From the desk of Ayatollah Hassan Sanei
Expediency Discernment Council, Tehran
Mr. John Powers
c/o 89.3 KPCC
Dear Brother Powers,
Please forgive me for using a business address for such a personal letter, but I cannot seem to find your home address on Google Maps.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent me a link to your review of Salman Rushdie’s memoir, I thought Punk’d might be returning to MTV. Oh, I know that too many Westerners see Mahmoud as eccentric and even a little dangerous. I hope that someday the world will meet the same man I know: a backslapping practical jokester who loves nothing more than slipping another one past the imams of greater Tehran.
As I began listening to your review, I was unsure whether you were really Fresh Air’s critic at large or a transgressive right-winger with shadowy ties to Breitbart.com doing a sly parody of an NPR nebbish. Your weightless voice, your staccato delivery, your contented verbal italics on each rhetorical flourish — all of these left me asking: Is it real or is it performance art?
But I powered through these doubts and then it hit me: this man speaks truth to power, and I am that power. After all these years I have realized that L’Affair Rushdie, as we like to call it in Iran, was not a question of blasphemy. It was not even about whether issuing a fatwa, as such, has a chilling effect on our world’s ever-fragile interfaith conversation.
It was, at heart, a question of literary integrity: Had I read the book before renewing the Rushdie fatwa? My face was crimson with shame. I had been called out as a fraud, and by a man who writes for Vogue from the West Coast of Babylon.
I took your challenge to heart, my gentle brother. I have since read every subtle page of The Satanic Verses, and I now realize that if Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had done the same in 1989 we could all have been spared 23 years of misunderstandings and unpleasantness.
I have learned deeply from this experience. I expect to turn next to God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, as I have heard that he and Rushdie were pals and that he too had a wry sense of humor. Perhaps after that I will make time for Robert Bly.
You made all of this possible, dear sir. Had you not found the insight to challenge me to read the book, I would have drifted about for the rest of my life with lingering anger and control issues. Thank you, gentle brother, thank you.
One qualifier: I speak only for myself and for no other imam.