by Salman Rushdie, The New Yorker, September 17, 2012
The book took more than four years to write. Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an “insult,” he wanted to reply, “I can insult people a lot faster than that.” But it did not strike his opponents as strange that a serious writer should spend a tenth of his life creating something as crude as an insult. This was because they refused to see him as a serious writer. In order to attack him and his work, they had to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist who “attacked Islam” for his own personal gain. This was what was meant by the much repeated phrase “He did it on purpose.” Well, of course he had done it on purpose. How could one write a quarter of a million words by accident? The problem, as Bill Clinton might have said, was what one meant by “it.”
The ironic truth was that, after two novels that engaged directly with the public history of the Indian subcontinent, he saw this new book as a more personal exploration, a first attempt to create a work out of his own experience of migration and metamorphosis. To him, it was the least political of the three books. And the material derived from the origin story of Islam was, he thought, essentially respectful toward the Prophet of Islam, even admiring of him. It treated him as he always said he wanted to be treated, not as a divine figure (like the Christians’ “Son of God”) but as a man (“the Messenger”). It showed him as a man of his time, shaped by that time, and, as a leader, both subject to temptation and capable of overcoming it. “What kind of idea are you?” the novel asked the new religion, and suggested that an idea that refused to bend or compromise would, in all likelihood, be destroyed, but conceded that, in very rare instances, such ideas became the ones that changed the world. His Prophet flirted with compromise, then rejected it, and his unbending idea grew strong enough to bend history to its will.
When he was first accused of being offensive, he was truly perplexed. He thought he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation—an engagement from the point of view of an unbeliever, certainly, but a genuine one nonetheless. How could that be thought offensive? The thin-skinned years of rage-defined identity politics that followed taught him, and everyone else, the answer to that question.