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Magical realist forced to live on the run

British Indian author Salman Rushdie is a master of magical realism who captured global attention as the target of a fatwa that forced him into hiding, and which now drives his fierce defence of freedom of speech.

The 75-year-old, who was stabbed in an attack on Friday at a speaking event in New York state, was propelled into the spotlight with his second novel “Midnight’s Children” in 1981.

The book won international praise and Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for its portrayal of post-independence India.

But his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” brought attention beyond his imagination when it sparked a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for his death by Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The novel was considered by some Muslims as disrespectful of the Prophet Mohammed.

Rushdie, who was born in India to non-practising Muslims and himself is an atheist, was forced to go underground as a bounty was put on his head — which remains today.  

He was granted police protection by the government in Britain, where he was at school and where he made his home, following the murder or attempted murder of his translators and publishers.

He spent nearly a decade in hiding, moving houses repeatedly and being unable to tell his children where he lived. 

Rushdie only began to emerge from his life on the run in the late 1990s after Iran in 1998 said it would not support his assassination.

He became a fixture on the international party circuit, even appearing in films such as “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and US television sitcom “Seinfeld”. He has been married four times and has two children.

As an advocate of freedom of speech, he notably launched a strong defence of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after its staff were gunned down by Islamists in Paris in 2015.

The magazine had published drawings of Mohammed that drew furious reactions from Muslims worldwide.

“I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity,” Rushdie said.

“‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’. Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”

– Constant threats –

Threats and boycotts have continued against literary events that Rushdie attends, and his knighthood in 2007 sparked protests in Iran and Pakistan, where a government minister said the honour justified suicide bombings.

The fatwa failed to stifle Rushdie’s writing, however, and inspired his memoir “Joseph Anton”, named after his alias while in hiding and written in the third person.

It is one of several works of non-fiction and more than a dozen novels that Rushdie has written, along with several short stories, many of them addressing issues of migration and post-colonialism.

Still prolific, his latest novel “Quichotte” was published in 2019.

“Midnight’s Children”, which…

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