If The Satanic Verses
did not trigger the largest public response of any novel ever published, it must have come extremely close. The storm of opinion that erupted following the book's release left no corner of the educated free world untouched, and even some realms beyond that. As one critic put it in the opening lines of their review of the novel, "What more can one say than has been said? Never in recent memory ? perhaps never, period! ? has there been so much discussion, so much controversy, engendered by a work of fiction" (Hospital 662).
The discussion that follows is an attempt at a review of this voluminous response by the world to Rushdie's novel. Such a discussion necessarily will fail to be complete ? no one could hope to locate every article written about The Satanic Verses
. Surely dozens of books, several hundred articles and columns, and several thousand letters have been written in response to this work. And this limitation is compounded by the fact that much of the strongest reaction to the novel was not written, but was based on speeches, or more infamously, violent action.
The bulk of the response to the novel took place immediately after it was published, but it remains a topic of scholarly (and popular) discussion now (November 1999) over 10 years after publication ? see the below section Subsequent Reception for reception information for greater than 5 years post-publication.
It is somewhat unusual that only a fraction of the published response to the novel is actually a response to the text itself. A greater bulk of the public and scholarly reaction was concerned with what the novel meant to society ? indeed, many of its critics had never read it.
But the reception of the text itself, taken as a work of fiction, was overwhelmingly positive. And it is important to note that Rushdie's primary motivation in writing the novel was not one of religious criticism or political commentary, but of social satire. "I felt, first of all, that I wanted to write a novel about the act of migration and, secondly, a novel about the internal effect of migration. . . . I thought it was a novel of introspection and a novel which tried to make sense of the kind of life experience that people like me had had" (Kadzis).
Many reviewers expressed profound admiration at the complexity of The Satanic Verses
and its rich language. One reviewer called it "one of those go-for-broke ?metafictions' ? a grand narrative and a Monty Python sendup of history, religion, and popular culture" (Leonard 346). Another said the book "is full of extravagant language, rampant fantasies and kaleidoscopic plotting. . . .it's remarkably easy to follow and a constant delight to read. Rushdie is a master storyteller and a thoroughly refined stylist, and he draws us into the lives and longings of his characters as surely as Dickens" (Shapiro 73).
Perhaps his most serious reviewer, U.Va. English Professor Mark Edmundson, praised the book's complexity and hopefulness in declaring it an important postmodern work, saying that the novel is
"something more than a novelistic indictment; it also gestures hopefully toward the future. . . . Rushdie's power to be both a sophisticated debunker and a secular prophet of renewal. . . is the first major realization of this double design. . . . As bristlingly cruel as The Satanic Verses can sometimes be, overall it gestures forward to a world that will contain more possibilities, more variety, and perhaps, more hope. (Edmundson 62-70)
Also, it is interesting to note that many critics remarked (before the Muslim response to the book and its resulting popularity) that The Satanic Verses
was not Rushdie's best novel. "Salman Rushdie may never equal the brilliance of his second novel, Midnight's Children
, but in this, his fourth novel, he comes close" (Virginia Quarterly Review 91). Another critic noted "The Satanic Verses
doesn't have the pace and the excitement of Midnight's Children
, or the bitter concentration of Shame
. . . . This is Rushdie's most bewildered book, but it is also his most thoughtful" (Wood 29).
Other writers praised Rushdie's command of language and stylistic ability in storytelling: "he treats the language as though he owned it. . . one feels on every page how much he loves to read and write" (Leithauser 127). Some reviewers compared Rushdie to writers such as James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, and Gunter Grass.
However, the reaction that most people who lived through "The Rushdie Affair" will remember were not primarily concerned with the text or its stylistic or aesthetic qualities, but with its political implications. In one phase of the book, Rushdie uses names and allusions that implicate the Islamic faith, and he utilizes these characters in a manner that many viewed as irreverent. And it was this section of the book that sparked the violent opposition from Muslims and their defenders worldwide.
On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni of Iran announced on Iran radio: "I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses
book which is against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran, and all involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death." Khomeni added that anyone who died in an attempt to rid the world of Rushdie would "be regarded as a martyr and go directly to heaven" (MacDonogh 130). This death sentence was be backed by reward money from private and church sources in Iran, eventually reaching upwards of $5 million reward for the assassination of Rushdie.
Following Khomeni's decree, the Muslim world reacted passionately to Rushdie's novel. The book was banned in India, Sudan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, among other nations. Violence also resulted from the outrage at the novel: the book was burned worldwide; bomb threats were common in publishing offices and bookstores in Britain and the U.S.; the Italian translator of the novel was stabbed and seriously injured; the Japanese translator was killed; a Muslim leader in Belgium who had critized Iran's reaction (along with his deputy) were shot and killed; firebombs and pipebombs were detonated at bookstores in California; and riotous protests in Great Britain, Europe, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, among other nations, resulted in the injury and deaths of several hundred Muslim protestors.
Rushdie was forced to go into hiding shortly after the Ayatollah's imposition of the death threat. He and his wife, Marrianne Higgins (to whom The Satanic Verses
is dedicated) began to receive protection by Scotland Yard. They have not to this day (November 1999) relinquished that protection. For the 10 years since the fatwa
was imposed, Rushdie has continued to live in hiding, moving between British-controlled safe houses in the U.K., and he has continued to receive death threats. Khomeni died less than a year after his death sentence of Rushdie, but the fatwa
was reaffirmed by subsequent heads of state in Iran. In September 1998, almost ten years after it was proclaimed, the fatwa
was officially lifted by the state of Iran in the United Nations and the state-sanctioned reward nullified. But some fundamentalist Muslims have ignored this action, and have continued efforts to assassinate Rushdie ? they still offer a multimillion dollar bounty (Carlin interview).
Many observers have stated that the Muslim reaction to The Satanic Verses
was largely political, not religious. The book did contain material that was offensive to many Muslims, but many noted that other works that are potentially much more offensive and direct in their attack of Islam have not drawn nearly the same sort of response from the Muslim world. Instead, some have concluded that the Ayatollah "decided to whip up a new wave of fanaticism because he sensed that the fundamentalist tide has been ebbing in most of the Moslem world" (Carter 47).
As a result, the debate about The Satanic Verses
has become not one just about the novel, but about Islam and Christianity, British and Indian identity, and relations between the East and West. "Rushdie is not the target. Rushdie is trapped, rather, in a bitter fight between ?hard-liners' and ?pragmatists' over the future of Iran's relationship to the West" ("Two Cheers for Blasphemy" 8).
Rushdie himself said, "The point regarding the case of The Satanic Verses
is this: because of the attention paid to it, it has become the symbol and the archetype of all other cases of repression. Those medieval dogs of war, ?blasphemy' and ?heresy', have been let slip ? and we must not forget that throughout human history ?blasphemy' and ?heresy' have been used to shackle and muzzle the human spirit, the free voice" (quoted in MacDonogh 122).
Muslims were furious at what they viewed as an intentional blaspheming of their religion, the prophet Mohammed, and sacred text the Koran: "his transgression is that he has surrounded the Prophet and the revelations with pornography. There is no legitimate reason for this" (Ahsan 108). And "We Muslims are a tolerant people but we cannot bear insult. . . . What he has written is far worse to Muslims than if he had raped one's own daughter" (Ruthven 29).
Some charged Rushdie with being entirely commercially-minded and intentionally blaspheming the Muslim faith to make money: said one, Rushdie is "a self-hating Indo-Anglian, totally alienated from his culture, who has also learnt that it is possible to make money by selling self-hate" (Ahsan 143).
Muslims were not the only ones who condemned Rushdie's work. Noted American conservative Pat Buchanan commented, "he is a literary vandal who engages in the fictional equivalent of defiling churches and desecrating synagogues" (quoted in Edwords 29-30). Former President Jimmy Carter said, "Western leaders should make it clear that in protecting Rushdie's life and civil rights, there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Muslim friends" (quoted in Ahsan 90). Fellow author John LeCarre criticized Rushdie: "Nobody has a God-given right to insult a great religion and be published with impunity" (quoted in "Not a God-Given Right" 74).
In response to Rushdie's attackers, members of the literary community around the world embraced Rushdie's cause as one of the cause of free speech itself. Press organizations, groups of individual authors, governments, and members of the publishing industry around the world wrote expressing their commitment to Rushdie's defense and the defense of freedom of expression. The most significant of letters to Rushdie himself were published in 1992 as an effort of the group Article 19: The Rushdie Letters: Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Write
(see MacDonogh). Article 19 was a London-based group dedicated to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads, "Everyone has the right of freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
As a result of the intensely polarized global reaction to the novel, the book became a huge commercial success. The hardback edition sold over a million copies in all, which normally would have been more than enough to justify the release of a paperback edition. However, there was intense opposition to a paperback, largely because of threats of violence to booksellers who agreed to carry the book. The original publisher, Viking/Penguin first delayed the paperback publication, and then effectively altogether cancelled it. But a group of anonymous members of the publication industry incorporated The Consortium for the sole purpose of publishing a paperback copy of The Satanic Verses.
This paperback was published by this group in 1992.
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