In his 636-page memoir, Salman Rushdie writes about his years of hiding under repeated death threats issued against him by fundamentalist Muslims that began in the late 1980s, upon the publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” The memoir’s title, “Joseph Anton,” is the pseudonym he adopted during his years of hiding. It combines the first names of two of his favorite authors Joesph Conrad and Anton Chekov. The memoir details his schooling in India and in England (Rugby and Cambridge), the ups and downs in his four marriages, and the publication of his many books.
This brief review focuses on the sources of his secular humanism. There is no chapter with the title secular humanism in the book; indeed, the phrase occurs nowhere in it. The roots go back his father, Anis, who adopted the family name, Rushdie, after the 12th century Aristotelian, Abdul Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd. Anis, a Cambridge-educated Muslim lawyer in Bombay, preferred to raise his children in an “atmosphere of open inquiry … Everything, even holy writ, could be investigated and just, possibly, improved.”
Salman’s mother, Negin, hired a maulvi, to impart the basics of the faith, but the children ridiculed him, and when the parents joined in the laughter, the maulvi quit, cursing the infidel family.
At Cambridge, Salman Rushdie studied history and chose as one of his special subject. Muhammad and the rise of Islam. Salman learned that at Mecca at the city gates stood the statues of three goddesses al-Lat, al-Manat, and al-Uzza. To secure their blessings, the trading caravans paid tribute to them. In Kaaba, there were statues of hundreds of gods, including a statue, al-Lah, Muhammad plucked al-Lah from near obscurity and became his Prophet.
Although at first the prophet worshipped the three goddesses, at “a later point, he came down to state that he had been deceived on his previous visit; the Devil had appeared to him in the guise of the Archangel, and the verses he had been given were therefore not divine, but Satanic, and should be expunged from the Qur’an at once.” Clearly in Rushdie’s interpretation, the issue was the gender of these divine beings.
Several years after the extraordinary success of his secular novel “Midnight’s Children,” Rushdie drafted a new novel incorporating some of the above themes and submitted the completed manuscript to Viking Penguin. The publishing house consulted the legendary Indian journalist, short-story writer, and novelist Khushwant Singh (now 98 years old and actively publishing columns and books). He wisely counseled against publishing the manuscript, anticipating the offense it would provoke among Muslims worldwide.
Evidently, the publishing house did not communicate Singh’s advice to Rushdie. “The Satanic Verses” was published; the publisher, no doubt counting on banking huge profits as from “Midnight’s Children.” Khushwant Singh’s prediction of offense was spot-on: bloody riots erupted in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and elsewhere, resulting in the loss of many lives. The government of India was the very first to ban “The Satanic Verses;” the government no doubt counting on banking Muslim votes in the next election. In February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa for the execution of Rushdie. When Rushdie first heard the term fatwa on St. Valentine’s day, it was new to him. In Afghanistan, the ancient giant statues of the Buddha in Bamian were demolished. In Tokyo, the Japanese translator of the novel was murdered. In Oslo, his Norwegian publisher was grievously wounded.
Rushdie’s defense all along has been that in his novel, “The Prophet was not called Muhammad, lived in a city not called Mecca, and created a religion not (or not quite) called Islam. And he appeared only in the dream sequences of a man being driven insane by his loss of faith. These many distancing devices were, in their creator’s opinion, indicators of the fictive nature of his project.”
After the fatwa was announced, Rushdie received immediate support from eminent writers like Norman Mailer, Paul Auster, Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Gunter Grass, Amis Martin, Ian McEwan, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Later, more than a hundred Muslim writers from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere published a book of short essays, “For Rushdie,” strongly supporting his right for free speech.
With the intercession of Norman Mailer, William Styron, and other eminent American writers, Rushdie met POTUS Bill Clinton. Rushdie said to him, “Mr. President, when I leave the White House I have to go to the Press Club and there will be a lot of journalists waiting to find out what you had to say. I’d like to be able to tell them that the United States is joining the campaign against the Iranian ‘fatwa’ and supports progressive voices around the world.”
Rushdie writes that Clinton nodded and grinned. “Yes, you can say that because it is true. It should send a message around the world. It’s intended to be a demonstration of American support for free speech and of our desire that First Amendment-style rights should grow all around the world.”
At an NPR talk-in literary program a few years ago, a caller asked Rushdie, “Are you a Muslim?” Rushdie responded firmly, “No sir, I am not.” The memoir makes it clear that he would not agree that he is “Islamophobic.”
In fact, Rushdie contests the neologism “Islamophobia” itself. “A new word has been created to help the blind remain blind: ‘Islamophobia.’” Compared to one of Rushdie’s closest friends, Christopher Hitchens, Rushdie’s view is restrained. Hitchens, of Jewish heritage, called Judaism, Christianity, Islam—the three Abrahamic religions “the Axis of Evil.” Tempted to create a fresh neologism? Abrahamophobia?
The memoir is written in third person and as a literary technique, this viewpoint that Rushdie adopts in “Joseph Anton” was a good choice. The “I” pronoun in thousands of paragraphs would have been annoying to read.
The excessive details about his marital rifts and his self-exonerations in them make the memoir drag in places. But his intellectual honesty and his level of detail in tracing the roots of his secular humanism were riveting. Unlike some other reviewers who accuse him of name-dropping, I don’t find that valid; Rushdie narrates his interactions with his writer friends, many of whom are famous. There’s no crime in that.
Eleven years ago, secular humanist V. S. Naipaul’s books, “Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey” (1982) and “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples” (1999), based on his extensive interviews with Muslims in Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia, led to his winning the Nobel prize in 2001. Will Salman Rushdie’s brilliant memoir that unpacks the secular humanistic critique of Islam his winning the Nobel in 2013? He deserves it, in my opinion, not for “The Satanic Verses,” but for his Booker-of-Booker-winning novel “Midnight’s Children.”
C.J. Singh has published short stories in ZYZZYVA literary magazine, Berkeley Fiction Review, Walrus Literary Art Magazine, and Ishmael Reed’s Konch magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing, Mills College, Oakland, and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University. Currently, he is drafting a novel “Gypsy Roots.”