An assassin tried to end Salman Rushdie. Instead, he massively revived interest in the very ideas that inspired Rushdie's death sentence.
After my initial shock and anger over the barbaric assault on Salman Rushdie, an unexpected image came to mind: a glittering cliffside mansion in Malibu.
Nearly 20 years have passed since Barbra Streisand sued a photographer for taking a photo that incidentally captured Streisand’s Malibu mansion. The photo was one of 12,000 images in a coastline erosion assessment project, each capturing 500 feet of the California coastline, 1136 miles in all. The suit claimed an invasion of privacy.
Prior to the lawsuit, the image in question had been downloaded only six times, including twice by Streisand’s lawyers. If not for the publicity that accompanied the legal action, that number is unlikely to ever have exceeded single digits.
But once the case became public knowledge, more than 420,000 people viewed the image in a single month.
Two years later, journalist Mike Masnick coined the term “the Streisand effect” to describe the paradoxical effect of trying to hide something from view and in the process subjecting it to enormous public scrutiny. The phenomenon is surely as old as dirt, but once it had a name, uncountable examples started spilling forth. In 2012, a British schoolgirl’s tiny blog featuring pix of her school lunches with ratings for nutritional value was viewed by mere dozens—until the local council banned her from doing it, and the subsequent press brought 10 million visitors in 18 months. When the Church of Scientology tried to entirely delete an embarrassing video of Tom Cruise from the universe, it became Must-See TV overnight. The anti-Uber protest by European taxi drivers that drove a 850% increase in Uber app downloads. North Korea making threats over The Interview. The list of failed attempts to suppress a hated thing is endless.
You see where I’m going, I can tell by your face.
When in February 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged “Muslims of the world rapidly to execute the author and the publishers of the book” for suggesting that a fictionalized version of Muhammad (under a different name) might have made up some or all of the Qur’an for his own purposes rather than receiving it from Allah—the kind of suggestion leveled at every prophet in every religion that has ever existed—Rushdie was just six years removed from a career as an advertising copywriter. He had become well-known among the literati, having won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children, but was hardly a household name When The Satanic Verses was published.
Then Khomeini declared that “it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send [Rushdie] to Hell.” And in doing so, Rushdie’s name and books, and his challenges to orthodoxy, not to mention the very idea of challenging orthodoxy, became (to quote a wise teacher) “more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
In trying to silence the idea, they massively amplified it. A Streisand before Streisand.
I detest the incurious, grotesque, shameful impulse that fueled the fatwa against Rushdie. It threw him into a kind of imprisonment, including 56 changes of location in the first six months. But there is some consolation in knowing that the fatwa failed miserably in its aim to destroy the idea that one of the fundaments of Islamic belief might be built on sand.
A Booker Prize is a lovely thing. But if not for the fatwa itself, how many people outside of literary circles would ever have read The Satanic Verses, or even known Rushdie’s name?
Thirty-three years pass. In the interim, Rushdie has achieved legendary status among the literati. But in the popular mind, he’s mostly an answer in the Trivial Pursuit 1980s Edition. The details of the fatwa became fuzzy, including the transgressive ideas that brought the wrath of Islam down upon him.
Then a 24-year-old Muslim from New Jersey, energized by the unending fundamentalist incentive, attempts and fails to kill him. Within hours, The Satanic Verses is #18 on Amazon out of 33,000,000 books. Every library in the Western world immediately has a six-month waiting period. The book that earned its author a death sentence is once again among the most-read books in the world.
“[The attacker] did what no other Muslim has been able to do in these many years,” said one Iranian commentator after the stabbing. He is exactly correct. By reminding the world of the power of Rushdie’s ideas, and doing so in the Internet age, no other Muslim gave such a vibrant rebirth to The Satanic Verses, and to the idea that Islam could easily be a counterfeit. No other Muslim so brilliantly revived the ayatollah’s long-slumbering Streisand effect.
And unlike the ayatollah, Salman Rushdie lives.