The publication of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Joseph Anton’, has opened a window onto the private life of one of the most public events of the last decade of the last century. For a brief moment in that time our paths crossed. It is was one of the most vivid and tense episodes in my ministerial life.
Between 1989 and 1994 I was chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge. In the spring of 1993 I was responsible for a series of sermons in the chapel on the theme of ‘freedom’. Much of my pastoral ministry was conducted in the college bar. In conversation with a Fellow in English our minds drifted to the plight of a former member of college. ‘Why not get Salmon along to speak?’ he asked.
At that time, four years after the fatwa, the feeling was that support for Rushdie was weakening while radical voices against him were getting more vociferous. He had long since ‘disappeared into the front pages’ as Martin Amis put it. Looking at the diary we realised that the actual anniversary of the fatwa, 14th February, was a Sunday. This began to look like one of those things that was meant to happen.
The journey from the bar to the Chapel in King’s is a short walk across a famously beautiful court. It is, however, a complex cultural journey. For me it epitomized the role of the chaplain, which I saw as being equally at home in both. The bar was the place to meet with people on equal terms and with the possibility of a peculiar kind of safeness that you get in a public and noisy space; the chapel the place to meet with God.
One week I wrote about alcohol in my column in Varsity, the University newspaper. I began by reporting that I had been greeted by a student in the street who said “Hi – I haven’t seen you for ages; but then I haven’t been in the bar recently”. Ministry begins with meeting people where they are.
So where was Salman Rushdie? And where was the college on the issue of the fatwa? Would it make any kind of sense to invite him to speak at a service in the Chapel? There were layers of complexity and tension in this. Colleges in general, and King’s in particular, are rarely of one mind. Their life is an endless, limitless, conversation. It was obviously not possible to have an open discussion about the merits of inviting him. As he said to me with heavy irony on the phone, “I’m sorry about all this cloak and dagger stuff”. We all were. But somewhere from the depths of endless conversation a decision emerged – and it was on.
It could not be advertised, of course. The Chapel Card said that Bill Buford, Rushdie’s agent, would talk about ‘Freedom after the Fatwa’, and indeed that would have happened if for any reason Rushdie had not been able to appear. We would cover the same ground – though objectively rather than subjectively and without the risk and the security.
The day of the address, the fourth anniversary of the fatwa, was a day full of tension. Word had slipped out to some of the student members of college who were excitedly present in unusually high numbers. Not everyone in the Chapel thought this was the wisest or most appropriate invitation ever to have been made. Opinions were sharply divided and relationships tested. Special Branch demanded a far higher level of security for this than for a visit from the Queen just over a year previously. Everyone who entered the Chapel was scanned. In the post 9/11 world we have got used to all that but in those days it was an unaccustomed and disturbing process. And you do have to wonder just how necessary it was. It still seems unlikely to me that chorister parents or elderly dons would be suicide bombers or snipers…
In his address Rushdie remarked that while he was at the College as a student in the ’60s he “would have found the notion of delivering an address in King’s Chapel pretty far-out… and yet, such are the journeys of one’s life that here I stand”. An appropriate place, as it was while studying History at Cambridge that he signed up for a special paper on ‘Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the Caliphate’. The lectures were cancelled for lack of interest but he was taught on his own. It was this that gave him the background to write the infamous novel. It was somewhere within walking distance of the Chapel that he discovered the ‘satanic verses’.
Afterwards, he commented to me how strange it felt to be prayed for – a thought that has stayed with me. One who had been on the receiving end of so much religious hatred and vitriol now feeling something of the strangeness of prayer.
The address and some photos were issued to the media and it was reported very widely. The broadsheets took it as an occasion to be supportive. Varsity carried the address in full. The very positive leader bemoaned the fact that the fatwa had prevented students hearing the speech in person. In my column I wrote about freedom and fear, which reflected my own predominant emotion in all this: it was very frightening. I recall cycling home the night before knowing the secret that the following day would reveal and finding it hard to believe that the peaceful Backs of Cambridge could feel so close to this life and death controversy about words.
In ‘Joseph Anton’ the event is described in a few sentences on page 373. He quotes the opening words of the address, ‘To stand in this house is to be reminded of what is most beautiful about religious faith; its ability to give solace and to inspire, its aspiration to these great and lovely heights, in which strength and delicacy are so perfectly conjoined’. Reflecting on what it felt like to be uttering such words in the deliberate style needed to make yourself heard in this large space with no PA system and a 6-second echo, he notes that felt that he ‘sounded like an archbishop’.
The thought did not occur to me. What I heard was Salman Rushdie’s voice. And I am glad that I did.