Stabbing of Salman Rushdie Demonstrates the Power of Words
As a child, if someone called you a name you may have responded with the sticks and stones song, in an attempt to show how you were unbothered by mere words. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Words have tremendous power, and as we’ve moved into a more digital age, we’re seeing more evidence of that than ever before. Words can lift us up, or bring us crashing down. When used truthfully and logically, they can change our minds for the better, but when twisted or corrupted they can make us believe in things that aren’t true.
Words push us one way or another because they appeal to our emotions, which also means our experiences shape how we interpret or react to them. That was certainly the case when Salman Rushdie published his fiction book The Satanic Verses more than 30 years ago, which instantly became one of the most controversial books of our time and ultimately led to the recent attack on him in New York.
Yes, words have power and it is vital that authors, more than anyone else, understand that. Not so that we live in fear or censor ourselves, but so that we remember to choose our messages carefully, always aware of the potential influence and impact they may have.
Last week, the famously infamous novelist Salman Rushdie was brutally attacked in western New York. The author of The Satanic Verses was about to take the stage to present at the Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, NY, when an assailant tackled and assaulted him – stabbing Rushdie fifteen times before being subdued. Rushdie was strong enough to cling to his life following the attack, but has likely lost an eye and suffered partial paralysis as a result.
It’s a horrific incident that has sent shockwaves across the literary world. Writing isn’t generally an industry known for violence, yet Salman Rushdie had been living in fear of an attack just like this for over thirty years – ever since the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, had issued a fatwa demanding Rushdie’s murder.
The controversary surrounding him came after the publication of Rushdie’s fourth novel in 1988 – The Satanic Verses, a tale of magical realism that explored the complexity of Islam; the religion Rushdie was raised as. While fictional, many more extreme Muslims declared Rushdie’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad to be blasphemous – many calling for the banning of the book, and some demanding Rushdie be punished for writing it.
Things came to a head in 1989 when the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa demanding Rushdie’s death. A fatwa is a Sharia legal ruling that many millions of Muslims considered a direct order. Some extremists took action on that order – motivated not just by their faith, but also by the $3 million bounty the Ayatollah Khomeini placed on his head.
For over a decade, Rushdie was forced to live as a fugitive – separated from his family and under constant threat. In 2007, when the Ayatollah Khomeini died, many considered the threat on Rushdie’s life to be over. However, some Muslims believe that a fatwa can only be rescinded by the person who issued it – meaning this one had become eternal following Khomeini’s death.
By 2022 Rushdie had become more confident about making public appearances – and that unfortunately placed him in harm’s way last week. However, the irony is that Rushdie’s assailant (or his alleged assailant, to demonstrate how important words can be) hadn’t even been conceived when The Satanic Verses was first published.
It’s a demonstration of how powerful ideology can be. It almost seems ridiculous to think that a 24-year-old man born and raised in the same state as Bon Jovi, Frank Sinatra, and Bruce Springsteen could find religious justification for viciously gutting a 75-year-old man – and yet the NYPD told the press that his Whatsapp and other social media accounts were flooded with pro-Iranian images and memes.
The brutal attack also demonstrates how powerful Salman Rushdie’s words remain nearly 35 years after they were first published. Following news announcements about the stabbing, The Satantic Verses saw a sudden spike in sales – driven by new readers who soon drove the book to become Amazon’s #1 best-seller.
Decades after India banned imports of the book and the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa demanding Rushdie’s death, more people than ever are reading The Satanic Verses – partly because of the demands to censor it.
This comes at a time in which censorship has become one of the most hotly-discussed issues in the news – from growing distrust with the ‘mainstream media’ to shadowbanning and other covert censorship techniques being employed on influential platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death for simply telling a story – and despite all the time that has passed, that story continues to hold so much power that people still demand he be killed for writing it. That is both the gift and curse of writing – and why all writing is important.
Salman Rushdie didn’t intend to write one of the most controversial novels of the modern age, yet his words proved so powerful that their impact was felt worldwide. Likewise, all aspiring authors who secretly dream of using fiction to speak truth to authority should realize that they, too, are perhaps burdened with that same glorious purpose – and are potentially poised to share something with the world that will resonate for decades into the future.
“Once you put a thought into the world, it can be disagreed with, but it can’t be unthought.”Salman Rushdie
This has certainly inspired a new wave of readers to give the book a try. A copy found its way to me as a teenager, but I remember it being difficult to read and intimidating because it was so long. I also had almost no context in which to place the story, so maybe it wasn’t the right time. But now that this has happened, I’ve ordered the book and will try again.