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Becoming 'Anton,' Or, How Rushdie Survived A Fatwa

Sep 18, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 8:04 am

The recent violence sparked by the film Innocence of Muslims recalls a very different controversy from more than 20 years ago:

In 1988, Salman Rushdie published a novel, The Satanic Verses, that many Muslims declared to be offensive, whether they'd read it or not. In 1989, Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for the death of the author and anyone associated with the book's publication. Bounties were offered and translators and others were attacked, some even murdered. Rushdie, who was born in India but lived in England at the time, went into hiding.

Today, Rushdie is again living in the open, and he has finished a memoir about the experience, called Joseph Anton. He tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that Joseph Anton was an alias he created for himself when he was forced into hiding.

"The police asked me to come up with a pseudonym, partly because I needed to rent properties and so on, and obviously couldn't do it in my own name," he says. "And I was asked to make it not an Indian name. And so, deprived of one nationality, I retreated into literature — which is, you could say, my other country — and chose this name from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov: Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov equals Joseph Anton."

Rushdie also invented a life story for Anton: He was a nervous American publisher who felt he needed a lot of bulletproof glass. No one could have predicted just how long Rushdie would be living under that pseudonym.

"One of the strangest aspects of it is that nobody thought that this was going to last very long," he says. "They said, 'Just lie low for a few days and let the diplomats and politicians do their work, and this will be resolved.' Instead, in the end, it took almost 12 years."

In all that time, Rushdie says, his weakest point came around year two, when he tried to compromise with a group of Islamic leaders in London by negotiating a statement that said, among other things, that he believed there was no god but Allah and that he would not issue a paperback version of The Satanic Verses.

"I think it actually reads like something that an inquisition would make you sign," he says. "And that's more or less what it was. And I immediately — the moment I left that room in which I'd had that meeting — I began to feel physically ill because I understood that I'd in some way betrayed myself. I felt obliged to repudiate that statement and try and regain myself, for myself. It made me understand that this idea of trying to ingratiate oneself with the enemy was not only absurd, but improper. And in a way, now, looking back at it, I can see that it was beneficial to me because it clarified certain things in my head which were confused up to then."

The Original Satanic Verses

The source of Rushdie's trouble was a section of The Satanic Verses that he based on a disputed incident.

"[The Satanic Verses] is the title given to an episode which exists in the traditions of the life of the Prophet Muhammad," Rushdie says. "It suggests that, at one point, the devil appeared to him in the guise of the archangel and asked him to recite verses which accepted as semi-divine the three most popular pagan goddesses of pre-Islamic Mecca."

Historians and religious scholars debate the truth of that anecdote, but there's no denying the explosive nature of just the idea that the Prophet Muhammad may have flirted with polytheism. Judging from the reaction, Rushdie says, you'd think his book was a kind of anti-Islamic polemic. In reality, the incident only appears as a subplot in a dream sequence.

"My purpose was not to write only about Islam; it was to talk about the nature of revelation, and also to suggest that when a big, new idea comes into the world, it must answer two challenges: One is the challenge of how do you behave when you're weak? And the other, how do you behave when you're strong?" he says. "When you're weak, do you bend, do you compromise? Or are you [unyielding] and firm? And when you're strong — when you're victorious — are you cruel and vengeful, or are you merciful and forgiving? And actually, in my view, the story as it exists in the novel reflects rather well on the new idea of the religion being born, because it shows that it actually may have flirted with compromise but then rejected it, and, when in triumph, it was pretty merciful."

Sept. 11 And 'The Birds'

At the beginning of Joseph Anton, Rushdie reflects on religious extremism through the lens of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds. In it, one bird appears, and it's a little hostile; then more birds appear and they begin attacking people, and pretty soon the world is covered with birds in a mysterious and terrifying way. Referring to himself in the third person, Rushdie writes:

"In the years to come, he will dream about this scene, understanding that his story is a sort of prologue, the tale of the moment when the first blackbird lands. When it begins, it's just about him; it's individual, particular, specific. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock's great film."

In other words, even though the fatwa was issued well before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the two events are connected.

"I think the same mindset, the same extremism that attacked those buildings in New York and Washington, was the one that attacked me," Rushdie says. "And I think one of the strange things is that when it happened to me, people didn't really understand it in the West, because they couldn't set it into a narrative that they understood. And after the Sept. 11 attacks, that narrative became the narrative of all our lives."

The story of Rushdie's time in hiding is one of excessive anxiety, constant security and trying desperately to figure out how to fight your way out. In many ways, he lived the post-Sept. 11 story before it even happened.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.