Soon enough, the language of literature would be drowned in the cacophony of other discourses—political, religious, sociological, postcolonial—and the subject of quality, of artistic intent, would come to seem almost frivolous. The book that he had written would vanish and be replaced by one that scarcely existed, in which Rushdie referred to the Prophet and his companions as “scums and bums” (he didn’t, though he did allow the characters who persecuted the followers of his fictional Prophet to use abusive language), and called the wives of the Prophet whores (he hadn’t—although whores in a brothel in his imaginary city, Jahilia, take on the names of the Prophet’s wives to arouse their clients, the wives themselves are clearly described as living chastely in the harem). This nonexistent novel was the one against which the rage of Islam would be directed, and after that few people wished to talk about the real book, except, usually, to concur with Hermione Lee’s negative assessment.
When friends asked what they could do to help, he pleaded, “Defend the text.” The attack was very specific, yet the defense was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, felt that he needed, a more particular defense, like those made in the case of other assaulted books, such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Ulysses,” or “Lolita”—because this was a violent attack not on the novel in general, or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together. He did it for money. He did it for fame. The Jews made him do it. Nobody would have bought his unreadable book if he hadn’t vilified Islam. That was the nature of the attack, and so for many years “The Satanic Verses” was denied the ordinary life of a novel. It became something smaller and uglier: an insult. And he became the Insulter, not only in Muslim eyes but in the opinion of the public at large.
I love Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, but I came to it many years after it was first published, and long after the fatwa was announced. In fact, at the age of fourteen or fifteen when the book was first published, I can honestly say I have no recollection of hearing about any of the resulting attacks or drama, but that was the kind of teenager I was. What I did know was that it was one of two books that were kept behind a counter in a bookstore that you had to ask for. The second was Brett Easten Ellis' American Psycho. The latter of the two was also wrapped in plastic.
After I had finished The Satanic Verses, I must admit that I was a little confused about the fatwa. To me, the book had very little to do with Islam and rather a lot to do with being an immigrant, about living in a multicultural world. I thought perhaps that the truth was that I didn't know enough about Islam to understand the threat, but no one I knew who had read the book really understand the insult, either. Eventually, I understood that the fatwa really had nothing to do with the content of the novel, but had everything to do with religious fanaticism, with persecution, control, and everything else that extreme religious views take on to replace a balanced view of reality. Of course, by then, Rushdie was back, floating around in society, and the threat against his life appeared to have gone, so I continued to talk about The Satanic Verses as a book that is about race and culture when I talked about it to my friends.
Rushdie's new book, from which the excerpt above is taken, is called Joseph Anton, and details his life after the publication of The Satanic Verses. The New Yorker has a long section of it up to promote it, and I reckon it was pretty good, and have linked it for you.