“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
On Valentine’s Day 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini sent a different kind of love letter to Salman Rushdie through the Radio Tehran station. He issued a fatwa against him calling all Muslims on Earth to seek and execute the famous novelist for writing the book Satanic Verses. It was an act that led almost 50 people to their deaths and took the world’s public opinion by force, as it constituted the first time the head of a state condemned a citizen of another country to death.
The book was published a year ago, in 1988, while Rushdie already had fame, awards and encountered a series of controversies and altercations. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India, had sued him for defamation, based on her caricature in Midnight Children, and the president of Pakistan, Zia Ul-Haq, annoyed by his depiction in Shame, banned the book in his country.
In his latest work, he had taken up with the issue of immigration, identity searching, loss of faith and the clash of civilizations, himself being an immigrant from India, where he was born, to England. A subplot of the book revolved around a vision/dream the mad protagonist had, where he experiences events in the role of a certain “Mahud”, a prophet of a monotheistic religion in a polytheistic society, who is forced to admit the existence of three deities next to his god, something he does after consulting with god himself. Soon, however, he learns that it was the devil that had fooled him taking the shape of his god, and rescinds. A similar extract, describing the devil fooling the prophet Mohamed by taking god’s place, constitutes an apocryphal Islamic tradition and is called “the satanic verses”. This is the reason that got Rushdie in trouble as these verses are considered taboo. Beyond this narration, Rushdie continues the allegory mentioning prostitutes Mahud meets, having the names of Mohamed’s wives, something that infuriated many Muslims. Another provocation was the fact that “Mahud” was the name that was scornfully given to Mohamed by Westerners and meant something like ‘devil’ or ‘false prophet’.
Even before the fatwa, and very soon after the book’s publication, opposition to it was raised from local communities of the faithful, which led to the burning of his book on the streets. A Muslim activist that was present to such a display, recalling the facts says “the books were burning wonderfully” and described the events as a “wonderful scene”. In India, where 100 million Muslims lived and where elections were going to take place the next year, the book was banned (perhaps to fanaticize the electorate), and many more countries followed.
Banning the book didn’t stop the protests; and not just in India but in the neighboring Pakistan where someone could see signs writing “Rushdie must be stoned to death” and “Rushdie, you are dead”. In Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, five people were killed during a protest involving a crowd of around 10,000 and one more died on the next day in a city of India. The events attracted the attention of Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a death sentence for Rushdie and his publishers; and all those who contributed to the publication of the blasphemous book. Any brave Muslim who would act on the Ayatollah’s will would become a martyr, and whoever didn’t feel capable of doing so had the obligation of giving out the (openly atheist and, therefore, apostate) author’s location to someone more courageous than him. Bounties with financial reward were issued by an Iranian organization and an Iranian businessman (for 3 million dollars). In 2016, forty state-run Iranian media outlets have jointly offered a new 600,000 dollars bounty for his death.
Rushdie, immediately and under the protection of British government security men, went undercover and lived in a disclosed location thereafter. He was forced for a long time to sleep in a different house every night, he was secluded from his environment and his marriage ended under the pressure of the events. In December 1990, in a move that surprised everyone who knew him, he publicly stated that, more or less, he was a faithful Muslim; something that didn’t help retracting the fatwa. Khomeini’s death in 1989 meant the fatwa would remain indefinitely, since the only one who can take one back is the one who issues it.
Bombing assaults in bookshops followed, even in America, and booksellers would choose whether to withdraw it or sell it in secret. The victims of such attacks in America and England were in the dozens. In Belgium, two Muslim clerics who called for restraint were found dead in the country’s biggest mosque.
Meanwhile, as was expected, all these extremities made the book a best-seller, and as its fame grew, so did the intensity of the events against it. In London they burnt Rushdie’s effigies in squares. In Japan, the translator of the Japanese publication was stabbed to death; and there was an attempt on the Italian translator. In Norway, the book’s publisher was shot three times but survived. The Turkish translator, the famous writer Aziz Nesin, was the target of a bombing attack of fundamentalists in Sivas, Turkey. The attack led to the deaths of 37 people that were attending a conference (Nesin was not injured). Only one attempt against Rushdie is recorded, ςηιψη failed as the bomb that was intended for him exploded immaturely and killed the aspiring assassin.
Six years went by before Rushdie published a new book, slowly starting to be seen as a writer and not as the central point of a deadly controversy. He avoided public appearances for many years and he could only meet his friends under the utmost secrecy.
Some writers, wanting to show solidarity to their colleague, decided to claim “co-responsibility” for the insult against Islam, testing in this way whether Rushdie was still in danger or not. Christopher Hitchens, one of these writers, replaced him when he could not attend a book presentation in an American city and, after the room was emptied, a pipe bomb was found, that luckily had not been assembled properly, which was the only reason it had not exploded.
But Rushdie didn’t find support from many; soon after Khomeini’s fatwa, politicians of his country (he was a British citizen) attacked him from all sides of the political spectrum. Keith Vaz, a Labour Party member, called for the book’s ban and Norman Tebbit, a Conservative Party member, called him a vile man, whose “public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal to his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality”. The problem many of them located in the issuing of the fatwa was ‘why should the British taxpayers spend so much tax money for the protection of someone who was essentially a foreigner?’ Various circles, even left ones, and public figures like the writer John LeCarre and the Marxist John Berger, utterly failed to support, in the name of Rushdie, freedom of speech, the bedrock of an open society, blaming him for criticizing Islam. They claimed that he should have expected this kind of reaction and therefore that, in a way, he ‘had it coming’. Singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, who had changed his name into ‘Yusuf Islam’ when he became a Muslim in 1977, publicly stated that he agreed with Khomeini and that if he knew where Rushdie was he would inform on him to be killed.
Religious leaders around the world (the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others in America) stood beside Khomeini, defending the right of a religion to not be subjected to insult. We shouldn’t, of course, expect differently, since they very well know that if the road is opened to blasphemy, meaning the criticism from anyone who isn’t absolutely identified with the main dogmas of the relevant religion, nothing will stop it from reaching their own beliefs, as had happened a decade before with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The pious hand of the religious is very long and reaches the most unexpected channels of our intellect; whether relating to a Corpus Christi performance or the publication of certain cartoons is Denmark or France.
Ten years after the issuing of the fatwa, the Iranian president Khatami’s public commitment that he would “neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie”, seem to have decreased the danger he faces; but he still receives every year on February 14 a new Saint Valentine’s “card” from Iran, reminding him that this story is not over.