Memoir reveals the secrets of Rushdie fatwa

Rushdie is still widely hated: when he was knighted in 2007, this Islamabad protest called for his death © Getty Images

In 1989, a Muslim leader condemned writer Salman Rushdie to death for his ‘blasphemous’ novel ‘The Satanic Verses’. Now, Rushdie’s new memoir makes the case for freedom of speech.

The story begins in 1989, on Valentine’s Day, with a novelist being bundled into a car. The leader of a distant theocratic state, he is told, has called for his death; now, he has no choice but to go into hiding.

It might sound like the plot of novel, but Salman Rushdie’s new book Joseph Anton is far from fiction. It recounts the decade Rushdie spent in hiding, after his novel The Satanic Verses was condemned by Muslims all over the world.

The saga was a fierce confrontation between liberal values and conservative religion. The Satanic Verses includes controversial depictions of the history of Islam, which many Muslims deemed blasphemous. When it was published, thousands took to the streets in violent protest; in the West, several bookshops were bombed.

Then things got really serious. On February 14th 1989, the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a religious edict called a fatwa that demanded Rushdie’s death. He called on ‘valiant Muslims’ to kill him 'so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs’ of Islam again.

Rushdie's life changed overnight. For the next nine years, he was shuttled between secret locations, under constant armed guard. The threat was serious: the book’s Japanese translator was murdered, and a fire targeting its Turkish translator killed 37 people.

And despite being in hiding, Rushdie became the centre of vicious battle. On one side, defenders of freedom of speech argued he had a right to say whatever he wished. On the other extreme were those who thought insulting Islam was a freedom no-one should be allowed.

Today, as Rushdie promotes his new memoir, the issues behind his story are as pertinent as ever. A ‘blasphemous’ film, Innocence of Muslims, has sparked riots across the Islamic world and its director, like Rushdie, is a marked man: one Pakistani politician has offered a $100,000 reward for his murder.

It is not just Muslims that think the creators of such inflammatory material have a lot to answer for. Hillary Clinton called Innocence of Muslims ‘disgusting and reprehensible’, and many writers also criticised Rushdie for courting trouble with unnecessarily offensive literature.

License or Liberty?

Advocates for freedom of speech are horrified by this attitude. Being able to say what we like, they argue, is fundamental in a free society. Writers and thinkers must not let the threat of a violent, unjustified response censor debate.

Others are not so sure. Freedom, they say, comes with responsibility. If we can say what we like, we must also respect other people’s sensitivities: free speech must come with restrictions.

You Decide

  1. Was Salman Rushdie right to include passages he knew might be perceived as ‘blasphemous’?
  2. Should there be limits to free speech?


  1. During his time in hiding, Salman Rushdie experienced some profound periods of depression. Imagine you are Rushdie and have been living under armed guard in a secret location for several years. Write a diary entry describing your feelings.
  2. ‘License they mean when they cry liberty’: this is a line from ‘I did but prompt’, a poem by John Milton. In groups, discuss what you think the line might mean, and what relevance you think it might have to freedom of speech.

Some People Say...

“People should be able to say whatever they want, whenever they want.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not planning on insulting anybody.
Even so, the inflammatoryInnocence of Muslims was made by a completely unknown filmmaker, and was barely watched by anyone in the Western world. Nevertheless, thousands of people thought it was the product of America as a whole – and took their anger out on people who had nothing to do with the film.
Will films like that be allowed now?
The saga raises some difficult questions about how online sources censor material. Since the riots began, Google has removed the film from YouTube in several countries.
Seems sensible.
Perhaps. But what if a film caused riots, while also making also made important points, or revealing crucial information? Some worry that Google’s decision raises a dangerous precedent.

Word Watch

A theocracy is a type of government in which leaders base their power on divine guidance. In a theocracy, laws and policy are based on religion, and usually on what is thought to be specific divine direction. Modern theocracies include Iran, an Islamic country and, until recently, Tibet in exile, which was ruled by the Dalai Lama.
Joseph Anton
This is the name Rushdie assumed while he was in hiding. The author devised the title from a combination of two of his favourite writers – Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.
Controversial depictions of the history of Islam
Many argue that the accusations against The Satanic Verses were overblown – a fact backed up by the revelation that many of its fiercest critics had not actually read the book. One of the most important criticisms of the book surrounded its depiction of Islam’s Prophet, Muhammad. Rushdie also names questionable characters after important figures in Islam – including a group of prostitutes after Muhammad’s wives, and a faded film star after the Angel Gabriel.
A fatwa is a religious ruling formulated by a respected Islamic scholar. Fatwas can relate to many different areas of life and religion; they do not solely refer to a death sentence on a particular person, and it is relatively rare for them to be used in this way.

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