Salman Rushdie

The Moral Heroism of Rushdie

The assassination attempt on the famous author serves as an example of how zealots seek the targets of their anger.


Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a religious decree 33 years ago that sanctioned the death of writer Salman Rushdie for penning The Satanic Verses, a piece of magical realism that was somewhat influenced by the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The 15 Khordad Foundation, a revolutionary group under the direction of the Supreme Leader, offered a multi-million dollar reward to whoever carried out the death sentence.


Rushdie withdrew into hiding after his attempts to win over the authorities with an apology were rejected, and he was forced to spend the second half of his adult life living in fear of being assassinated. The Iranian administration of Mohammad Khatami made a declaration in 1998 that it would no longer support Rushdie’s murder as part of an effort to normalize diplomatic relations with Britain. Khatami deemed the situation “closed” three years later.


However, Iran’s religious leaders have been extremely straightforward in telling anyone who would listen that they are much less interested in the demands of Western diplomacy. The fatwa will not—in fact, cannot—be revoked, even if Rushdie “repents and becomes the most pious Muslim on Earth,” according to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor. The Supreme Leader’s Twitter account was briefly disabled just three years ago after it published the subsequent tweet:


Even while crucial information is still pending, statements of this nature very probably contribute to the explanation of why Rushdie was attacked by a 24-year-old guy called Hadi Matar on Friday, August 12 at a literary festival in Chautauqua, New York. Before being physically restrained by spectators, Matar stormed the platform where Rushdie was seated and repeatedly stabbed the author in the neck and abdomen. The cruel irony is that Rushdie was allegedly waiting to give a speech in which he would characterize the US as a shelter for exiled authors and artists.


Rushdie’s assailant has been detained and charged with attempted murder, but during the violent attack, his victim suffered significant injuries. The devastating news that “Salman will probably lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were cut; and his liver was stabbed and damaged” was delivered by Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, later that same evening.


In 1988, The Satanic Verses was released. It was outlawed in India the following year, and copies were set ablaze in Bradford, UK, amid demonstrations. After the book was released in the US, an American Cultural Center in Islamabad came under attack. On February 14th, 1989, Khomeini’s fatwa was broadcast on Iranian radio:


We come from Allah, and we will return to Allah. I’m sending this message to all brave Muslims around the world to let them know that the writer of The Satanic Verses, a book that was written, edited, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur’an, as well as any editors or publishers who knew what was in it, are all going to die. So that no one would ever again dare to offend the cherished beliefs of Muslims, I urge all brave Muslims, wherever they may be around the globe. And, Allah willing, anyone who is murdered for this cause will be a martyr. If someone obtains access to the book’s author but is unable to carry out the execution, he should let the public know so that [Rushdie] can be held accountable for his crimes.

Then there was a bloody uprising. 37 people died in a fire that was intended for Rushdie’s Turkish translator, along with his Japanese and Italian translators who were both stabbed to death. While the amount of violence and threat seemed to decrease with time, allowing Rushdie to come out of hiding and rejoin society, his increasing sense of security turned out to be deceptive. The most ominous lesson that the ensuing years actually taught was that no one who has been marked for death can ever afford to let their guard down or resume living what Rushdie called “a normal life.”


Iran has targeted several people for terror in addition to Rushdie. And even as Iran tries to renegotiate a deal with the West about its nuclear program, the homicidal fanaticism of its leaders is still on display. Recent assassination attempts on John Bolton, the former national security adviser to Donald Trump, Masih Alinejad, a dissident Iranian journalist, and Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American poet and Quillette contributor, have been discovered by American law enforcement authorities. Hakakian described how her 13-year-old son opened the door for FBI agents, who then told her that Iranian spies were plotting to kill her in a piece she published in The New York Review of Books a year ago.


In a relevant Quillette essay that was released in May, Paul Berman noted:

As Hakakian wrote in the New York Review, Masih Alinejad and Roya Hakakian are friends, and the combined threats made against them point to a wider strategy of violence and intimidation on the part of the Islamic Republic and its agents in the United States.


This strategy is geared at the larger circles of Iranian emigrants in America and other countries, whose members are likely to pause for a second to reflect before speaking out in public about life and tyranny back home in distant Iran. It is not only aimed at a few annoyingly verbose emigrants. The approach is a show of dominance. It is terrifying. Even if a particular plot is thwarted, put on hold, or is only hinted at, it is successful in doing this.


The type of relationship, if any, between Rushdie’s assailant and the Iranian government is still unknown. According to early news accounts, “Matar has made social media posts in favor of Iran and its Revolutionary Guard, as well as in support of Shi’a [Islamist] radicalism more generally,” which may imply Iranian inspiration rather than guidance. Regardless, the attempt on Rushdie’s life and the brutality of the assault shows how devoted haters pursue their targets, even those who create works of fiction.


Rushdie is the best person to recognize that this menace is not limited to the Islamic Republic of Iran. It originates from followers of various extremist Islamic movements. Rushdie was one of the 12 signatories to a defiant manifesto titled “Together Against a New Totalitarianism” in 2005, during the controversy that followed the Danish newspaper Jyllands-publication Posten’s 12 editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The manifesto’s full text is provided below.


After defeating fascism, nazism, and Stalinism, the world is now threatened by a new form of world totalitarianism: Islamism. We intellectuals, writers, and journalists urge opposition to religious dictatorship as well as the promotion of liberty, equality, and secular ideals for everyone. Recent events have demonstrated the importance of the fight for these universal ideals, which were motivated by the publication of Muhammad’s pictures in European publications.


This battle will be fought in the ideological sphere, not with weapons. We are witnessing a global conflict between democracies and theocrats, not a collision of civilizations or a rivalry between the West and the East. Islamism, like all authoritarian philosophies, is fueled by dissatisfaction and terror. Hateful preachers use these emotions to mobilize their followers and create a world where inequality and the suppression of liberty are the norms.


However, we make it obvious that nothing—not even desperation—justifies opting for obscurantism, tyranny, or hatred. Islamism is a regressive ideology that destroys liberty, equality, and secularism wherever it exists. Its victory can only result in a world where men dominate women and fanatics rule over everyone else. To combat this, we must make sure that individuals who are oppressed or subject to discrimination have access to universal rights.


We oppose “cultural relativism,” which entails acceptance of the denial of the rights to equality, freedom, and secularism to men and women of Muslim culture in the guise of respect for particular cultures and traditions. For fear of being accused of “Islamophobia,” a repugnant term that conflates criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who practice it, we refuse to give up our critical spirit.


In order for every continent to exercise a critical spirit toward every form of abuse and dogma, we advocate the universality of freedom of expression. We make an appeal to democratic and free-thinking individuals worldwide so that our century may be marked by enlightenment rather than obscurantism.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Chahla Shafiq, Caroline Fourest, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Irshad Manji, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, Antoine Sfeir, Philippe Val, and Ibn Warraq all signed the document.

Salman Rushdie has put everything on the line for his work. He has stood up for free thought and expression even as others have disgraced themselves by making excuses on behalf of those who commit deadly violence in the name of religion, like Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose, the murdered cartoonists, and satirists at Charlie Hebdo, and numerous other brave writers, thinkers, artists, and intellectuals hunted across the globe for violating ancient taboos against blasphemy.


Rushdie has earned a reputation as one of the greatest moral figures of our time thanks to his consistent bravery and unwavering readiness to uphold individual liberties. “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep,” says one of his characters in The Satanic Verses. All of the actions were taken by Rushdie. It is tragic that his commitment to these admirable goals has cost him so much.