When the Bronx was Burning over Salman Rushdie’s Book
Salman Rushdie’s latest book, “Joseph Anton,” is a memoir of living under threat of death for writing the novel, “The Satanic Verses,” in which Rushdie used narrative elements from Islam. For that perceived blasphemy, on Feb. 14, 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for the execution of Rushdie and anyone responsible for publishing the book. Rushdie survived unscathed and the “fatwa” ordering his death was ended by the Iranian government in 1998, but his days in hiding were marked by violence. In 1989, bookstores carrying his novel were firebombed and in 1991, Rushdie’s Italian and Japanese translators were stabbed within weeks of each other — the latter died. In 1993, Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously wounded.
In America, publishers and book sellers flinched at the fatwa immediately. Major book chains B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble pulled “Satanic Verses” from the shelves citing fear for employee safety, and many independent bookstores bravely stood their ground for principles of freedom, as was the case for Paperbacks Plus in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
The Riverdale Press covered Paperbacks Plus’s decision to carry Rushdie’s novel in an editorial that supported the public’s right to read the work. After the editorial came out, the weekly paper’s office was firebombed early in the morning of Feb. 28, 1989.
MetroFocus spoke with the former publisher of The Riverdale Press, Bernard L. Stein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer (1998) and professor at Hunter College, about the risks and results of his editorial.
Q: Did you think there was any risk to writing the editorial?
A: Absolutely not. That was an ‘apple pie and motherhood’ editorial as far as I was concerned. It was one of those weeks where I didn’t really have an idea for an editorial and then the chain bookstores pulled “The Satanic Verses” off the shelves and we had the only independent bookstore in the Bronx at the time in Riverdale. So I called [Paperbacks Plus] up and asked what they were going to do and the proprietor responded, I think these were her exact words, ‘We just had a meeting, we’re scared to death, but we’re going to sell that book.’
So that gave me a local peg for the editorial and it never in a million years occurred to me that there was any risk in writing the editorial, which was headlined, “A Tyrant in His Chains.”
See, I had not read “The Satanic Verses” when I wrote the editorial that got us bombed, because that little local bookstore was out of copies and the chains had pulled the book off the shelves. So that editorial was not a defense of “The Satanic Verses,” it was a defense of our right to read it and make up our minds. But then I read it, and I think it’s a superb book.
Q: What was the perception of Islam in New York at that time?
A: I really had very little consciousness, personally. Nearby Yonkers has a very substantial Muslim community around South Broadway.
Q: Did you or your paper participate in any community meetings with the NYC Muslim community afterwards?
No, but we did have calls and communications from a number of Muslim organizations, like other community organizations that offered their sympathy and support. There was a family that lived in Yonkers that offered support. And this is a gentleman that used to write letters to the editor in the most inflammatory, strident condemnations of Israel that you can imagine. And our policy was to publish every letter to the editor as long as it wasn’t libelous and the person signed his name. While Riverdale is a largely Jewish community, and these letters got people’s hackles up, I thought the debate was healthy. He was one of the people who called to offer sympathy. Many years later, his son was one of those arrested for trying to firebomb a local synagogue. It’s a very mixed bag, I guess.
Q: What happened to your operations after the firebombing?
Our offices were entirely destroyed. The fire was so hot that it melted the telephones and computers in front office where the firebombs hit. This was deadline day, we went to press Tuesday afternoon. Fortunately we had a production facility that was separate from the news office and we relocated there and we brought out that paper on time the next day. We coped with phone calls from everybody else in the press, interviews by the police, the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force. All of that going on along with just the trauma. But we brought out the paper with the only front page editorial ever published in my time as editor [30 years] and it was titled, ‘We shall not be silenced.’
Q: Did it change the way any part of your paper operated afterward, in terms of how you wrote about things?
It did not change it in the least in terms of how we wrote about things. When we moved back to our offices in September, we did institute security precautions: ugly pull down gates, a buzzer system to let people into the press room.
I wrote an editorial on the anniversary of the bombing every year for 10 years. I did that for two reasons. Rushdie was in hiding and I felt it was important to remember that, and to ask people to offer their support for him. The second reason was to show those that bombed the press that they didn’t win. [One of the Rushdie editorials is in Stein's Pulitzer portfolio.]
I’m going to be talking to my reporting and writing class about Rushdie in a week or so. I have them cover a meeting or an event. One of the stories I use to show them ways it can be done is the story that The New York Times ran when Rushdie made his first public appearance at Columbia University — the “Inside the Bubble” speech. It was the first time he came up from underground.
The interview with Bernard L. Stein has been edited and condensed. An excerpt of Salman Rushdie’s NYPL talk is on the next MetroFocus, premiering on WLIW21 on Oct. 23 at 10:30 p.m., THIRTEEN on Oct. 25 at 8:30 p.m. and NJTV on Oct. 25 at 10 p.m.