'A Poem Can't Stop a Bullet…But': How the Attack on Salman Rushdie May Provide an Armour to His Beliefs

“A poem cannot stop a bullet. A novel can’t defuse a bomb. But we are not helpless. We can sing the truth and name the liars. We must tell better stories than the tyrants,” Rushdie had said at a speech at the PEN World Voices Festival.

The author, who has served as the president of the PEN America Center, an organisation which advocates freedom of speech, is far apart from the men who are often flung into honorary roles in lack of reality’s touch. No, Rushdie has lived most of his life under threat, and been witness to a series of catastrophic incidents against those even involved in the publication and translation of his controversial book ‘the Satanic Verses’.

The wordsmith, who has spent almost a decade in hiding, has never deterred from the legacy he has created. And when he was attacked in New York by a man who is suspected of having sympathies with Shia terrorism, that legacy seemed to come full circle.

This is not the first time Rushdie has been attacked, what is less known is that the entire controversy behind his book may have even taken a life. Rushdie was subjected to a fatwa following the publication of his controversial book, with Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini demanding the death of the author and “all those involved in its publication.” And Hotoshi Igarashi, whose sole crime was to translate the novel into Japanese, was stabbed to death in 1991. While no one was ever arrested or officially charged, most theories about the murder centre on that assumption.

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The writer is now fighting for his life. Latest updates on his condition reveal that Rushdie may lose an eye, and has also suffered grievous injuries to his liver due to the stabbing.

But if the pages of history are turned, Rushdie’s message against religious intolerance, no matter which face it may assume, and the importance of free speech and expression, may even be amplified by what he is suffering. Controversy revels and bakes itself continually, and may shed fresh light on the need to work more against censorship, around the world.

Even as media light is currently focussed at the heart of the controversy – his book the Satanic Verses – it seems almost illuminating that Rushdie employed the same dialogism which which was employed to disperse the teachings of Socrates by his students, in his Booker prize winner book, the Midnight’s children.

Socrates represents a historical example of someone killed for his ideas, but is now more eternal than ever. While comparisons are not always needed, recognition of patterns may be.

Will the Attack Deter or Fire Up Writers?

Rushdie has been a vocal advocate for free expression and liberal causes, and the literary world reacted in shock and anger. “This is an assault on freedom of thought and speech. Salman has been an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world. He is a fiery and generous spirit, a man of immense talent and courage and he will not be deterred,” his friend and novelist Ian McEwan said.

In fact, it is being reported that Rushdie, a staunch opponent of religion and religious leaders who use religion for political gain, had frequently resisted security, despite knowing he was vulnerable to attacks from fundamentalists and ardent supporters of those politicians.

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And even as the international writing community has now seemed to have united in condemning the attack against Rushdie, it cannot take away from the isolation and often lonely journey the writer has had to bear, when the backlash was at its zenith.

But alone or not, in a 2012 talk, Rushdie in New York, had confronted the terror threats against him, calling terrorism the art of fear. “The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid,” he had said.

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