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Why Salman Rushdie's work sparked decades of controversy

Author Salman Rushdie at the Blue Sofa at the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.
Hannelore Foerster
Getty Images
Author Salman Rushdie at the Blue Sofa at the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.

Updated August 14, 2022 at 11:36 AM ET

For the last 33 years, the world-renowned author Salman Rushdie has lived under threat because of his writing.

Rushdie was forced into hiding after the publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. It took nearly a decade for Rushdie to become more vocal and visible — though he continued to write stories. Today, Rushdie is widely known for being a vocal defender of artistic expression.

On Friday, he was scheduled to speak on that matter at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York when a 24-year-old man went on stage and stabbed the author in his neck and chest, New York State Police said. Rushdie is "on the road to recovery," his agent told theAP. His attacker, Hadi Matar, was charged with attempted murder and assault.

Rushdie, 75, was born in India and later grew up in England. He has written 14 novels, many of which have been translated in over 40 languages and received numerous accolades. In 2008, Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Why some found Rushdie's work offensive

The controversy began after Rushdie published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988.

The story centers on two Indian Muslims living in England. It reimagines parts of the Prophet Muhammad's life and in one section suggests that the founder of Islam may have flirted with polytheism.

Whether that interpretation is backed up by Islamic texts has been disputed by historians, but in a 2012 interview with NPR's Morning Edition, the author said that was beside the point.

"My purpose was not to write only about Islam," said Rushdie, who was born to a Muslim family.

"In my view, the story — as it exists in the novel — reflects rather well on the new idea of the religion being born because it shows that it actually may have flirted with compromise, but then rejected it; and when in triumph, it was pretty merciful."

The backlash included violent protests, bookstore fires and an order to assassinate Rushdie

The Satanic Verses received immediate and violent backlash from Muslims who found the book's depictions of Islam insulting.

Within months of its publication, the novel was banned in a number of countries including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Sudan. His native country of India banned the book's import.

The controversy also ignited violent protests and attacks on bookstores around the world. Multiple people connected to the novel were also under threat — including Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese scholar who translated the book, who was killed in 1991.

In 1989, Iran's leader called for Rushdie's assassination and a bounty was offeredof several million dollars. Iran stepped back from the religious order, also known as a fatwa, in 1998, saying it would "neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie." However, the order has not been officially withdrawn.

Rushdie wrote a memoir about his time in hiding that was published in 2012. He lived under the pseudonym Joseph Anton.

"One of the strangest aspects of it is that nobody thought that this was going to last very long," he told NPR in 2012. "They said, 'Just lie low for a few days and let the diplomats and politicians do their work, and this will be resolved.' Instead, in the end, it took almost 12 years."

In a statement, the literary freedom group PEN America said Rushdie was targeted for decades but "never flinched nor faltered."

"We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil," CEO Suzanne Nossel wrote. "We hope and believe fervently that his essential voice cannot and will not be silenced."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.