“The potential for violence in religious and political conflicts”

The Indian-British author Salman Rushdie will receive the German Book Trade’s Peace Prize in Frankfurt am Main on 22 October 2023. The literary scholar Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf has explored the relationship between religion, politics and literature at the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”, also with regard to Rushdie’s work. In an article for religion-und-politik.de, she also examines the writer’s award in the light of current events in the Middle East.

Peace Prize in violent times

by Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf

Prof. Dr. Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf
© Hilla Südhaus

Award ceremonies are planned long in advance. When in the summer it became public that this year the Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie would receive the German Book Trade’s prestigious Peace Prize, Hamas’ attack on Israel and the Israeli counter-offensive had not yet occurred. It is not uncommon for political developments to overtake cultural events, so that the latter suddenly appear in a different light than originally planned by the organizers of the ceremony. Founded in 1950 to promote peace and international understanding, the Prize has since been awarded in a ceremony in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche (St. Paul’s Church). The award ceremony takes place as part of the Frankfurt Book Fair because, as the first laureate, the writer Max Tau, emphasized, literature was seen as playing a particularly peace-promoting role. The fact that peace is always endangered, something unrealized or to be realized in the future, is the tenor of almost all the peace speeches held in the Paulskirche. And yet the awarding of the Prize to Salman Rushdie this year makes us sit up and take notice. Published in 1988, his novel The Satanic Verses provoked the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against him; Rushdie did not seem to help the cause of peace in the world.

Salman Rushdie
© CK / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Rushdie affair brought many radicalized Muslims onto the streets demanding the author’s death. Rushdie survived because he lived under police protection for years, but his Japanese translator did not survive an attack on him, and his Danish translator was seriously injured in an assassination attempt. The fact that Rushdie himself was seriously injured in an attack on him 33 years after the fatwa, which caused him to lose an eye, makes him once again a symbolic figure who stands up for the freedom of the word with his life. The Peace Prize Foundation Board recognizes him as “one of the most passionate advocates of freedom of thought and speech – and not only his own, but also those of people whose views he does not share”. Against the backdrop of the latest events in the Middle East, the Peace Prize for Rushdie is another reminder of the potential for violence in religious and political conflicts. All the more reason for Rushdie to stand for the power and capacity of the individual to oppose the madness of wars all over the world with free, critical, but above all honest words as the basis for a peace in which all parties have an equal say. Something new can emerge and a space for dialogue can open up where play and irony undermine entrenched positions, even and especially one’s own. (exc/vvm)