IOn the 2017 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David pitches his idea for a new show on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show. It’s to be called Fatwa! Musical comedy – a Broadway rendition of the Salman Rushdie affair. This angers an ayatollah in Iran, who issues a fatwa on David’s life. All his supports disappear, he walks around in a disguise unable to live his life and hires an overly paranoid and aggressive bodyguard, who also has a very demanding taste in food and son count.
Fed up, David seeks and obtains an audience with Salman Rushdie. In a terrific stunt, the man receiving David is played by Rushdie himself. Rushdie sits David down, berates him for his fear, and tells him the biggest secret of being the subject of a fatwa – “fatwa sex”.
“There are a lot of women who are attracted to you in this state,” Rushdie explains. “The fatwa is wrapped around you, like some kind of sexy pixie dust,” he says, “but you have to stop acting like a wimp. Be a man, stop it, and the fatwa sex will follow. Producer The show’s executive said the pixie dust line was “100% Salman Rushdie”.
One surprisingly amusing thing about this performance, and there are many (the most striking of which is just how good an actor Rushdie is), is the way Rushdie intentionally muddles his status as a priestly symbol. A fatwa divides a person into a demon or an angel. In this, Rushdie is neither, refusing to play either of the roles assigned to him decades ago.
Because, in the 33 years since the fatwa was issued against Rushdie, he has been unwittingly portrayed as a divisive central figure in a series of ersatz cultural and geopolitical conflicts. Like leaders, crises are made, not born. And the timing of The Satanic Verses’ release unveiled many strands of a moving globe that wrapped around Rushdie.
At the time of the fatwa, Ayatollah Khomeini had notions of not just the ‘supreme leadership’ of Iran, but of all Muslims around the world, having stabilized his regime after the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis nine years earlier. . The fatwa, in fact, came six months after the book was published.
Before Iran, it was actually India that had first took action against Rushdie, banning the importation of the book in an ill-fated attempt by Rajiv Gandhi’s government to prevent its “misuse” by religious fanatics. Other governments had their own agendas. I remember the new Sudanese government banned the book to restore his image as an actor on the Arab scene, even though the country was impoverished and few had even heard of the book.
These cowardices and cynicisms then coalesced into an outline of Muslim identity, to which Muslim minorities in the west could cling. All of this was then pressed into the service of a political and cultural course of “clash of civilizations” which saw conflict between the “Muslim world”, whatever that meant at the time, and the West as inevitable.
And, for two decades, it seemed inevitable, with Western invasions and terrorist attacks defining the era. But the world began to change and interests evolved. Al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State lost momentum, then lost their raison d’être. And with the pullout from Afghanistan, the US and UK lost their appetite for expensive power projections when they had more pressing business to attend to at home.
Since 2016, Brexit and the resulting economic and cultural wars have become the new clash of values. The same year, the United States was embroiled in a similar discord. Identity politics became central to these new conflicts, and with them came vexatious questions about the parameters of free speech in societies with vulnerable minorities, the policing of white supremacy and of far-right violence, and what constitutes a proportional response to the offense.
Once again, Rushdie is seen as a totem in these standoffs. Someone who comes forward, even more so since his assault, as both an inspiration and a warning to all who take the right to free speech for granted. Today’s enemies are not Muslims or bearded clerics, but those portrayed as social justice warriors, whose overzealousness in protecting marginalized identities exercises what some liken to a fatwa: self-censorship , non-platform, “cancellation”.
There is an inevitability but also a danger in making Rushdie a fixed point of the moral center in these messy and often not simple fights – both 30 years ago and today. He is, both a writer and a thinker, much more and much less than that, the one who, only a few weeks ago, said he was happy to have his books reviewed in the pages devoted to the arts rather than in political sections of newspapers. A brilliant writer who knows too well that he is a brilliant writer, he guarded his position as a fatwa oracle less jealously than that of a literary character.
There are two tragedies in Rushdie’s life. The first is that he has made up for it all. In the end, it came for him, no matter how hard he had worked and managed to transcend it, no matter how the world had changed. Each era leaves with us vestiges of its darkness. The accused attacker was born a decade after the fatwa was published.
The second tragedy is that he had to work so hard in the first place to escape the fatwa as a physical and professional threat. And so, in his hospital bed, he is best honored not only with tales of near martyrdom, but also with a heightened understanding that this is a man of flesh and blood who is not there only to carry the weight of our anxieties, or even of his. .
A near-fulfilled death threat is a heavy thing to tackle from this perspective, but as Rushdie himself told Larry David when asked how he felt about the risks of the fatwa itself , fatwa gender aside: “Well, you know, it’s there.” But shit.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
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