Linda Abrams, an eye-witness to the attack on Salman Rushdie on August 12, told The New York Times that the assailant would not let go of the author even after he was restrained. “It took like five men to pull him away and he was still stabbing. He was just furious, furious. Like intensely strong and just fast,” she said.
Reading this, one might think that the attacker held some deep personal grudge against Rushdie. But this is evidently not the case as the assailant, identified as Hadi Matar, 24, from New Jersey, was not even born in 1989, when the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, calling upon Muslims to execute him. Even for the Ayatollah, the death warrant wasn’t personal: he issued it because Rushdie was believed to have offended religious sentiments.
Did Matar carry hate as a legacy since he probably did not even know the object of his loathing? It is like the plot of a Greek tragedy where revenge is passed on through generations, implacable, unrelenting, corroding the lives of everybody it touches. In this chain, the most tormented is the one on whom the mantle of revenge falls: by choosing to kill, he chooses death-in-life for himself.
And annihilation is precisely what all authors militate against—even tragedies are about life, as opposed to death. A sentence in The Satanic Verses goes: “Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.” Opposed to this is fundamentalism, which ironically murders truth by trying to fix language to mean what certain groups would like it to mean. As novelist and columnist Tabish Khair says in the essay, “Stories set you free” ( The Hindu, June 30, 2022), “[F]undamentalism is essentially a mode of reading, and… literature, if read as literature, equips us to spot the fallacies of this fundamentalist mode, which creates a warped, limited and finally erroneous understanding of the complex reality out there.”
It explains why writers are under attack all over the world. When Rushdie went into hiding in the U.K., his collaborators were targeted. In July 1991, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, Hitoshi Igarashi, was knifed to death in Tokyo. The novel’s Italian translator and its Norwegian publisher were attacked. The self-destructive nature of his exercise is proved by the fact that Igarashi was a professor of Islamic culture. This is what fundamentalism does: it kills sense. Khattam-Shud, the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech, from Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, wins each time a writer is gagged.
Author and columnist Sandip Roy says, “Hate and extremism can be used to fan sentiments for short-term political gains. But the attack on Rushdie shows that once the genie is out of the bottle it cannot be easily stuffed back inside. There’s no expiration date on it.”
He adds: “I would like to think Rushdie the novelist shaking his head at the grim irony of being attacked by someone at an event where he was speaking about writers being persecuted and seeking refuge. That it happened to one of Midnight’s Children so close to the 75th anniversary of our Freedom at Midnight makes it doubly ironic. As Faiz would say, ‘this night‐bitten dawn/ This isn’t surely the dawn we waited for so eagerly.”’