Monday, September 1, 2014

Principle or Ego?

In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwa (death sentence and bounty on his head) on Salman Rushdie for the crime of having written a novel called The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini called: “against Islam, the Prophet, and the Quran.”

So began the extraordinary story of how Rushdie was forced underground, stealthily moving from hiding place to hiding place, for thirteen years. During that time of hiding, he lived under the alias name of Joseph Anton. Rushdie recently wrote a memoir of that experience, called Joseph Anton, where he describes living under the threat of murder for over a decade.

The book tells of holding his family life together; working on other novels; falling in and out of love; the ever-present fear and despair; the sometimes grim, sometimes comic realities of always living with armed policemen; dealing with not-so-understanding governments, publishers, and fellow writers. Most importantly, it is about finding the courage to fight back. And somewhere along the path, he loses himself and finds himself again.

Rushdie describes this journey as one of the crucial battles, in our time, for freedom of speech.

I found this memoir a fascinating experience. As I read, I grew to respect Rushdie as a writer, a man of principle, and a man of courage. Still, all the way through this book I kept wondering how much of his fight was courage and principle, and how much was pure ego.

He repeatedly pointed out that there were steps available to him that would have lifted the fatwa, but of course, that would have meant a full apology to the followers of Islam. This he refused to do.

Rushdie often came off as an unlikeable character in these pages. And he often seemed that he put his career—his celebrity status—above his own safety and the safety of his family and protectors. In my mind, the separate forces of principle and vanity often fought each other, battling in the background on nearly every page, until they were indistinguishable.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not making harsh judgments. Placed in the same circumstances, I’m not sure I would act any differently. I’m merely pointing out that that battle of ego was, for this reader, one of the most interesting aspects of the book. 

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