Sam Leith Sam Leith

Salman Rushdie and the incitement of violence

(Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

When I met Salman Rushdie in New York a couple of years ago, he told me that the days in which he feared physical attack were long behind him. ‘It only affects my life when I talk to journalists,’ he said, a little pertly. ‘It is 20 years since I required any form of protection. I go everywhere I want.’ That was true, and not true. It was obvious to me – and, Sir Salman being no fool, will have been even more obvious to him – that thirtysomething years after the philistine clerisy of Iran sentenced him to death, there was nothing to prevent a lone nutter making an attempt on his life. And it looks like that is exactly what has now happened.

The reason he denied something so obvious is that he didn’t want it to define him. He didn’t want it to be the main thing anyone ever talked to him about in interviews. What was there to talk about? The fatwa had not killed him as a man. Was it to be allowed to kill his books – pigeonholing him as an ‘arcane religious heretic’ whose long and protean literary career would be the footnote to a political controversy in yellowing newsprint? That would be the real victory for the mullahs. Heine’s saying that ‘where they burn books, they also will ultimately burn people’ is an acute one: burning people is a last resort; what they want to kill is the ideas. That he’s now reportedly awake in hospital and in possession of his senses won’t just be a relief to those who know and love him as a friend: it’ll be a relief to those – Sir Salman first among them – who don’t want variations on ‘murdered by a fanatic’ to be in the top ten paragraphs of his obituary.

Death threats have become part of our everyday discourse rather than shocking aberrations

Those who haven’t read Rushdie, thanks to his reputation being so overshadowed by the controversy, will not know how generous and macaronic and unpompous a writer he is.

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