With the release of Salman Rushdie’s memoir of his years in hiding, Joseph Anton — the title taken from the false name he assumed during that period — many people are remembering the controversy generated first by Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and then by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against him. One little subplot here has been for me a useful reminder of how beliefs get lodged in the public imagination — and then can’t be gotten out.

In a thoughtful essay on what it’s like to be a Muslim reader of The Satanic Verses, Sameer Rahim writes,

In an interview with The Paris Review in 1992, the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was scornful of Khomeini’s judgment, but admitted that he found “the insults in [The Satanic Verses] unacceptable. Rushdie insults even the women of the Prophet!” Mahfouz had himself been targeted by fundamentalists for an allegorical novel he had written in 1959. In the febrile post-Rushdie atmosphere the controversy was resurrected and in 1994 Mahfouz was lucky to survive a knife attack from a fanatic.

Note that Rahim makes no comment on Mahfouz’s outrage: “Rushdie insults even the women of the Prophet!” But only a paragraph earlier Rahim had written, in an accurate summary of what happens in the book, “In scenes that touch very sensitive areas, he draws a stereotyped portrayal of an oriental brothel in which prostitutes dress up as the wives of ‘Mahound’” (the Mohammed character in the novel). In other words, Rushdie did not insult the wives of the Prophet. They play no role in the story at all. Instead, Gibreel Farishta, one of the two protagonists of the novel, has a dream in which a house of prostitution suffers from a lack of customers until someone hits on the idea of dressing the ladies as wives of the Prophet, at which point the place starts overflowing with happy lustful men. It’s a shrewd comment on the ways that religion, sex, and power can become entangled; and it’s certainly not an affront to the Prophet’s wives.

(Rushdie later wrote about this and emphasized not only that this happened in a dream, one of many experienced by Gibreel Farishta, but also that the dreams “are agonizingly painful to the dreamer. They are a ‘nocturnal retribution, a punishment’ for his loss of faith.”)

But Mahfouz either did not read that part of the book or did not read it rightly; and Rahim doesn’t catch his error. Similarly, in the midst of the original controversy Rushdie submitted to an interview by Mike Wallace for Sixty Minutes, and in the course of it Wallace commented that Muslims had legitimate reason to be angry with him, since he had called Mohammed’s wives prostitutes. Rushdie replied that he had done no such thing. To which Mike Wallace, whose official postmodernist credentials were no doubt mailed out the next day, replied: “Well, it’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?” Rushdie, clearly surprised, stammered self-contradictorily, “Well, yes. . . . But if they say that I called the Prophet’s wives whores, I didn’t do it.

And he didn’t. But people still say he did.