On The Books: Salman Rushdie's fatwa still lurking in controversy over 'The Hindus'

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Image Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie’s murder. After The Satanic Versus sparked Muslim cries of blasphemy, Rushdie was forced to spend his life running, hiding and fearfully looking over his shoulder in case there was a bullet coming for him. Now that it has been 25 years since the infamous fatwa was declared, but what has changed? Unfortunately, the answer is: concerningly little. In September 2012, Rushdie told BBC that he didn’t think his book would get published in the current times because there is too much “fear and nervousness” surrounding religious controversy. He was right.

Earlier this week, Penguin Books India agreed to destroy all copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History, a scholarly book by Wendy Doniger, a professor at University of Chicago whose passion for Hinduism has led her to publish many books on the Indian religion. The out of court settlement with Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan has drawn heavy fire from the literary community, including Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things and a client of Penguin’s. Roy is one of the most vocal (and eloquent) advocates for Indian free press – and oppression everywhere. She wrote an open letter to Penguin in the Times of India, which we have excerpted below:

Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world. You existed long before publishing became just another business, and long before books became products like any other perishable product in the market—mosquito repellent or scented soap. You have published some of the greatest writers in history. You have stood by them as publishers should, you have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds. And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement.

Zing. I wouldn’t want to be Penguin Books right now. Doniger herself was more forgiving of Penguin. She pointed out that Penguin did spend three years in court battling the civil suit. “Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book,” she said to the LA Times. For further reading, see The New York Times for background on The Hindus contraversy and The Guardian for a look back at Rushdie’s fatwa.

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