SALMAN Rushdie, a much-feted victim of intolerance, was vigorously promoting his memoir recently when I asked a friend in London to send me a copy of The Rushdie Letters.
It is a collection of solidarity messages by some of the leading lights of literature shortly after he was driven underground by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. Margaret Atwood, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer feature prominently in the list of his sympathisers.
The letter that caught my eye came from Iranian writer Fahimeh Farsaie. Writing from exile in Germany, she bluntly reminded Rushdie about the time he was in tears and canvassing support against the macabre Iranian order:
“You made your request explicitly as if nobody had been murdered for his literary activities before 14 February 1989, the day of Khomeini’s death sentence against you. Yes! That’s what bothered me when I thought about writing you a letter of solidarity.
For I had to remember that a few months after this date many ‘people’ i.e. authors and journalists, were executed and buried in mass graves together with other political prisoners because they had written a book or an article and expressed their own views. To mention just a few names: Amir Nikaiin, Manouchehr Behzadi, Djavid Misani, Abutorab Bagherzadeh….
“Of course their names didn’t appear in a single newspaper. No one was allowed to mourn them, not even their families. They remained dishonoured under heavy black earth … Perhaps they missed a letter of solidarity from you — a writer who a short time previously had been condemned to death by the same people?”
“Yes, that’s it,” Farsaie protested. “That’s what bothered me: that you push your own problem so much into the foreground and overlook the others who have the same problem. Many of your utterances give this impression, even when you connect them with the fate of others.”
She noted that even as Rushdie spoke with tears in his eyes in 1991, the PEN American Centre, that aims to promote literature and defend free expression, counted at least 11 fellow writers who were in a similar situation at that precise moment. The “need to hide” appears often for writers and that Rushdie’s “was not a unique case”, it was observed.
At the end of the day, however, it was not the writers’ good wishes that saved the day for Rushdie, for behind him was Margaret Thatcher’s hatred of Khomeini, which in turn was prompted by mutating exigencies of neo-liberal economics.
Rushdie was subsequently protected by a number of Western leaders who followed her together with their intelligence and security arrangements, not to speak of their enormous political clout.
I want to stress this point, because it is more or less the same lot with their formidable resources who are baying for Julian Assange’s blood today. Has anybody heard from Rushdie about the issue?
The lawyer defending Assange against his extradition to Sweden had once sheltered a terrified Rushdie. But that may be a relatively minor point in their incidental similarities.
Rushdie was sentenced to death by a politically driven religious edict by Ayatollah Khomeini. The 1989 fatwa was desperately needed by Iran to keep its flock together after a debilitating eight-year war with Iraq, which ended tamely in a humiliating truce for the ruling clerics in 1988.
Assange’s ordeal has been unfairly likened to Rushdie’s trauma as the two situations are inherently different. By taking shelter in Ecuador’s embassy in London, he has sought to evade the consequences of what has been described as a “secular fatwa” to assassinate the WikiLeaks founder. The call came from prominent right-wing politicians, led by Sarah Palin and the Canadian prime minister’s political adviser.
Palin planted the idea of assassinating Assange thus: “What if any diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on Nato, EU, and other allies to disrupt WikiLeaks’ technical infrastructure?
“Did we use all the cyber tools at our disposal to permanently dismantle WikiLeaks? Were individuals working for WikiLeaks on these document leaks investigated? Shouldn’t they at least have had their financial assets frozen just as we do to individuals who provide material support for terrorist organisations? ...Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”
Given that the US regularly targets suspected Al Qaeda leaders with missile or drone strikes, Palin’s suggestion leaves little doubt about her real intent.
Salman Rushdie has robustly spoken out against Chinese Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan for apparently not criticising the incarceration of fellow Nobel laureate and compatriot Liu Xiaobo.
But how does he see the question of Assange’s looming extradition to Sweden, which could eventually land the publisher of the web news portal in an American torture chamber and possibly on the death row in the US?
My question is prompted by Rushdie’s self-regarding cornucopia of victimhood he compiled with considerable detail in his memoirs, released a few months ago.
The book only reinforces the point made being made by Farsaie. Rushdie was asked a host of indulgent questions by a fawning media in the run-up to the Jaipur LitFest. In effect, the questions were structured as promos of the book Joseph Anton, the name he used in his underground days.
If the Indian media were to take a break from their perpetual civilisational mission within the suffocating Hindu-Muslim paradigm, someone should have asked Rushdie to comment on the young American soldier Bradley Manning who faces death for his alleged role in exposing the plans for a merciless global war.
The American historian Howard Zinn once said: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”
Assange has fleshed out that great thought by his actions. Rushdie appears to have faltered in the test. He supported the Nato invasion of Afghanistan.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org