[Salman Rushdie affair:] How to sell a book and live dangerously
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
It has been six months since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sentenced novelist Salman Rushdie to death for his book The Satanic Verses. Where do the book and its author now stand?
Censorship turned The Satanic Verses into a roaring international bestseller. It had not been so at first; the large British book chain W.H. Smith, was selling a mere 100 copies a week of the book in mid-January 1989, and had plans to take it of the shelves.
But after the book burnings and death threats the novel shot to the top of the lists, first in the United Kingdom and then here. By May more than 750,000 copies of the book had been purchased in the United States, and it stayed a No. 1 bestseller for nine straight weeks.
In the Muslim world and wherever the book had been banned, The Satanic Verses became highly valued contraband. One of the few copies in Kuwait was read simultaneously by several people, who took turns with it. In Turkey, according to President Kenan Evren, The Satanic Verses sold for $200 a copy.
In Israel, copies were available only from a post office box and sold fast at twice their normal retail price. In India, clandestine copies were available under the counter and circulated widely among certain circles in Bombay, Rushdie's hometown.
But, of course, Iran was the country where the book was most prized. At great risk to all involved, bookstores there smuggled a few copies into the country, and these were passed from hand to hand in the strictest secrecy among intimate friends.
In addition to guaranteeing Rushdie a worldwide audience, Khomeini assured The Satanic Verses a unique and enduring place in the history of literature. It became the pre-eminent symbol of both censorship and freedom of speech, of cultural misunderstanding and shared values. There may never be a work of fiction with such a career.
As for Rushdie himself, the future is unclear. In the first few weeks of their captivity, he and his wife tried as much as possible to retain their old style of life, showing up here and there at parties. But the strain proved too great and they eventually gave up the effort.
In late April, two months after the edict, for example, Rushdie was driven by armored car to Oxford University for a private dinner, then had to be whisked away through a side entrance because of the nearby presence of Muslim students. To make matters more difficult, the police advised against telephone calls, while every piece of mail underwent the closest scrutiny.
On going into hiding in the English countryside, Rushdie adopted an almost complete silence. He let it be known that worldwide attention and seclusion oppressed him, but that he was bearing up (in the words of friend Tariq Ali) "in relatively good spirits." A week into seclusion, Rushdie described his mood as one of succumbing to a "curious lethargy, the soporific torpor that overcomes [me] while [I am] under attack."
That lethargy was doubtless connected to Rushdie's decision no longer to battle his opponents. Indeed, Rushdie even asked his supporters to tone down their criticism of Iran, perhaps hoping that this would cause the whole controversy to die down and the threat on his life to end.
But such hopes were not realistic. Rushdie will almost certainly not be able to resume normal life, for the threat against him is permanent. Only Khomeini could have repealed the edict, and this he adamantly refused to do.
Iranian state policy remains unchanged. The ayatollah's passing in June may even have increased the danger to Rushdie, and for two reasons. Some of Khomeini's more fervent followers may well see the execution of Rushdie as the way to pay final homage to their departed master. And the edict became permanent; no mortal now has the power to invalidate it.
Western politicians, however tried to ignore these realities. Instead they discerned elements of flexibility after Khomeini's passing, even where none existed. A British Foreign Office minister raised the possibility that the edict might have lapsed. The British media quoted a pro-Iranian figure, Kalim Saddiqui, saying that while the death threat would not formally be withdrawn, Tehrah "is prepared to let the matter drop."
When the subject is Iran, Westerners seem to have a fathomless capacity for gullibility and illusion.
The permanence of the threat has provoked much speculation about Rushdie's chances for living out his natural term. In all likelihood, he will do so. The huge sales of The Satanic Verses — plus the guaranteed market for his future writings—means that he has the funds to protect himself, should the guards provided by the British government be taken away.
The real effect of the threats to his life lies elsewhere; it means that he will ever after live in fear and under heavy guard. Though unpleasant, living with guards is by no means impossible, as mafia dons, Henry Kissinger, the deposed shah of Iran and Shahpour Bakhtiar have all discovered.
Those who are potentially most vulnerable to Khomeini's assassins are Rushdie's publishers. Under Khomeini's sentence they are no less culpable than the author, yet they do not benefit from around-the-clock police protection. It is conceivable that, frustrated by their inability to get Rushdie, some fundamentalist hit squads will strike out at this second-best target.
This means that every copy editor and secretary who ever worked at Viking Penguin, Mondadari, Editions de la Cite or the other publishers of The Satanic Verses is potentially under the fundamentalists' gun. For this reason, Rushdie's editors are unsung heroes of the unhappy incident.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and editor of Orbis, its quarterly journal. His book "The Ayatollah, the Novelist, and the West: The Satanic Verses Incident" will appear in early 1990.
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes