Journalism in the service of society

Between Rushdie and Matar

A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop going to sleep – Salman Rushdie


ON August 12, 2022, the name Salman Rushdie bounced back into the world’s consciousness. Maybe that is not right, the name had never left our consciousness. But it bounced back in a way that terrified the whole world, or those who thought his past misdemeanor, at least in the eyes of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and a section of the Islamic world, had been forgotten, especially with the death of the man who pronounced a fatwa on him about three decades ago.

On that fateful day in August, a new name danced notoriously to the notice of the world. His name is Hadi Matar, 24, a Lebanese with dual citizenship who lives in the United States of America. Don’t forget that Matar was not born (in 1988) when the controversial book, The Satanic Verses, was written! The guy has even confessed at his trial that he has not read the book! So, his only familiarity with the book was only what he had heard or read about it and the fatwa. He told a New York court, according to a newspaper, that he had only read “a couple of pages” of the book.

Those “couple of pages” he had read were enough for him to travel to the Chautauqua Institution, the scene of the crime where he rushed to the stage in an attempt to kill Rushdie and carry out the order handed out over three decades ago.

Matar has thus written his name in the book of infamy or that of a hero, depending on which side of the divide you belong. Rushdie had lived decades under the shadow of the fatwa and with the death of the Ayatollah, many would have perhaps thought the worst was over. But not with the Matars of this world. Matar has by that act on that fateful day demonstrated that hate is a strong force ready to squelch freedom of expression. The world has continued to grow and invent new ways to expand the frontiers of freedom, but the forces of darkness that are bent on short circuiting this freedom are undeterred.

Rushdie had in 1988 become a target when the book was published. He had to go underground and lived in Britain with heavy security guards all round the clock. His movement years later to America must have been thought to have worn off the threat to his life. However, with the attack from Matar, when the death dictat was issued, it has become clear to all that it is not yet Uhuru for the writer. Freedom is still far in the horizon.

But does the writing of a book deserve such a verdict? As ideas are powerful, so are religious dogmas; they don’t easily wear off. What has become clear with the recent attack on Rushdie is that freedom of expression is still a long way from home. The world has become more polarized and divided despite advancements and technology. In fact, it is safe to conclude that technology has become the lever through which every word recorded online becomes eternal. Since Matar has confessed that he had not read the book, it is safe to conclude that his knowledge of the fatwa was only from whatever he had gotten online. 

The accused said he got to the venue and was just “hanging around. Not doing anything in particular, just walking around,” apparently waiting to carry out his nefarious act. He was determined enough to sleep in an open field on the grass till the next day.

In an April 10, 1989 article in The Vanguard newspaper titled “If Rushdie Must Die”, I had written thus “The eternal dream of a writer is to write a classic: a book that would move the world and turn its writer’s name into a household one, a name that would outlive the writer. The writer’s dream is a book that will focus the attention of the world not only on the book but the author. When therefore Salman Rushdie set out to write the Satanic Verses, perhaps little did he know how much world attention he would receive.” 

What has become clear with this attack is that writers who have been threatened one way or the other need to be protected from attackers. The Rushdie attack has shown that writers also need protection as much as political leaders and other artists who go around with personal security guards. The fact that Matar was able to find his way to the podium without any one stopping him and he was able to stab his target severally to have injured him on the neck and thereby endangering his eyes show that security lapses should be guided against in future not only where Rushdie is involved but all writers whose pen must have hurt some feelings.

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