When Christopher Hitchens Vigilantly Defended Salman Rushdie After the Fatwah: “It Was a Matter of Everything I Hated Versus Everything I Loved”

I have often been asked if Christo­pher defend­ed me because he was my close friend. The truth is that he became my close friend because he want­ed to defend me. –Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie remains in crit­i­cal con­di­tion after suf­fer­ing mul­ti­ple stab wounds while on stage in New York, a shock­ing occur­rence but not quite sur­pris­ing giv­en that the author has lived with a death sen­tence over his head since 1989. (You can read the his­to­ry of that con­tro­ver­sy here.) The nation of Iran has denied any respon­si­bil­i­ty for the attack on the author, but it’s prob­a­bly safe to assume that his 1988 nov­el The Satan­ic Vers­es has some­thing to do with it, over thir­ty years after the fact.

“Even before the fat­wa,” Steven Erlanger writes in The New York Times“the book was banned in a num­ber of coun­tries, includ­ing India, Bangladesh, Sudan and Sri Lan­ka.” Protests of the nov­el result­ed in sev­er­al deaths and attacks on book­sellers. Rushdie had not set out to enrage much of the Islam­ic world, but nei­ther had he any inter­est in appeas­ing its con­ser­v­a­tive lead­ers. Always out­spo­ken, and a fero­cious crit­ic of British Empire as well as Islam­ic theoc­ra­cy, his career since the fat­wa has demon­strat­ed a com­mit­ment to free­ing the lit­er­ary arts from the dic­tates of church and state.

On the sub­ject of impe­ri­al­ism, Rushdie and the late Christo­pher Hitchens came to dis­agree after the U.S.‘s inva­sion of Iraq and Hitchens’ “U‑turn across the polit­i­cal high­way to join forces with the war-mak­ers of George W. Bush’s admin­is­tra­tion,” Rushdie writes in a Van­i­ty Fair appre­ci­a­tion for Hitchens’ after the lat­ter’s death. But his book God is Not Great “car­ried Hitch away from the Amer­i­can right and back toward his nat­ur­al, lib­er­al, ungod­ly con­stituen­cy”; a col­lec­tion of peo­ple who see the free expres­sion of ideas as a far prefer­able con­di­tion to the exis­tence of theo­crat­ic death squads.

Wher­ev­er he fell at any giv­en time on the polit­i­cal spec­trum, Hitchens nev­er gave up his defense of Rushdie, one in which, as he wrote in his mem­oir, Hitch-22, he was com­plete­ly com­mit­ted from the start:

It was, if I can phrase it like this, a mat­ter of every­thing I hat­ed ver­sus every­thing I loved. In the hate col­umn: dic­ta­tor­ship, reli­gion, stu­pid­i­ty, dem­a­gogy, cen­sor­ship, bul­ly­ing, and intim­i­da­tion. In the love col­umn: lit­er­a­ture, irony, humor, the indi­vid­ual, and the defense of free expres­sion. Plus, of course, friend­ship– 

Hitchens was grave­ly dis­ap­point­ed in lib­er­al writ­ers like Arthur Miller who refused to pub­licly sup­port Rushdie out of fear, as he says in the tele­vi­sion inter­view at the top of the post. The ambiva­lent response of many on the left struck him as gross polit­i­cal cow­ardice and hypocrisy. He went on the attack, argu­ing round­ly on pop­u­lar shows like Ques­tion Time (below, with his broth­er Peter, Baroness Williams, and recent­ly deposed prime min­is­ter Boris John­son).

Hitchens “saw that the attack on The Satan­ic Vers­es was not an iso­lat­ed occur­rence,” Rushdie writes, “that across the Mus­lim world, writ­ers and jour­nal­ists and artists were being accused of the same crimes — blas­phe­my, heresy, apos­ta­sy, and their mod­ern-day asso­ciates, ‘insult’ and ‘offense.’ ” Rushdie had meant no offense, he writes, “I had not cho­sen the bat­tle.” But it seems to have cho­sen him:

It was at least the right bat­tle, because in it every­thing that I loved and val­ued (lit­er­a­ture, free­dom, irrev­er­ence, free­dom, irre­li­gion, free­dom) was ranged against every­thing I detest­ed (fanati­cism, vio­lence, big­otry, humor­less­ness, philis­tin­ism, and the new offense cul­ture of the age). Then I read Christo­pher using exact­ly the same every­thing-he-loved-ver­sus-every­thing-he-hat­ed trope, and felt… under­stood.

If the fat­wa against Rushdie made him infa­mous, it did not make him uni­ver­sal­ly beloved, even among his fel­low writ­ers, but he always had a fierce ally in Hitchens. Let’s hope Rushdie can pick up the fight for free expres­sion once again when he recov­ers from this bru­tal stab­bing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Christo­pher Hitchens Dis­miss­es the Cult of Ayn Rand: There’s No “Need to Have Essays Advo­cat­ing Self­ish­ness Among Human Beings; It Requires No Rein­force­ment”

Hear Salman Rushdie Read Don­ald Barthelme’s “Con­cern­ing the Body­guard” 

Jeff Koons and Salman Rushdie Teach New Cours­es on Art, Cre­ativ­i­ty & Sto­ry­telling for Mas­ter­Class

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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