"This was essentially one priest in Iran looking for a headline," the author of "The Satanic Verses" said Tuesday night as he spoke at a Barnes & Noble in Union Square before about 400 people, some just children when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 declared Rushdie's novel was blasphemous and called for his death.
Iran's government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini's decree, his fatwa, but anti-Rushdie sentiment remains. A semi-official Iranian religious foundation headed by Ayatollah Hassan Saneii has raised the bounty for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million after recent protests against an anti-Islamic film that helped lead to riots around the Middle East. But Rushdie, who called the movie "the worst video on YouTube," says Saneii has long offered a bounty and few people have taken him seriously.
Rushdie said the threat was simply the latest product of the "outrage industry" and added that there is "no evidence" of people being interested in the bounty. His concern had been state-sanctioned death squads, "professional killers." But the days of hiding are long over and he is free to walk the streets, stand on line in supermarkets and honor that old publishing ritual - the author reading.
Rushdie was discussing his memoir about the fatwa, "Joseph Anton," which has just been published to strong reviews and encouraging sales. Security officials were present Tuesday at Barnes & Noble, but precautions were modest enough that Rushdie's appearance was well publicized and you could enter the reading area on the fourth floor without having your bag checked. The greatest deterrent was the weather, whistling winds and pounding rain that at times pressed against the windows just behind Rushdie.
Wearing a gray suit and no tie, the 65-year-old author sounded relieved, gratified and at home. This was a story with a happy ending, he said, although one that he would prefer to relive only on paper. "Joseph Anton" follows the abrupt turns in his life and career, from his swift rise in the early 1980s as the celebrated author of "Midnight's Children" to his sudden notoriety as objections to "The Satanic Verses" intensified from protests to government sanctions. The book is named for the pseudonym Rushdie used while in hiding. Anton was for Anton Chekhov, the "poet of loneliness," and "Joseph" for Joseph Conrad, who penned a motto Rushdie tried to follow: "I must live till I die."
Rushdie made it, but he remembered those who nearly didn't, including the novel's Norwegian publisher, shot three times in the back. That publisher not only pulled through, Rushdie observed, he made sure to order more copies of the book. Rushdie also thanked such loyal friends as Christopher Hitchens and the many booksellers in the U.S. who continued to stock the novel despite bomb threats and real bombs. "This was a shooting war," he said.
As he writes in "Joseph Anton," Rushdie witnessed the very best and worst in people. He remembered being criticized by conservatives and even some liberals for causing his own trouble. Two marriages ended during his decade underground and publishers were reluctant to release the paperback of "Satanic Verses," which became a best seller for reasons Rushdie never imagined or desired.
"Avoid being condemned to death by the leader of a tyrannical country," he advised the audience Tuesday.
The fatwa turned his life into a novel, a genre novel. Rushdie spoke of having armed policemen in his kitchen, people "licensed to kill." He described streets in Paris cleared by security officials so a car he was in could drive through. And he remembered looking out on a cafe and wishing he could join the drinkers and smokers trying to figure out who was causing the fuss.
He says he's proud of the book and of his fight for a most precious freedom - freedom of expression. Terrorism is really the art of fear, he explained. "The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid."