In 2008, I Heard Salman Rushdie Talk, Despite a Fatwa Bounty of $3 Million

Greg Markley



Born in 1947, by 1988 Salman Rushdie had been honored with the Booker Prize, the highest literary award in Britain. Born in a Kashmiri Muslim family, he is now an atheist. He was born in Bombay (now Mumbai),  India. He became a hero for free speech lovers when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran ordered him killed for insulting Islam in a book, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie went into hiding, relocating every two or three days under Scotland Yard protection.

A wise choice! By 1991, his translator for Japanese was stabbed to death. Just 10 days before, his translator for Italian was stabbed repeatedly and had serious injuries but survived. Rushdie kept out of public view and the British security network protected him well. He gradually shed his security team, deeming it unnecessary 10 years after the legal ruling (fatwa).

An unwise choice! A man linked to Islamic extremism stabbed Rushdie about 10 minutes before he was to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Rushdie, age 75, was stabbed eight or nine  times. He suffered three stab wounds to his neck, four stab wounds to his stomach, puncture wounds to his right eye and chest and a laceration on his right thigh, the district attorney said. Rushdie may lose sight in his right eye.

In 2008 I received an internship at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. It was part of obtaining an Archives Concentration on my master’s in history. While there, I often attended free lectures from political figures and writers. Rushdie’s work often combines magical realism with historical fiction. Most of his novels are set on the Indian subcontinent.

In spring 2008, Rushdie discussed his ninth novel, “The Enchantress of Florence”. He called this his “most researched book” requiring many years of reading. It centered on a woman attempting to control her own destiny in a man’s world.  His most praised novel is “Midnight’s Children”, about a mid-30s man recalling his life. It was his second novel, and it won the Booker Prize.

There was good security when I arrived, although I did not notice personal guards for Rushdie. He spoke for 45 minutes to an hour, reading from his new book. I was ready for the Q-and-A session, and he chose me for the first question. As this book was highly researched, I asked academic questions. First, a question about the depth of his research and the second about his writing process.

The next development was weird: A photographer from the Jimmy Carter Museum jumped to the microphone I had and said: “Mr. Rushdie, how was the fatwa?” He probably thought most came just to find out about Rushdie hiding from assassins. Many attended for the book reading, to preview the book.

“It was horrible. Next question.” Rushdie is known for his arrogance as well as eloquence. Here was a curt response to someone who wanted to delve into those difficult years, instead of talk intelligently about the author’s new work. It was reported once that Rushdie sent a letter to Booker judges asking why he did not win the Booker award of the 20th century. In polite society, one does not do that.

After audience questions were fielded, Rushdie abruptly went out a side door, with no personal guide tailing him. It was disquieting as I felt the threats were diminishing of Rushdie dying in a fatwa-killing, due to decades of people forgetting the whole saga. But I also believed that attacks on Rushdie could still happen, so long as he remains controversial.

Unfortunately, on Aug. 12, 2022, the stabbing occurred, one of the worst things to happen at the renowned institution. Hadi Matar, 24, was arrested and has been charged with assault and attempted murder. Matar’s social media accounts showed support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and for “Shia extremism.” He recently visited the Middle East, but he lives in Fairfield, New Jersey.

Even though Matar has social media links to known terrorists, we should not say “I told you so” when a Muslim attacked Rushdie under influence of the fatwa. There are good and bad people everywhere. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, four Muslim men (aged 26 to 41) were killed in recent months, execution-style. They are victims, just as Rushdie was. A suspect is in custody.

Matar carried a fake driver’s license using the name of a killed Hezbollah militant, noted The Independent (UK). He obtained an advance pass for the event: Chautauqua officials said guests would now have to show photo IDs to buy gate passes purchased anonymously before events. A lawyer who attended Rushdie’s event said there was no weapons check that day.

The late essayist Christopher Hitchens, himself a renegade, said of his friend Rushdie: “To take a side against Rushdie, or to be neutral and evasive about him in the name of some vaguely sensitive ecumenical conscience, is to stand against those who try to incubate a Reformation in the Muslim world.”

Still, Rushdie should take his personal security seriously, no matter how far we get from the 1989 fatwa, or the 2022 attempted murder-by-stabbing.

Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer since 2011. He is a member of the national Education Writers Association (focus-Higher Education).


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