Acclaimed British–Indian author Salman Rushdie had just arrived onstage for an event at New York state’s Chautauqua Institution when he was rushed by an assailant and stabbed multiple times in the neck and abdomen. The gory incident was caught on video, and soon after, the 75-year-old author was flown to a hospital where, as of this writing, he is reportedly undergoing surgery. Though little is known about the suspect, who was detained by police and identified as 24-year-old New Jersey resident Hadi Matar, observers were quick to recall the death sentence that’s hung over Rushdie’s head for over three decades: an edict from the Iranian government calling on Muslims to murder the writer over his award-winning novel The Satanic Verses for alleged blasphemy against Islam.
Rushdie has had little issue with public appearances in recent years, but throughout the 1990s, he was one of the most endangered authors in the world. After the Iranian government called for his death in 1989, Rushdie went into hiding, and violence over his novel persisted: bomb threats in bookstores that carried Satanic Verses, attacks on the book’s translators, communal clashes in Britain and India, heightened bounties for his capture. Though Rushdie came out of hiding in the late ’90s, Islamic fundamentalists and hard-line religious groups harbored a vendetta against the author, and in 2007, the Iranian government stated that its fatwa cannot be revoked (it repeated this again in 2019).
Attacks against Rushdie and those associated with Satanic Verses abated throughout the 2010s, with Rushdie even appearing on Curb Your Enthusiasm to joke about the matter. But with today’s stabbing, speculation regarding the fatwa and Iran has reemerged. Police believe Matar acted alone, but Iran’s state media still referred to Rushdie as an “apostate” who “insulted the prophet” in its official coverage of the attack. To recount this history and understand what may have led to this moment, I spoke on the phone with Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and author of a 2019 piece on the legacy of The Satanic Verses. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: Had there been any rumblings from Iranian sources or other Rushdie opponents leading up to this moment, or was this a complete surprise?
Nader Hashemi: Complete surprise. The political and global context of the Salman Rushdie saga is very different at this moment in time than it was when the death sentence was first proclaimed, over 30 years ago. The world has in many ways shifted to focus on other global concerns. The state of Islam-West relations has significantly changed. There has been no discussion, chatter, indication that anything like this was on the horizon. I heard Rushdie speak in Denver in 2015. He spoke onstage, and I didn’t see any visible security.
Iran certainly doesn’t benefit in any way from staging this attack, given its own myriad political, economic, and social crises. I think that’s the most interesting and noteworthy aspect of today’s event: how it really came out of nowhere. No one was expecting that this would happen, and I suspect the only explanation is that we’re talking about a lone, radicalized individual who developed some obsession with Rushdie and launched this vicious assault.
When was the last time the Iranian government, or any major institutions, had made public statements about Rushdie or the fatwa?
The last one could remember was probably over a decade ago, when one Iranian government–supported charitable foundation said they would still offer money to anyone who could assassinate Salman Rushdie. But even though Iranian politics in recent years has shifted in the direction of a much more harshly authoritarian, right-wing, hawkish set of political actors who now dominate the entire state, the question of Rushdie was just no longer discussed.
The other background story to this is that after the fatwa was issued in 1989, Iran came under severe international scrutiny and effectively was forced to distance itself from the fatwa, saying that after Khomeini passed away, it was no longer government policy to carry out the fatwa. That was the official position of the regime. You did still hear various institutions within Iran that are not in power saying that they were going to still implement it. But in terms of government policy, there was a clear distancing of the Iranian regime from trying to implement the fatwa. That was considered to be accepted by European countries and by the international community, which at the time had pulled ambassadors out of Iran and responded very critically to the supreme leader’s fatwa.
I would say that several years after the fatwa was issued, after Khomeini passed away, it just wasn’t a source of discussion. The best indication that the issue was resolved was that Rushdie started to travel with very little security, because the general sense was that this was an issue that was in the past.
For someone who may not be familiar with the details or the history, how would you explain the fatwa’s emergence and its significance over time?
In 1988, when Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was published, it started to generate news among British Muslims who protested the book, claiming it was blasphemous and offensive, an attempt to defame sacred symbols that Muslims around the world held very dear and near. It became an issue that really started in Europe, primarily in England. And then Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in the last year of his life, issued this fatwa claiming it was morally incumbent upon believing Muslims to carry out this death sentence, to avenge the blasphemous statements Rushdie had made in the book.
This generated a crisis. It brought Iran under severe criticism by the international community, and became a point of friction between Iran and international countries over the stated attempt, by the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to assassinate an author. The fatwa was issued in February 1989, and Khomeini dies in June of that year. Then the argument from Iran was, The leader who issued the fatwa is dead, it’s no longer state policy, and the regime tried to slowly distance itself from that pronunciation. But it took a long time. And of course, Rushdie was living in hiding during those moments.
The related point here is the world of Islam is as diverse and has as many different interpretations as other great world religions. Just because one particular religious leader issues an edict or a fatwa, that does not translate into 1 billion Muslims in the world following that religious decree. I think what Khomeini did was capture the feelings of hurt and anger and anguish that most Muslims felt with respect to the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad and other sacred figures in Islamic history. I think that’s basically noncontroversial. But I think where Khomeini is nonrepresentative here is how you respond to an act of defamation. In that sense, it was really just the Iranian regime and its loyalists who were interested in carrying out an act of violence. Most Muslims rejected the fatwa and had no interest in carrying out this act of violence. But they did share the general sense that an act of blasphemy had taken place, and they started to point the fact that Britain has historic blasphemy laws against Christianity, so why is Christianity protected from blasphemy but not Islam, in the context of England? Those laws were then subsequently revoked after the Rushdie affair.
And we’re talking about 1989, when the world changed in many ways. The Cold War was ending in a few months. There were other international events. And then this issue gradually withered away, particularly after the Iranian government was severely reprimanded and its ties to the international community, particularly to the West, were put into jeopardy over this fatwa.
Could you pinpoint the moment when it seemed like it was finally safer for Rushdie to be out and about in public again?
I don’t think there was a particular moment. It was gradual, and I think the more time passed, the more Rushdie and other bookstores felt safe to promote his book and for Rushdie to speak publicly with less security. But for the first decade, from roughly 1989 to 1999, it was a tough time for Rushdie and his security. One of the key turning points were the decision [in 1998] by the Iranian regime to offer guarantees it would not carry out the fatwa.
What became a sticking point is that even though that was the position of the regime, you still had elements within Iran, these charitable foundations run by hard-line conservative groups, who would say that “We still will reward anyone with financial compensation if they carry out the killing.” There were different messages coming out of Iran, but the government kept saying, We can’t control what everyone says in our country, but it’s not state policy. So for Rushdie, it took at least a decade before the issue started to become less concerning in terms of his personal safety, and he was allowed to travel freely and not go into hiding.
After things started calming down and Rushdie began appearing in public more, were there any other prominent threats directed toward Rushdie, or was it generally presumed he would be pretty safe?
Threats, none that I’m aware of. There were perhaps online lone radicals that may have wanted to carry out the death sentence, but I suspect they were acting alone and didn’t have the support of a state apparatus. To my knowledge, there was no other individual who was arrested or surveilled and then charged for trying to carry out this death sentence, which explains why Rushdie started to appear in public and on TV and started to relax his security.
Supposing it turns out the attacker had ties to a prominent firm or institution within Iran. What do you think the ensuing fallout would be?
Well, Iran would be taken to task by the international community. It will complicate Iran’s relationship with the outside world, particularly with the West. There will be demands made on Iran to hold accountable those people who have or may have ties to this assassination, particularly if it’s proved that there was financial incentive or there was a meeting that can be traced back to Iran. It will severely complicate Iran’s already very precarious situation.
At the moment, the big issue is the nuclear deal. There was another round of negotiations, and it looks like we’re getting close to an agreement. Plus, Iran faces myriad internal economic problems, social protests, a huge crisis of legitimacy. The last thing the regime needs is something like this. It could have been an independent foundation that theoretically could have inspired this person, and if that’s the case, it would become another crisis the Islamic Republic is facing.