Until the recent terrorist attacks, Wash. U. had had reason to feel secure in bringing Rushdie here; he had managed to move from human-rights symbol to celebrity-tabloid fodder in a stunningly brief amount of time. Under the fatwa imposed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini since Feb. 14, 1989 -- a decree that included the offer of $1 million to any brave Muslim who would kill Rushdie (whose novel The Satanic Verses stank in the nostrils of Allah, supposedly) on sight -- any public appearance by the author was an act of courage by all those involved. Although Rushdie received protection from the British government, extremists reached out to punish others tainted by the blasphemer, murdering his Japanese translator and wounding his Norwegian translator. The Satanic Verses was re-released by a consortium of publishers so that no one house could become a target.
The fatwa has not been lifted -- apparently only the one who orders such a decree can rescind it, and Khomeini died months after issuing the death sentence -- but in 1998, the Muslim clerics in charge of the Iranian government backed off from encouraging Rushdie's murder. Just over a month ago, the British foreign secretary visited Tehran, causing the Daily Telegraph of London to announce the "Rushdie crisis" over.
Rushdie has been quite famously out and about, moving to New York City; dating a va-va-voom cookbook author/model, Padma Lakshmi, nearly half his age; and traveling from city to city on a book tour promoting his latest novel, Fury. The book has been excoriated by British critics as if they've been lying in wait to impose a fatwa of their own. The babe, the exodus from England (which spent about $3 million per year protecting his ungrateful hide) -- the joie de vivre of Rushdie's out-of-hiding lifestyle has been too much to take. A cameo in Bridget Jones's Diary is unbecoming of a human-rights symbol. Once again, Rushdie was a marked man, marked for tabloidization.
The nagging worry about a few Muslim extremists who still wanted to pitch Rushdie into hell didn't mean much to the British press, nor did it seem to mean much to Rushdie anymore. St. Louis' pre-eminent man of letters, William Gass, chuckles drolly about Rushdie's "cutting a wide swath" in Manhattan. When Gass was director of the International Writers Center, he'd attempted to bring Rushdie to Washington University while the fatwa was still being sanctioned by Teheran. That visit didn't come off, but Gass was anticipating Rushdie's appearance on Nov. 14 ("He was supposed to come to the house for dinner"), when "A Conversation with Salman Rushdie" was to be held in Graham Chapel, with Professor David Lawton engaging the author in an onstage interview. Security issues "didn't seem very serious to Rushdie," says Gass of the planned visit, "at least before the 11th."
The rage of a few Muslim extremists fuels our fear now. Rushdie is off the celebrity-sightings page and back in the op-ed section. "How to defeat terrorism?" he wrote in the New York Times. "Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared." Other writers have made the same assertions, even in this paper, but their homilies ring hollow with a smug, secure self-importance. Rushdie's call for courage has been validated by the example of his own.
Last week, Wash. U. asked Rushdie to postpone his visit after security concerns -- and costs -- grew significantly. When the RFT first contacted the university's public-affairs office, three weeks before the scheduled event, the meaning of "appropriate security" had not yet been defined. A week later, however, after the head of campus security had consulted with the FBI and "other national agencies," says Fred Volkmann, vice chancellor for public affairs, it was determined that the campus police "would not be able to provide sufficient security for a visit of this type. We would have to involve significant external support."
Volkmann would not put a dollar figure on the cost of that additional security, but those who were involved in the planning have given a figure of around $10,000, saying that Rushdie's appearance would have been treated with the vigilance exercised over the presidential debates. Volkmann says there have been no specific threats to harm Rushdie or those in attendance: "This is strictly based on advice received from law-enforcement authorities who track these issues and who provide suggestions on what might be a prudent way to proceed."
The Rushdie event was to serve as the reopening of the International Writers Center, which had gone into hibernation since Gass' retirement. The center's new director, Professor Gerald Early, contacted in North Carolina, where he is on leave, says, "The security concerns are legitimate.
"There was not only the matter of the escalating cost but the concern about the students and staff at Washington University," Early says in response to an RFT query. "It must be remembered that people who were killed when the fatwa was issued against Rushdie were translators and publishers. In this current climate, people at Washington University were not being at all unreasonable to think that they might be targets after Rushdie left because we had invited him. I am concerned about the staff at the IWC. Nonetheless, we still wish very much to have him when it is a better time to do so, perhaps in the spring. Waiting for a better time seems prudent."
Getting Rushdie to and from St. Louis has proved to be another obstacle for the university. A publicist for Random House says Rushdie was unable to fly domestic airlines during his North American book tour -- his flights were canceled abruptly, like so many others, after Sept. 11. Although the FAA does not officially prohibit Rushdie from flying, Elizabeth Fogarty of Random House explains that the author remains on an FAA list of passengers who require specific security measures, apparently so stringent that airlines exert their right to refuse to carry him. Random House sprang for a private charter as the author winged across America promoting Fury, but since the terrorist attacks Rushdie has returned to Great Britain.
According to those involved in the university's planning meetings for the literary event, Rushdie's agent informed the school that the author could fly into Chicago by international air, then be driven to St. Louis, participate in the "conversation" and fly back to London by private jet, at a cost of $6,000-$7,000.
Wash. U. will not divulge Rushdie's speaker's fee, although Gass figures it to be "handsome." Adding together Rushdie's fee with the cost of the extra security measures and the private jet back to London, the university has found that even human-rights symbols can be cost-prohibitive.
As the RFT went to press, Rushdie had not yet responded to Washington University's requested postponement. Those at the offices of the International Writers Center continue to wait patiently for their public re-emergence. Although the RFT was told that the campus Islamic Society opposed Rushdie's visit, calls to the director of the society have not been returned. The secretary at the Center for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations provided her own commentary on the supposed controversy: Salman Rushdie, "who is that?" she asked. "The Satanic Verses, what the hell is that?"
In Rushdie's aforementioned op-ed piece for the Times, he proposed a list of things fundamentalists are against and that the rest of us should claim as worth fighting for: "freedom of speech, a multiparty political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex."
Add to that list seeing Rushdie and Padma in People, as well as not caring, or knowing, who the hell Salman Rushdie is.