Salman Rushdie on being "plunged into a spy novel"

Salman Rushdie talks new book, furor over anti-Muslim film
Author Salman Rushdie on "CBS This Morning: Saturday," Sept. 22, 2012.
CBS News

(CBS News) Salman Rushdie said that living for a decade under threat of death for having written a book deemed blasphemous of the Prophet Mohammad was like being "plunged into a spy novel," and that "The Satanic Verses" - which prompted the hatred of Iran's leading religious leader 23 years ago - was of an entirely different order than the anti-Muslim film currently inflaming protests around the world.

Rushdie's new memoir, "Joseph Anton" (Random House), recounts the saga begun in 1989 when he learned he had been "sentenced to death" by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian cleric had decreed Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses," was blasphemous, and announced a "fatwa" against the British subject - resulting in a decade spent in hiding, living like a prisoner.

On "CBS This Morning: Saturday," Rushdie recalled that when he first learned of the death sentence, there was confusion as to whether it was just rhetoric or something more dangerous.

"The trouble with Khomeini's regime is they actually had professional killers who did this, you know, who killed members of the opposition and so on, even in Europe," Rushdie said. "So it became very clear, very quickly that it was a real threat.

"Just bizarre, for anyone, any individual, let alone a writer to suddenly, essentially be plunged into a spy novel," Rushdie said of the fatwa. "I was surrounded by secret policemen with guns and being taken to a kind of James Bond building on the river to meet with intelligence officers - people with actual double-oh prefixes! I was being told literally about assassination squads entering the country. Happily now, at this end of the story, it gives me a hell of a story to tell. The back end of the story, it was no fun."

Iranians revive, boost fatwa for Salman Rushdie

Rushdie said the special branch of British police charged with his protection considered him to be in more danger than anyone in the country except the Queen.

"It was supposed to be the most dangerous protection," Rushdie told Anthony Mason and Rebecca Jarvis. "I find out afterwards - these people became my friends, a lot of the Special Branch policemen - that in Scotland Yard, this was considered to be the sexiest protection. The people who were doing this were kind of looked up to by their fellow officers. That was their biggest job."

Rushdie admitted that, from the outside, his experience of being both thrust into the limelight and hidden by intelligence services may have appeared to be "living large" while continuing to write and sell books.

"One of my worries was that if you look at it from the outside it sometimes looked glamorous. You show up places in an armored Jaguar, pathways are cleared, and people think, 'Who the hell does he think he is? He's just a writer. Why does he deserve that?' That's human nature.

"Funny thing, from my side of the fence, it was like jail," he added. "I spent 10 years without the keys to my front door in my pocket. Not allowed to walk out the door without all the police rigmarole going on. Not allowed to drive my own car. Not allowed to see my children or my friends without all kinds of arrangements.

"The simplest things in the world became problematic. Going to the movies? Big problem."

Mason commented that in 1989 he was in Islamabad, Pakistan, caught in the middle of a demonstration over Rushdie and "Satanic Verses." Police shot rubber bullets and tear gas at the massive crowd who, it appeared to Mason, had not actually read his book.

"One of the things that's so bizarre about those early demonstrations is that the book wasn't there to read," said Rushdie. "But they didn't even know who I was. They had just been aimed in the way that can happen in India and Pakistan, that politicians and religious leaders can essentially put a mob on the street by snapping their fingers and just pointing in that direction and saying, 'Go.'"

When asked about "Innocence of Muslims," a low-budget film produced in the U.S. that denigrates the prophet Mohammad (and whose director is said to have made it specifically to inspire anger in Muslims), Rushdie replied, "I think it's a serious function of art to ask difficult questions and to make people have conversations that they don't want to have necessarily; that's one thing. This film, which clearly is sort of a piece of garbage, was clearly made in order to upset people. And I think he got what he wanted in spades.

"So we're in this strange situation where on the one hand we have to defend his right to free speech because that's a right that we cherish, and rightly so. But we don't have to approve of him. The right to free speech doesn't mean that you get a free pass. You can still be criticized. And clearly what he did was terrible."

When asked about the protests in the streets throughout the Muslim world, Rushdie said it was the product of what he called a growing "outrage industry."

"There are people in Muslim countries whose job it is to find things that they can use to inflame protests of this kind, which obviously have a broader anti-Western, anti-American purpose - it's not just about this film," Rushdie said. "When you have the head of Hezbollah saying that this film was the work of U.S. intelligence, you know, you see that what's intended here is a larger anti-American project. It's not about the film any more.

"Your intention was never to insult or even provoke anyone?" asked Mason.

"No. I think lots and lots of people, including many Muslim readers of ["Satanic Verses"] finished the book and said 'Where's the difficulty?' A lot of what was said about the book actually isn't in the book."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and