Once again, fundamentalist Islam has shown its ugly side in the attempted slaying of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. After two decades in hiding, he thought he was safe from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa (1989). He was wrong.
We expect secular regimes to impose imprisonment and death on those who quarrel with their governance. Think Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and, currently center stage, Kim Yong- un, the Myanmar military regime, Xi Jinping, Putin, Maduro, and Ortega.
But religion sponsoring terrorism? For the most part, no; but not when it comes to much of the Islamic world.
Ironically, Islam has remained a largely medieval faith, inimical to change. A PEW Center Analysis (2019) surveyed 198 countries and territories and found that 40% had laws prohibiting blasphemy, defined as irreverence against God and sacred objects. 11% had laws against apostasy. Most of these countries are Muslim.
In 2019, Pakistan sentenced seventeen individuals to death for blasphemy, though the sentences haven’t been carried out as I write.
Iran executes “blasphemers” regularly as public policy, often as means to quell dissent, i.e., to oppose the regime is to oppose Allah.
Iranian execution doesn’t exclude stoning, usually for adultery. Human rights groups report that between 1980 and 2009, 150 people have been stoned to death. Currently, leaked prison documents reveal 51 individuals slated for execution by stoning, 23 of them women, 28 of them, men (thesunco.uk).
We are, indeed, back to ancient ways.
The publisher, Penguin, kept a stiff upper lip in pursuing publication of The Satanic Verses, despite death threats to its executives. An anomaly in a film-dominated time, books still had power to move the needle!
In 1989, Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa and $3m award for killing Rushdie for blasphemy in writing The Satanic Verses (1988).
This is the same holy man who sanctioned the execution of up to 5,000 Iranians accused of conspiracy in 1988. He would die a natural death four months after his fatwa.
What followed the fatwa was a bloodbath, forcing Rushdie into hiding under protection of British intelligence. Though he would apologize, the current Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei, rejected his apology. (Rushdie has long since recanted his apology: “The worst thing I ever did.”)
Subsequent to the fatwa, thousands of Muslims assaulted bookstores, threatening to bomb those selling his book.
In 1991, the book’s Italian translator was knifed, but survived.
A few days later, Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death.
In 1993, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot, fortunately surviving his wounds.
In Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, two clerics protesting the fatwa, were fatally shot.
Riots broke out in Iran, India, and Pakistan. An estmated sixty people died.
Then, as now, many of Rushdie’s writing cohorts came to his defense, among them, Martin Amis, Joan Didion, Ian McEwan, and Christopher Hitchens.
I like how Steven King took on J. B. Dalton, one of three book chains refusing to sell Rushdie’s novel: “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses, you don’t sell Stephen King.” It reversed course immediately (vanityfair.com).
There were holdouts, arguing we should refrain from offending the sensitivities of others, much like what we hear in today’s cancel culture.
Among the holdouts was John le Carré, who wrote in The Guardian that “nobody has a God-given right to insult a great world religion and be published with impunity.”
In similar vein was former American president, Jimmy Carter, who wrote an op-ed in the NYT: “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.”
Rather strange, I think, for someone who permitted the detested shah to enter America, commencing the seizure of embassy hostages and the bringing to power a theocracy of repression and terror that remains with us still.
They were not isolated cases. Children’s author Roald Dahl depicted Rushdie in a letter to the London Times as a “dangerous opportunist” who “must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims.”
In a tear-down New York Review of Books piece, “The Salman Rushdie Case,” author Zoë Heller wrote that “a man living under threat of death for nine years is not to be blamed for occasionally characterizing his plight in grandiloquent terms. But one would hope that when recollecting his emotions in freedom and safety, he might bring some ironic detachment to bear on his own bombast” (NYRB, Dec. 12, 2012).
It seems a strange twist of fate that there should erupt a groundswell of sympathy for perpetrators of violence rather than for a fierce defender of freedom of speech. But such are the times in which we live, trolls abundant and thought police, both Left and Right, ready to pounce and, not infrequently, message death threats to those it deems adversaries.
The climax in sympathy for rampaging Muslims seen as victims occurred in the aftermath of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo being awarded a freedom of expression courage award by PEN America. You may remember that eight of its staff and four other people, including two policemen, were murdered in Paris by Islamic terrorists (January 2015). Some 200 prominent writers wrote to PEN, criticising it for “valorising selectively offensive material” (“Observer Opinion”: The Guardian, 14 August, 2022).
Fatwas need not emanate from distant ayatollahs. They can be home-brewed.
Rushdie got it right in his 1990 essay “In Good Faith,” that “individuals shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men.”
Let us hope that our wounded freedom warrior mends well and soon. Early medical reports say he will likely lose an eye, that nerves in his arm have been slashed, and his liver stabbed.
Freedom of speech defines a vital tenet of civilization as essential as the air we breathe, yet many of us take it for granted. We need voices like Rushdie’s to remind us that it can slip away and one day be gone if we forfeit being its sentries.
As for the repressive theocracy that prioritizes hate over love and its apologists, my sentiments lie with writer Jill Filopic’s eloquent summation:
Religion is a belief system. If yours cannot stand up to criticism, interrogation, and even mockery or insult – if you need to threaten or punish, up to the point of death, those who insult an idea you hold dear – it is perhaps worth asking if your beliefs are as strong as you believe they are. And this is the lesson of Salman Rushdie: it is courageous and necessary to stand up against tyrants and those who would use violence to suppress words and art – even when those tyrants claim to have God on their side” (The Guardian, 14 August, 2014).