February 14, 1989—Salman Rushdie received the astonishing news that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa (sentence of death) on him in a phone call from a BBC journalist, just as he was heading out to attend the funeral of friend Bruce Chatwin. The coming years in hiding, moving from one safe house to another, must surely have made the novelist wonder whether, at a not-so-distant future, people would be memorializing him, too. That is, if they dared: for Khomeini had not only laid down his edict against the author of The Satanic Verses for blaspheming "Islam, the Prophet and the Quran," but also on “all those involved in the publication who were aware of its contents."
The fatwa was more than Khomeini’s antithesis of a Valentine’s Day message: an incitement to mass hatred rather than individual love. It also represented a marker in militant Islam’s encounter with modernity. No longer would a terrorist group not officially affiliated with a formal government simply strike out against innocents, as happened in the Munich Olympics in summer 1972. Nor would a regime hewing strictly to fundamentalist Islamic tenets confine itself to hostage-taking within its own borders, as Khomeini-inspired “students” had done in Iran in seizing American diplomats during the Carter Administration.
No, now a regime had ordered every follower of Islam, anywhere on the globe, to strike out against a blasphemer—one not even an Iranian--and all those connected to the publication of his book. They would be rewarded for an act of murder--financially, if they succeeded, sexually (in the form of virgins in paradise) if they didn't. The edict became a wedge for those practicing a fringe element of a religion of peace to ward off all criticism of their policies—and an open invitation for those easily gulled by fanatics to take violent offense against easily manufactured outrages.
Khomeini may well have had another motive for issuing the murderous decree: as a distraction from his (and his nation’s) humiliation in signing a peace treaty with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, after vowing that he would never make such a deal to end a war that may have cost over a million lives. That motive might also account for why the fatwa wasn’t lifted when the murderous mullah died four months after the edict…why the regime didn’t lift it for another nine years…and why, a year and a half ago, another Iranian ayatollah, Hassan Sanei, had re-issued the fatwa, using as a pretext the film Innocence of Muslims, which, he claimed, would not have been made if Satanic Verses hadn’t been published.
Longtime readers of this blog know my low opinion of Margaret Thatcher. (See, for instance, my post, “A Thatcher Depreciation” from nearly a year ago.) Yet, in this instance, let’s give credit where credit is due: Even though the very book that provoked the fatwa also included a far-from-subtle jab against “Mrs. Torture,” the Iron Lady made sure that Rushdie had round-the-clock protection against those intent on ending his life.
For all his brilliance as a master of literary wordplay (see, for instance, this eloquent account in Vanity Fair from his friend, the late Christopher Hitchens), not to mention his frequent prior brushes with controversy over provocative statements and incidents in his books, Rushdie was stunned that Muslims could be offended by a feverish dream sequence in his novel in which prostitutes bear the same names as Mohammad’s wives.
Rushdie’s years of hiding, in fact, did not bring much in the way of wisdom—his libidinous, preening streak only seemed to stand out all the more every time he dared to break out of his safe houses and attempt to lead a normal social life. (Zoe Heller’s analysis of Rushdie’s recent memoir, Joseph Anton, in The New York Review of Books wryly notes that the years in hiding “had no sobering effect on Rushdie’s magisterial amour propre.”)
Yet freedom of expression—even very much including freedom to offend—needs to be defended, even when the person one mounts the barricades for is pompous. Until the incident that changed his life, Rushdie’s fiction (including the prize-winning Midnight’s Children) had been taken up with cultural displacement. Now, his own life had added a decided twist on this theme. The frequent critic of the capitalist West now found himself beholden to it for saving his life.
The same ironic reversal held for the novelist’s prior critics. Writing in a blog post for the conservative National Review—a journal unlikely to have much sympathy with Rushdie’s longtime leftist politics—Daniel Pipes refers now to “the Rushdie Rules”: i..e., constraint on “the ability of Westerners freely to discuss Islam and topics related to it.”
(Photo of Salman Rushdie taken in Warsaw, Poland, October 2006, by Mariusz Kubik)