IG News report,
In 1989, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution in Iran ten years earlier, issued a fatwa – a religious order – calling for the death of writer Salman Rushdie. More than three decades later, at a literary event in New York State, a man who was not yet born when the fatwa was issued is accused of stabbing the author.
The bounty on Rushdie’s head never went away, although the Iranian government temporarily withdrew in 1998. Still, 33 years have passed since the original uproar. Some would have predicted that the fatwa would get the interested person in 2022.
Yet the political legacy of that order was significant. To understand this, it is necessary to see the fatwa in its historical context.
Many Muslims viewed Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses as blasphemy, showing the prophet of Islam without scrutiny, and using the names of their wives for characters who played prostitutes. Muslims believe that Muhammad insan al kamilo – The perfect man, and the only one who has attained perfection. The original death penalty was not only against Rushdie, but also against his publishers, who were “aware of this”. [the book’s] material ”and still continued to publish it.
Islamic law stipulates that a fatwa is valid only under the jurisdiction of a Muslim leader and where Sharia law applies. And Rushdie was neither an Iranian citizen nor in Iran at the time of the ruling.
However, Khomeini’s fatwa was not bounded by political boundaries or international relations – it called on all Muslims to kill Rushdie. The fatwa effectively made the entire world Khomeini’s private politics.
This was significant because it usurped Saudi Arabia’s position as the central center of the Muslim world. Religious differences pervade Iran-Saudi Arabia relations. The majority of Muslims in Saudi Arabia are Sunni while in Iran Shia are the majority. And both countries have ambitions for regional dominance.
Iran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is also important to understand the timing of the fatwa. By early 1989, it was clear that Afghan rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and the US were on the verge of victory against the government of Afghanistan and the Soviet troops that were backing it. The USSR withdrew from the country on 15 February 1989. But the fatwa issued a day earlier made headlines.
Saudi Arabia opposed the fatwa and attempted to work with other Muslim leaders to prevent Khomeini from using the episode to establish himself as the main protector and protector of Muslims and the Islamic world. However, the fatwa brought international attention to The Satanic Verses and Rushdie’s alleged blasphemy.
Footage also emerged of Muslims burning copies in front of the town hall in the British city of Bradford. For Iran, this was proof that religious leadership could transcend national boundaries, and that a political ummah, or Muslim nation, was possible.
Ayatollah Khomeini died a few months after Rushdie was executed, but subsequent Iranian administrations ratified the fatwa. After a brief relief by the pro-reform government of President Mohamed Khatami in 1998, hardliners upheld the legitimacy of the fatwa, even increasing the reward to US$3.3 million (£2.7 million) in 2012.
It is not clear how 24-year-old Hadi Matar, who has now been charged with the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie, may have had anything to do with the slain leader’s desire for power in the Muslim world. Iran has officially denied links with the alleged attacker, who was born and raised in the US to a Lebanese family. His social media accounts reportedly show sympathy for the Iranian state, although it is believed that he acted alone.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said that “no one has the right to blame Iran”, and that Rushdie and his supporters are responsible for the attack. Today, as in 1989, the fatwa against Rushdie reflects the deep separation between Iran and the rest of the world, seen more recently in the country’s efforts to build nuclear weapons against the will of the international community.
free speech and expatriate muslims
The fatwa’s longest-lasting legacy has been as a symbol of the threat to freedom of expression – considered a fundamental right in the West. At the time, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was clear on this: “It is an essential part of our democratic system that those who act within the law should be able to express their opinions freely”. Several other writers and translators associated with Rushdie have been attacked or murdered over the years.
But for some in the Muslim world, freedom of expression should not give license to attack the core tenets of the faith. This is because the fatwa and its aftermath have had a lasting impact on migrant identities in Britain and Europe as well.
Read more: Salman Rushdie’s attack was an attack on freedom of speech – but not a clash of civilizations
After World War II, large numbers of Muslims settled in urban areas, and the debate about the compatibility of Muslims in the West gained momentum. While many Muslims did not agree with Khomeini’s fatwa or book burning, Rushdie’s case contributed to the transformation of migrant Muslims into a self-conscious group who knew that others viewed them through the lens of religion.
In the 33 years since it was issued, the fatwa has been used as evidence by those who view Islam and the West as fundamentally different civilizations, with the ever-present potential for violent confrontation.