John le Carré, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens Exchange Biting Letters

"The infamous trade of vilifying one's colleagues to earn a little money should be left to cheap journalists... It is those wretches who have made of literature an arena of gladiators."
in letter to a friend on February 20, 1767

author Salman Rushdie

This is an exchange of letters to the editor by authors Salman Rushdie, John le Carré, and Christopher Hitchens in the British daily The Guardian. Rushdie wrote his initial letter to a speech by le Carré, excerpted in the November 15, 1997, issue of the The Guardian, in which le Carré complains of having been unfairly labeled an anti-Semite the previous fall in The New York Times Book Review. Rushdie, who lives under sentence of death by the Iranian government since early 1989, upbraids le Carré for sympathizing with the Islamic fundamentalists who would seek to murder him.

November 18, 1997,

      John le Carré complains that he has been branded an anti-Semite as a result of a politically correct witch-hunt and declares himself innocent of the charge. It would be easier to sympathize with him had he not been so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer.

      In 1989, during the worst days of the Islamic attack on The Satanic Verses, le Carré wrote an article (also, if memory serves, in The Guardian) in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.

      It would be gracious if he were to admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now that, at least in his own opinion, he's the one in the line of fire.

Salman Rushdie

Novemer 19, 1997

      Rushdie's way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming him to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.

      I wrote that there is no absolute standard of free speech in any society. I wrote that tolerance does not come at the same time, and in the same form, to all religions and cultures, and that Christian society too, until very recently, defined the limits of freedom by what was sacred. I wrote, and would write again today, that when it came to the further exploitation of Rushdie's work in paperback form, I was more concerned about the girl at Penguin books who might get her hands blown off in the mailroom than I was about Rushdie's royalties. Anyone who had wished to read the book by then had ample access to it.

      My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound less arrogant, less colonialist, and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers' camp.

John le Carré

November 20, 1997,

      I'm grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be. He claims not to have joined in the attack against me but also states that "there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity."

      A cursory examination of this lofty formulation reveals that (1) it takes the philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist line that The Satanic Verses was no more than an "insult," and (2) it suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.

      So, if John le Carré upsets Jews, all he needs to do is fill a page of The Guardian with his muddled bombast, but if I am accused of thought crimes, John le Carré will demand that I suppress my paperback edition. He says that he is more interested in safeguarding publishing staff than in my royalties. But it is precisely these people, my novel's publishers in some thirty countries, together with the staff of bookshops, who have most passionately supported and defended my right to publish. It is ignoble of le Carré to use them as an argument for censorship when they have so courageously stood up for freedom.

      John le Carré is right to say that free speech isn't absolute. We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don't defend. I'd always thought George Smiley knew that. His creator appears to have forgotten.

Salman Rushdie

November 20, 1997

      John le Carré's conduct in your pages is like nothing so much as that of a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head. He used to be evasive and euphemistic about the open solicitation of murder, for bounty, on the grounds that ayatollahs had feelings, too. Now he tells us that his prime concern was the safety of the girls in the mailroom. For good measure, he arbitrarily counterposes their security against Rushdie's royalties.

      May we take it, then, that he would have had no objection if The Satanic Verses had been written and published for free and distributed gratis from unattended stalls? This might have at least satisfied those who appear to believe that the defense of free expression should be free of cost and free of risk.

      As it happens, no mailroom girls have been injured in the course of eight years' defiance of the fatwah. And when the nervous book chains of North America briefly did withdraw The Satanic Verses on dubious grounds of "security," it was their staff unions who protested and who volunteered to stand next to plate-glass windows in upholding the reader's right to buy and peruse any book. In le Carré's eyes, their brave decision was taken in "safety" and was moreover blasphemous towards a great religion! Could we not have been spared this revelation of the contents of his hat - I mean head?

Christopher Hitchens

November 21, 1997

      Anyone reading yesterday's letters from Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens might well ask himself into whose hands the great cause of free speech he has fallen. Whether from Rushdie's throne on Hitchens's gutter, the message is the same: "Our cause is absolute, it brooks no dissent or qualification; whoever questions it is by definition an ignorant, pompous, semi-literate unperson."

      Rushdie sneers at my language and trashes a thoughtful and well-received speech I made to the Anglo-Israel Association, and which The Guardian saw fit to reprint. Hitchens portrays me as a buffoon who pours his own urine on his head. Two rabid ayatollahs could not have done a better job. But will the friendship last? I am amazed that Hitchen's has put up with Rushdie's self-canonization for so long. Rushdie, so far as I can make out, does not deny the fact that he insulted a great religion. Instead he accuses me - note his preposterous language for a change - of taking the philistine reductionist radical Islamist line. I didn't know I was so clever.

      What I do know is, Rushdie took on a known enemy and screamed "foul" when it acted in character. The pain he has had to endure is appalling, but it doesn't make a martyr of him, nor - much as he would like it to - does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of his participation in his own downfall.

John le Carré

November 22, 1997

      If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning how to read. It's true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. "Ignorant" and "semi-literate" are dunces' caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn't dream of removing them. Le Carré's habit of giving himself good reviews ("my thoughtful and well-received speech") was no doubt developed because, well, somebody has to write them. He accuses me of not having done the same for myself. "Rushdie," says the dunce, "does not deny he insulted a great world religion." I have no intention of repeating yet again my many explications of The Satanic Verses, a novel of which I remain extremely proud. A novel, Mr. le Carré, not a gibe. You know what a novel is, don't you, John?

Salman Rushdie

Back to A. Khomeini and the Fatwa against Rushdie Page