Sir Salman Rushdie

by Jasmine Horsey

On Wednesday afternoon, British-Indian novelist Sir Salman Rushdie gave a Yale audience insight into his controversial history.

Early on Valentine’s Day 1989, Rushdie awoke to a phone call from a then-prominent BBC journalist. She opened with one question: “How does it feel to know you have just been sentenced to death by the Supreme Leader of Iran?”

Overnight, Rushdie had been issued a fatwā calling for his execution. The act followed a series of death threats that had been made by Muslims following the publication of Rushdie’s fourth book, “The Satanic Verses,” which allegedly insulted Islam.

“It was very difficult to know how seriously to take it at first—whether this was rhetoric or a real threat, nobody knew,” he said.

Sir Salman Rushdie (Creative Commons)

With the phone call commenced a thirteen-year ordeal during which Rushdie was forced to live under police protection, often in houses lent by friends or rented in their names. The case also sparked support—and disinterest—from international political leaders. Rushdie explained that the initial reluctance of the British government to act resulted in “years and years of campaigning” against the warrant.

“Politicians were a little late to the party,” Rushdie said. “There was an early phase led by the British when politicians tended not to want to make a very big fuss about it. Since that was the government in whose country this was happening, other countries took their lead.”

Rushdie explained that it was countries with a strong interest in free speech issues, including Scandinavia, Mexico and the Netherlands, that actively defended him. British politician Douglas Hurd, who served in the government of Margaret Thatcher during the conflict, even went as far as to say that reading “The Satanic Verses” was his “worst time in office.”

It was only with the change of the three governments in the US, the UK and Iran that the “breakthrough” occurred, Rushdie explained. Upon the election of Mohammed Khatami as President of Iran, President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair made it clear that they would have no more tolerance for the issue. The death sentence was eventually revoked in 1998.

Rushdie stated his conviction that the matter would have cleared up much sooner had there been a different approach from the UK and US earlier.

“I never ask the question “what if?” he said. “It’s an uninteresting question, to wonder what might have happened.”

Rushdie, a previous Booker-prize winner, also spent time discussing his autobiographical novel, “Joseph Anton: A Memoir,” which was released in 2012. The piece covers the years he spent in hiding and was compiled using journals he kept at the time.

Jasmine Horsey is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at