Why ‘The Satanic Verses’ shouldn’t be so controversial

A wise editor once told me that writing great fiction involves turning the world on a slight axis and using that new perspective to access a greater truth. This certainly applies to Salman Rushdie’s ambitious and highly controversial 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses.”

But why controversial? Because its plot challenges hierarchal beliefs and dogma? Because Rushdie uses a technique known as magical realism, his book based loosely on historical facts but employing magic, dream and surrealism to reach an alternative reality with, the author hopes, relatable lessons attached?

But any religion — and for that matter any deeply held belief — should find strength in being open to challenge and debate, even welcoming it. Instead, in 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini infamously issued a fatwa against Rushdie, calling for his death (though he reportedly never even read the novel, in which he’s satirized in one section).

Rushdie and his team faced death threats following the novel's publication.
“The Satanic Verses” satirizes the Iranian government and uses biblical allegory.
Random House

Last week’s brutal upstate New York attack by Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old New Jersey man (who also hasn’t read the book) with possible contacts to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has left the author severely injured. Until then, years had gone by with apparent de-escalation and calm as Rushdie rebuilt his life. But back in 1989 and soon after, bookstores in Britain and America were bombed and burned, Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher was shot, and his Italian and Japanese translators were stabbed (the latter died). Major US bookstores stopped carrying the book amidst protest from the literary community. Some cited fears for their staff, but even some big-name writers decried the book as hurtful to a religion and its community.

Rushdie himself lived in seclusion and under guard in England but more recently has been a distinguished writer in residence at New York University. Years ago I met him and had dinner with him, finding him to be polite, kind and witty, not at all the monster he has been depicted in Iran.

So why the attacks? In the novel, actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are aboard a plane (Bostan Flight 420) that’s taken over by terrorists over the Atlantic. When the bomb explodes — keep in mind this prescient vision is more than a decade before 9/11 — Gibreel and Saladin fall from the sky and land in the English Channel, miraculously surviving.

Gibreel, in a dream, takes on the persona of the archangel Gabriel and Saladin the devil. The angel’s message is of a single God, but local villagers offer the character based on the prophet Mohammed (Mahound) three sub-goddesses to agree to his new religion. At a pivotal point in the novel, the archangel offers him verses that petition to allow for the sub-goddesses to be recognized, before Mahound ultimately realizes that the verses are from Satan and renounces them in time.

Matar pleaded not guilty in court.
Hadi Matar is accused of stabbing Salman Rushdie.

The story is familiar to Islamic historians. And this type of resisted temptation is found throughout several religions. In Judaism, it appears in the form of the Golden Calf (idolatry), which provokes Moses to dramatically reassert monotheism. In Christianity, the focus is also on resisting false idols but acknowledging their existence: See 1 John 4:1-19 “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” Jesus faces temptation in the desert and shouts, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and only Him shall you serve,’” words that echo the Golden Calf episode.

It is difficult to read this work of the imagination and truly believe the deadly reaction to it is remotely justified. My close friend the great novelist E.L. Doctorow put it best: “Yet the only true hope, it seems to me, is absolute freedom of ideas and expression,” he said, discussing Rushdie’s novel. “One would hope that particularly religious leaders could accommodate that view to the demands of their own belief.” 

We live in a time of great dogma and division, in which debate has been replaced by narcissistic assertion and intolerance. There is no healing or coming together in sight. The attack on Rushdie is awful, not only for him and his family but for the rest of us as citizens not just of America but of the world. A smoldering rage that could destroy us has been stoked once again back to a flame.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a clinical professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health and a Fox News medical analyst.

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