The Freedom to Imagine: Ayad Akhtar on the Importance of Salman Rushdie’s Life and Work

Literature

I was in my late teens, and the community I lived in was a vibrant one. Pakistani and Indian families. Folks from Syria and Egypt and Indonesia making their home, living their lives in various parts of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When we gathered together, it was on weekends, and usually on Sundays—at the local mosque. Our mosque had been open just a few years, an enormous labor of fundraising and learning the ropes in a new country to get something important built.

We cooked our various cuisines for each other there, traded tales and developed crushes—and we worshipped, not agreeing about everything, but in agreement about some certain things that mattered most to us. And of course nothing mattered more to us than the Prophet.

This was who we were when Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses—and the affair surrounding it—exploded like a mortar shell into the heart of our community.

Most folks didn’t read the book. Those who did… what they told the rest of us about it, we couldn’t understand. Why would a Muslim write the kinds of things Salman had written about Muhammad? The Prophet, who stood at the center of deepest hopes for what was best in ourselves and in our neighbors, our deepest hopes for the best in our lives. The Prophet wasn’t just a person to us, he was a way of talking about possibility itself. Goodness, itself. Why would anyone write such things about that?

To say we were offended doesn’t begin to cover just how pained we felt by what we could only see as a betrayal.

I was approaching adulthood, and I was already struggling with so much of what I’d grown up with—articles of faith, dogmas and attitudes many hundreds of years old, and which, I was increasingly coming to see, were at the root of so much unhappiness and pain in the lives of those I loved. Kafka once wrote that literature is the axe for the frozen sea within us—and it was when I picked up The Satanic Verses, intrigued by what was being said about it, that I heard the seismic, cracking sound of centuries of frozen things breaking open inside me.

To say that the book transformed me, is, well, an understatement. I remember, upon finishing Salman’s novel—and there’s a part of me that still can’t believe I’m standing up here tonight, calling him by his first name—I remember, on finishing the book, sobbing uncontrollably, tears that came and went in torrents for three days. My dad couldn’t understand: “What the hell is wrong with you? It’s just a book. It can’t be that bad?”

I said, “No, Dad. You don’t understand. It’s so beautiful.”

I said “beautiful” and like Keats, what I really meant was true.

The Satanic Verses was a sublime broadside against the ossification of our Muslim tradition, the book’s surpassing playfulness and majestic, irreverent beauty an act of tough, tough love, a profound and serious and historical transgression. And it showed me, the aspiring young writer want to be, the PATH—not only a path to writing, but the path to staying connected to my faith and my community, through reading and inquiry, through challenge and skepticism, rather than blind belonging and obedience.

Salman gave offense—to awaken. And awaken he did. He awakened the malice of the mullahs, and a generational outpouring of passionate support from across the planet. In the process he became a symbol, of the writer imperiled by the products of his imagination, imprisoned for the sake a freedom that was not just his to exercise, but also ours to learn from, ours to enjoy.

I’ve focused on The Satanic Verses, but Salman’s influence on my life and on the lives and voices of so many writers—and not just the various children of “midnight on the subcontinent”—his influence is the result of a still-vital, still-evolving legacy that courses through more than two dozen works across forty years. And counting. It’s not news to state the obvious: Salman is one of the world’s great writers. Duh.

In 2004, he became the president of PEN America, and in the process, perhaps the most iconic president we’ve had, not simply because of the magnitude of his historic talents, or the great price he’s paid for expanding our imaginative capacities, but also because of what he stood for and continues to stand for. Freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to speak, to imagine and inquire, freedom to make sense of reality and history without deference to dogma, irrespective of the consequences. It’s what PEN stands for, fundamentally. And it’s an ideal we will sometimes be reminded we must work harder to live up to. For that is the process of growth and progress.

For us, for me—Salman’s example is a central inspiration. Which is why the attack last August was so profound and galvanizing moment for our organization. In my case, it brought to decisive resolution a question that had lingered in me for decades unresolved. Is the harm caused by offensive speech a claim with equal weight and importance as the freedom of the imagination, the freedom to speak?

Of course not. Of course not. If Salman’s example has meant anything, it has meant that. As he once put it: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Last year, in a speech honoring Salman in the wake of the attack, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie commented on the ever-widening cultural reluctance to give offense, the reluctance of writers and their publishers to risk social censure or worse—and she wondered if “the Satanic Verses could be written today.”

The answer to that question, if that writer is Salman Rushdie, is yes. It would indeed again be written today.

Ayad Akhtar

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