Writers and publishers condemn attack on Salman Rushdie and insist on respect for freedom of expression

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Shocked by the attack on Salman Rushdie, the literary world spoke out in unison on Saturday against violence and underlined respect for freedom of expression while wishing a speedy recovery to the Booker Prize-winning author. The controversial Mumbai-born author, who faced Islamist death threats for years after writing ‘The Satanic Verses’, was stabbed by a 24-year-old man on Friday as he was featured at a event in New York in the United States.

Geetanjali Shree, the first Indian to join the International Booker’s esteemed club of laureate authors, described the attack on Rushdie as an “inexcusable and inhumane” act. “Where is humanity headed? A day of such distress, such shame. We pray for the speedy recovery of this supporter of democracy and freedom of expression. Violence must not become the means of manage differences of opinion,” Shree said. PTI.

Shree was in the news last month when an event in his honor in Agra was canceled following controversy over the content of his award-winning novel ‘Ret Samadhi’ which has been translated into English as ‘Tomb of Sand “. Although the motive for the attack on Rushdie remains to be determined, it is widely believed to have to do with his controversial novel “The Satanic Verses”.

The 1988 novel, which won Rushdie a Whitbread Book Award, forced him into hiding for nine years as huge controversy erupted after the book’s release, with several Muslims considering it blasphemous. A year after the book was published, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Rushdie’s execution for publishing the book for its blasphemous content.

Since the 1980s, Rushdie’s writings have led to death threats from Iran, which has offered a $3 million reward for anyone who kills him. India, under the government led by Rajiv Gandhi, had banned the book. Placed under police protection in Britain after the fatwa was published, Rushdie spent most of the next decade in hiding before the Iranian government declared in 1998 that it no longer supported the fatwa.

He recounted the experience in his 2012 memoir “Joseph Anton”, named after his pseudonym while in hiding. But the fear of living under constant threat, as felt by Rushdie, can be understood by Bangladeshi author-in-exile Taslima Nasreen. The 59-year-old author, who has lived in exile for 27 years after his book ‘Lajja’ was banned and the ensuing fatwa for allegedly offending religious sentiments, posted a series of tweets condemning the attack on Rushdie .

She expressed her fear for the lives of anyone who criticizes Isalm around the world. “I just learned that Salman Rushdie was attacked in New York. I am really shocked. I never thought this would happen. He lives in the West and has been protected since 1989. If he is attacked, anyone of Islam can be attacked. I’m worried,” she tweeted.

Sanjoy K Roy, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) producer who made headlines in 2012 for Rushdie’s proposed visit and subsequent protests, said: “This is not an attack on a writer but against a civilization and shows the vulnerability of anyone presenting a narrative different from the acceptable one”.

“Violence has become acceptable, whether it’s in America, Europe or anywhere else, and that’s sad,” Roy told PTI. Recalling how “politics, violence and mob mentality” prevented them from welcoming Rushdie to the JLF in 2012, festival co-director and acclaimed author Namita Gokhale said his books remain a defining influence on the contemporary South Asian writing and “this barbaric act cannot silence its creative voice”.

Rushdie, who visited the JLF in 2007 and was also due to attend the festival in 2012, eventually had to pull out citing protests from Muslim organizations and intelligence contributions from the host state, Rajasthan. Even his planned video speech had to be canceled following threats against the festival.

“His presence at the JLF was thwarted by politics, and the violent mob mentality of those who may not even have read the book prevented us from welcoming him. We salute his courage and his literary genius”, she told PTI. The who’s who of the literary world, including prominent authors Neil Gaiman, Amitav Ghosh, Stephen King and Jean Guerrero, took to Twitter to show their solidarity with Rushdie and wish him a speedy recovery.

“I fervently hope that Salman Rushdie pulls through. He’s funny, bright and dry, he’s written beautiful, wise books and I want people who think they hate him to read his lyrics. (You don’t hate Salman, who is a real person. You hate someone in your mind who never existed.),” English author Neil Gaiman tweeted.

Even those in the publishing industry, whether Chiki Sarkar of Juggernaut Books, who briefly worked with Rushdie, and Meru Gokhale of Penguin Random House India (PRHI) said they were deeply upset by this “act terrible” – one they feared about, but I never thought it would happen in reality.

“We are thinking very much of Salman’s well-being as he recovers from this terrible attack, which took place while he was doing what writers do, engaging with readers in the public sphere. We are honored to have been its editors for many years,” Gokhale told PTI.

Rushdie’s next novel, “Victory City,” is due out next year. He is the author of 14 novels, including “Midnight’s Children” (for which he won the Booker Prize and Best of the Booker), and four non-fiction books to date.

(With PTI inputs)

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