a special status in the eyes of Allah.

There is also a play on words by the author here, in which for the name of Mecca he uses the name Jahiliyyah, known in Muslim culture as the age of ignorance before the arrival of the Prophet, when people believed in pagan gods and cults.

Other names used are also admired by Muslims – Mahund is believed to have been an insulting name used by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages for the Prophet Muhammad. The name of the archangel Jibril (Gabriel) is used for an Indian film star, and the name of one of Muhammad’s wives – Aisha – means a fanatical Indian girl.

Moreover, the brothel of the city of Jahiliyyah is served by prostitutes with the same names as the rest of the Prophet’s wives.

At another plot point, a contemporary fanatical religious leader living in exile appears, in whom one can easily recognize the image of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the Shia cleric, ideologue behind the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the supreme leader of the country thereafter.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Photo: Getty Images

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

It was he who was one of the first to react extremely harshly against Salman Rushdie when The Satanic Verses was published in 1988. Shortly thereafter, the supreme leader issued a religious order in which he announced a bounty on the writer’s head and called on Muslim believers to kill him along with his publishers who allowed the book to be published.

There is also discontent in many other parts of the world, with the book being banned in India, Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia and a number of other countries.

Violent protests also began. In Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai, 12 people died in clashes with the police, in Iran the British Embassy was attacked, and in the US the FBI reported nearly 80 threats and attacks on bookstores in just a few months by the end of 1989.

Within the next few years, Rushdie’s publishers and translators in Italy, Norway and Turkey became victims of attacks. They survive, but not Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi, who was stabbed to death in Tokyo in 1991.

Attention is also focused on Rushdie. A few months after the book was published, it became clear about a failed bombing against him – the Iranian Mustafa Mazeh accidentally detonated an explosive device in a hotel in London. Responsibility for the blast was claimed by a Lebanese terrorist organization, whose statement stated that Mazeh had been martyred while preparing an attack on “the apostate Rushdie”.

Protest against Salman Rushdie in Pakistan
Photo: Getty Images

Protest against Salman Rushdie in Pakistan

All threats and attacks take their toll on the writer. He and his family lived for years under the protection of Scotland Yard, although Rushdie apologized to the Muslim community.

“I realize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely disturbed by the publication of my novel. I deeply regret the suffering it has caused to sincere followers of Islam. As we live in a world of many religions, this experience has reminded us that we all must to be aware of others’ sensitivities,” Rushdie says.

It took a full decade before Iran’s new Ayatollah Ali Khamenei retracted his predecessor’s fatwa, adding, however, that it was like “a bullet that, once fired, does not stop until it hits its target.”

During all this time, Rushdie, although far from public life, continued his work and published a series of short stories, essays and novels on different subjects.

At the beginning of the new century, he moved to New York, where he gradually began to appear in public again, and in 2012 he published an autobiography, where he also wrote about “Satanic Verses”.

However, the danger to his life was always relevant.

His controversial novel became a cause of division both within the various Muslim communities around the world and between Muslims in the West and societies in the US and Europe. The book has undoubtedly had a huge cultural impact, raising many questions about cultural differences, religious extremism and freedom of speech.


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