Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Recently an Iran-inspired jihadist attempted to murder author Salman Rushdie, who was stabbed ten times and remains in critical condition. The origins of this crime go back to 1989, when the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa that promised millions of dollars (eventually $3.3 million), instant martyrdom, and a trip to paradise for anyone killed while murdering the apostate Rushdie, who allegedly insulted Islam in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.
The subsequent response of the West to this grotesque violation of free speech exemplified the willful blindness to jihad that would characterize the Nineties and continue even after the spectacular carnage of the 9/11attacks. Given the persistence of the EU and the Biden administration in offering appeasing concessions to Iran in their desperate attempt to restart the failed nuclear deal, our foreign policy establishment is still blind to the reality of the West’s oldest enemy.
Khomeini’s fatwa didn’t just mark Rushdie for assassination, but included the publishers of the novel and bookstores selling it: all “are condemned to death. I call 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. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr.”
Iran’s current leader, Ali Khamenei, in 2017 confirmed the fatwa: “The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued.”
The faithful responded to the fatwa’s call, initiating a series of deadly attacks across the globe. The same year as the fatwa, 12 people died in Mumbai, and 6 Pakistanis in riots over the book. The translator of the novel in Japan was murdered, and the Italian translator stabbed. The Turkish translator survived an arson attack on a hotel that killed 37 others, and the Norwegian publisher was shot and critically injured.
As Bari Weiss documents, there was some support for Rushdie in 1989, especially from PEN America, an organization of writers that advocates for persecuted or censored authors. But such courage was short-live. In 2015, when PEN gave an award to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo––twelve of whose staff had been murdered by two jihadist terrorists over cartoons deemed offensive to Islam–– 200 authors protested the award, accusing PEN of “valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
This cowardly cant was called out by Rushdie: “This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.”
But such cringing apologetics for Khomeini also appeared in 1989. Esteemed British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper declared that he “would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring Mr. Rushdie’s manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.” A UCLA professor said Khomeini was “completely within his rights” to condemn Rushdie to death. After riots in Pakistan, the U.S. embassy assured Muslims that “the U.S. in no way supports or associates itself with any activity that is [in] any sense offensive or insulting to Islam”––which was a de facto sacrifice of the right to free speech.
Indeed, such fear historically has been a tactic of jihad, in order “to strike terror into the enemies of Allah,” as the Koran puts it (8.60). The fatwa condemning Rushdie, and the subsequent violence and appeasement, created what Daniel Pipes has called the “Rushdie rules”: anything perceived as an insult to Islam would be met with riots, violence, murder and, in the case of women, rape. And it has worked for decades, with Western politicians, academics, media, and popular culture self-censoring to avoid such blowback, all the while they camouflage their cowardice as “tolerance” and “respect for diversity.”
From a broader perspective, this sorry affair bespeaks the widespread ignorance of Islamic history and doctrine that has damaged our response to modern jihadism. Partly this reflects the West’s relative lack of interest in Islam and the Muslim world apart from the region’s oil. As Hilaire Belloc pointed out in 1938, Westerners “have forgotten all about Islam. They have never come in contact with it. They take for granted that it is decaying, and that, anyway, it is just a foreign religion which will not concern them. It is, as a fact, the most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at any moment become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.”
Moreover, in contrast to a secularizing West, “In Islam there has been no dissolution of ancestral doctrine—or, at any rate, nothing corresponding to the universal break-up of religion in Europe. The whole spiritual strength of Islam is still present in the masses of Syria and Anatolia, of the East Asian mountains, of Arabia, Egypt and North Africa. The final fruit of this tenacity, the second period of Islamic power, may be delayed —but I doubt whether it can be permanently postponed.”
When Belloc wrote those words, the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the last century’s most significant promoter of restoring Islam’s global dominance, had been in existence for 10 years. Its founder Hassan al Bana, and chief publicist, Sayyid Qutb––“al Qaeda’s intellectual godfather,” as the Hudson Institute’s Lee Smith described him––had explicitly defined Islam’s global renewal in terms of violent jihad.
According to al Bana, for example, “It is the nature of Islam to dominate not to be dominated, to impose its power to the entire planet.” His colleague Qutb made it clear that force would be necessary to achieve Islam’s restoration: “Those [Western infidels] who have usurped the power of Allah on earth and made His worshippers their slaves will not be dispossessed by words alone.”
The next major offensive in this battle came with the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Its architect was the Ayatollah Khomeini, a revered Shiite cleric. In 1941 he had defined the divine obligation of Muslims to expand Islam by force: “Those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world,” for those conquered and converted “will be marked for everlasting salvation.”
After he came to power in 1979, Khomeini explicitly named violent jihad as the instrument of that transformation: “Islam is a religion of blood for the infidel but a religion of guidance for the other people,” i.e. Muslims. The purpose of the Iranian Revolution, then, was not “to lower the price of melons,” as Khomeini sneered at Western materialism. It was to wage jihad in order to restore Islam’s lost global dominance. Therefore, “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry ‘There is no God but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be jihad.”
For over 40 years Iran has fulfilled Khomeini’s pledge, its proxies like Hezbollah inflicting terrorist violence on the enemies of Islam such as Salman Rushdie, just the most famous of Iran’s many victims. The citizens and armed force of America have been prominent casualties of Iran’s proxies, especially the 1983 murder of 243 military personnel in Beirut, a heinous attack that went unanswered by the Reagan administration.
Khomeini and the Iranian religious revolution were also potent influences on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. During the Nineties, al Qaeda carried out several attacks on U.S. soldiers and diplomats, none of which provoked serious retaliation from the Clinton administration. These terrorist acts culminated in the gruesome carnage of 9/11 that killed nearly 3000 Americans. Like the previous decade of attacks, 9/11 was another, more spectacular escalation in the war to fulfill the goal bin Laden set out at al Qaeda’s birth: “To lift the word of Allah to make His religion victorious.”
This consistency of motive grounded in traditional Muslim doctrines for such attacks still could not penetrate the fossilized narrative of our foreign policy and national security organizations. Despite this long explication of their religious motives for violence grounded in traditional Islamic precepts and practices, the Bush administration adopted a “nothing to do with Islam” stance, and transformed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into nation-building projects and democracy promotion, the mistaken lesson derived from the West’s victory in the Cold War. Few considered that those Western ideals would not attract many of the adherents of a militant faith that created one of history’s biggest empires, and that for a thousand years dominated Europe and the Mediterranean.
More dangerous was Bush’s naïve outreach to the Muslim world that distorted Islamic doctrine in order to appease the global umma of believers. In his address to the nation nine days after 9/11, Bush claimed that the al Qaeda terrorists “practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics,” and said of Islam in general, “Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.”
Such misleading distortions of Islam would have astonished our ancestors who had endured a millennium of Islamic invasion, conquest, occupation, slaving, and slaughter, all predicated on the commands of the Koran and Mohammed: “I was ordered to fight people until they confess that there is no God but Allah and until they pray and pay alms” ––that is, convert to Islam, or if they are “people of the book,” Christians and Jews, pay the jizya tax to their Muslim overlords (Koran 9.22).
And how arrogant is it for a Western Christian who knows little of Islam and its history to imply of the Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the most revered of Muslim clerics, that he “blasphemes the name of Allah” when he says “Islam is the religion of blood for the infidel”?
Such are the wages of the ignorance Belloc talked about in 1938. The jihadists have told us over and over what their motives are, and how they are grounded in the Koran, the life and sayings of Mohammed, and in centuries of esteemed exegetes like the 14th century philosophers Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Taymiyyah, both of whom are not “fringe” authorities for modern Muslims. And today’s jihadists have backed their words with bloody deeds, including the murder of infidels or apostates who insult their religion, or stand in the way of their mission to restore Islam’s once-global influence.
Yet the Biden administration and the Europeans are still making concessions and promising to pay what amounts to jizya to the mullahs of Iran––according to Israel, a fiscal infusion worth $200 million a day––so that they rejoin the feckless nuclear deal, even though they are already on the brink of possessing nuclear weapons.
It is the height of moral idiocy for the U.S. to cater to a regime that murders and plots against American erstwhile government officials like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, and arrogantly makes clear their delight in the near-murder of Salman Rushdie––like the Iranian state broadcaster Jaam-e Jam, who said, on hearing that Rushdie might lose an eye, “an eye of the Satan has been blinded.” And as Reza Pahlavi reports in the Wall Street Journal, “After the attack on Mr. Rushdie, a regime-run newspaper heralded the often-cited quote of my country’s current dictator, Ali Khamenei, saying the ‘arrow’ shot by Khomeini ‘will one day hit the target.’” As Pahlavi warns, “Mr. Khamenei is sharpening more arrows.”
To continue negotiating with such a tyrannical regime, when we should be punishing them for their attacks on our citizens, is the epitome of willful blindness, not to mention a grievous blow to our global prestige and power of deterrence. Such myopic policies and their dangerous effects will continue until we accept the once-common knowledge of the reality of Islam and jihad.