The Rushdie Fatwa, Thirty Years Later
Who among us would dare to predict what the world would look like thirty years from now?
Thirty years ago today, the then ruler of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, sent a valentine to Salman Rushdie in the form of a fatwa.
Rushdie, born in 1947 in Bombay (now Mumbai), had attended Cambridge, settled in Britain, and become famous with his second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981). His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), featured a storyline about Muhammed and the Koran that was deemed blasphemous throughout the Muslim world, leading the novel to be banned in over a dozen countries. The fatwa condemned Rushdie, his publishers, and his editors to death, and called on “all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth.” Khomeini’s government announced that anyone who assassinated Rushdie would receive $6 million, if he survived, and instant martyrdom in Heaven, if he didn’t. The fact that Rushdie, an outspoken leftist, had joined many other cultural-elite types in supporting the overthrow of the Shah apparently didn’t impress Khomeini enough to keep him from ordering Rushdie’s murder.
At that time, the word fatwa was unfamiliar outside the Muslim world. Indeed, for most people in the West, the idea of the long arm of Islam reaching out from that primitive corner of the planet and into the civilized West was a relatively new idea – even though, in historical terms, it was a very old idea, dating back to Islam’s seventh-century founding. Even the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre was widely seen not as a strike against the Free World that was motivated by Islamic ideology but, rather, as an act of Palestinian Jew-hatred
There was also, of course, the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81, but that event, although it involved the detention of fifty-two Americans and had been in the news for 444 days straight, had occurred in Tehran, not in the West, and, in any event, hadn’t exactly been perceived as an act of terrorism. So it was that at the time of the Rushdie fatwa, terrorism was still associated in the Western mind less with Islam than with the Irish Republican Army, with FARC and other groups in Colombia, with Basque separatists in Spain, with Shining Path in Peru, and with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh.
Hence the idea of some religious leader in Iran ordering the death of a prominent British subject struck many in the West as grotesque, absurd – a joke, even. But it soon became clear that this was no joke. Bookstores in the U.S. and Britain were bombed. Copies of the book were publicly burned in a number of British cities. Across the Muslim world, dozens died in anti-Rushdie riots. In 1991, the book’s Italian translator was beaten and stabbed and its Japanese translator murdered; in 1993, William Nygaard, its Norwegian publisher, was shot several times outside his home, but survived. (Nygaard would live to publish the 2004 memoirs of child-murdering terrorist Mullah Krekar and to host Krekar at a garden party.)
The fatwa also exposed for the first time the readiness of many Western political leaders and cultural icons to appease Islamic bullies – a readiness that, thirty years later, continues to define much of the Western establishment. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called The Satanic Verses “a direct insult to…millions of Muslims.” Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie, whom Tony Blair would later award with a knighthood, said that death was perhaps too easy a punishment for Rushdie. Hugh Trevor-Roper, one of Britain’s most respected historians, said he “would not shed a tear” if a pack of Muslims “were to waylay [Rushdie] in a dark street.” Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie denounced the book. So did John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. So did John Paul II’s Vatican. Its importation into Canada was forbidden. Major U.S. bookstore chains stopped carrying it, and publishers in France, West Germany, and other countries dropped plans to publish it.
To their credit, most Western governments criticized the fatwa, with some of them temporarily withdrawing their ambassadors to Tehran. A great many writers also (eventually) voiced their solidarity with Rushdie. But not all of them did: children’s author Roald Dahl called Rushdie an “opportunist,” the premise apparently being that he had deliberately invited the fatwa in order to garner free publicity, while Germaine Greer refused to stand up for him, saying he was a “megalomaniac.” As for Rushdie himself, he and his wife went into hiding immediately after the fatwa was declared, and were given full police protection by orders of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (whom Rushdie despised); understandably, Rushdie offered Khomeini an apology, but the ayatollah was having none of it, and reiterated the need to “send him to Hell.”
The Rushdie affair, as I have noted, taught many Westerners a new word: fatwa. But at the time, relatively few people in the West recognized it as a lesson in a much broader topic – namely, Islam. Yes, the episode taught millions that Islam takes blasphemy very seriously and that Muslim leaders feel empowered to order hits on their enemies. But few high-profile Western commentators extrapolated very far beyond the particulars of the episode. Since no modern Western cultural production had sparked anywhere near such fury in the Islamic world, most Westerners, I gather, developed the impression that Khomeini was a particularly testy kind of a Muslim and that Rushdie, who had been raised in that faith, had knowingly ventured out onto a minefield. This was not to say that people in the West thought Rushdie had it coming, but rather that they considered it unlikely that such a case would arise again anytime soon.
Rare indeed were those in the West who seriously entertained the possibility that this was not a one-off but the beginning of a new chapter in the history of relations between Islam and the West. And why should that possibility have occurred to them? In 1988, almost no one in the West was aware of the core Islamic concept of jihad, or of the long history of jihad against the West that dated back to Islam’s birth. Although the Rushdie affair made worldwide headlines for months, there were few if any informed attempts in prominent Western media to contextualize it by enlightening the general public about Islamic law and doctrine. Consequently, few in the West imagined that the Rushdie fatwa, coming at a time when Communism was beginning to fall in Eastern Europe, might mark the rekindling of a centuries-long war with another totalitarian enemy.
Even at the height of the fatwa drama, then, virtually nobody in the West could have foreseen what the next three decades would bring on this front. Who imagined that, on a September morning twelve years after the ayatollah announced his fatwa, Islam’s contempt for Western freedom and Western lives would be manifested in an attack more breathtaking than any in human history, and that that attack, which took thousands of lives, would be followed by dozens of deadly, large-scale jihadist assaults on Western metropolises? Who imagined that, despite these acts of mass murder, Western countries would continue to welcome to their shores armies of Muslim immigrants, shower them with welfare benefits, tolerate their violent crimes, and surrender to their increasingly aggressive demands that Western society and culture be made sharia-compliant? Who imagined that mainstream Western publishers, news media, and film and TV producers would routinely celebrate Islam, even as they systematically smeared its critics and denied them a platform? Who imagined that people in Western countries who dared to speak the truth about Islam would be harassed by the police and dragged into court? Who imagined that countless Western political leaders, law-enforcement officers, social workers, and journalists would cover up the brutal organized rape of thousands of “infidel” girls by Muslim rape gangs?
And, having asked all of the above questions, let us ask one more: now, in 2019, who among us would dare to predict what the Western world will look like thirty years from now? Given the rapidity with which most of Western Europe has been Islamized in the years since the Rushdie fatwa – and given the highly mixed results, so far, of efforts to resist this Islamization – who among us dares to peer too closely into our crystal balls?