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Report: Salman Rushdie
Part 2: What’s Iran’s conflict? 1989’s death decree and August’s assassination attempt
This is the second in Autonomia’s debut reporting series about Salman Rushdie, a writer condemned to death by Iran on February 14, 1989. On August 12, 2022, Rushdie was repeatedly stabbed in the United States of America. Read the first report here.
Why does Iran condemn Salman Rushdie?
When author Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, according to the theocracy’s ayatollah—its dictator—the writer committed blasphemy against Islam, Iran’s state religion. Rushdie was condemned to death. Today, Iran vows to kill the infidel (which, according to radical Islam, means anyone who’s not Moslem), destroy America and annihilate Western civilization. Iran also condemned Rushdie’s publishers and the book’s agents, including bookstores, to death.
What are the facts of Iran’s death decree?
“When Salman Rushdie wrote his novel The Satanic Verses in September 1988, he thought its many references to Islam might cause some ripples,” Julian Borger recently wrote in The Guardian. Rushdie’s novel is based on the life of an Islamic prophet named Mohammed; in the novel’s plot, Mohammed adds three disputed verses to the Koran. “I expected a few mullahs would be offended, call me names, and then I could defend myself in public,” Rushdie would later tell an interviewer.
But—in a rarely reported aspect of the timeline of the death decree—within weeks, Rushdie needed a bodyguard. Shortly after publication of The Satanic Verses, there was what Borger describes as “a deluge of death threats,” a swarm of deadly riots and a frenzied backlash. Does this mean that Iran’s dictator-mystic’s decree—fatwa—commanding Moslems to assassinate Rushdie was a reactionary response to the outrage in other parts of the Islamic world?
Borger writes: “One [Moslem]-majority country after another banned [The Satanic Verses] and in December  thousands of [Moslems] demonstrated in [the United Kingdom] and burned a pile of the books. In Islamabad, six people were killed in a mob attack on the U.S. cultural [center] in the Pakistani capital to protest against the book. There were riots in Srinagar and Kashmir.” The Satanic Verses was banned in Rushdie’s native India—he was barred from visiting for years—as well as Bangladesh, Sudan and Sri Lanka.
Only then, on Valentine’s Day 1989, did Iran’s mystic of muscle—authoritarian mullah Khomeini—issue a religious decree calling on all Moslems to execute “not just Rushdie but everyone involved in the book’s publication.” By decreeing a fatwa, with Iran’s religious foundation offering a million dollar bounty—$3 million if an Iranian carried out the assassination, underscoring Iran’s nationalism—Rushdie’s death sentence was intractable. Iran nixed ties with Britain for harboring Salman Rushdie.
Rushdie was forced into hiding. Secluded for years at a remote Welsh farmhouse under an alias—“Joseph Anton,” a name he chose to honor his literary heroes Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov—Rushdie lived in fear and solitude.
Certain Western intellectuals defended Rushdie’s rights. “On the day the novel was published in America, February 22, 1989,” Rushdie wrote in his 2012 memoir, “there was a full-page advertisement in The New York Times paid for by the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers’ Association and the American Library Association. “Free people write books,” it said. “Free people publish books. Free people sell books. Free people buy books. Free people read books. In the spirit of America’s commitment to free expression we inform the public that this book will be available to readers at bookshops and libraries throughout the country.”
Rushdie wrote that PEN American Center, “passionately led” by his beloved friend Susan Sontag, held readings from The Satanic Verses. Sontag, Don DeLillo and Larry McMurtry were among the readers. However, few if any intellectuals argued that the West should retaliate against Iran. British and American bookstores selling The Satanic Verses faced bombing, destruction and death.
That same month, lacking a single Western government’s support or pledge of military defense, Rushdie expressed remorse. He issued a statement—which Rushdie later retracted—expressing regret for “the distress” his book caused “sincere followers of Islam.” It backfired. By that summer, Ayatollah Khomeini had died; his death decree was immediately renewed. Within weeks, an Islamic terrorist, mixing a bomb to assassinate Rushdie, was killed in a Paddington hotel explosion.
Rushdie doubled down, expressing “remorse” within months, adding that he embraced Islam, did not agree with views expressed by his characters in the novel and that he opposed publishing The Satanic Verses in paperback. Iran’s new dictator rejected the apology. Rushdie finally recanted the apologies and his 1990 claim to embrace Islam in 1997, admitting that he had lied to protect his life: “The Satanic Verses is as important in my body of work as any of my other books,” he said. Asked if he was a Moslem, he answered: “I am happy to say that I am not.” Rushdie later called his apologetic and remorseful expressions the “biggest mistake of my life”.
With Iran unsuccessful in executing the decree to assassinate Salman Rushdie, yet having reduced him to living in fear and seclusion without benefit of military defense from the West, Iran’s Islamic *crusade for mass murder began:
Ettore Capriolo, The Satanic Verses’ Italian translator, was attacked and badly wounded at his Milan home in 1991; his attacker had identified himself as an Iranian and pretended to seek translation of a pamphlet.
Days later, another Satanic Verses translator, Islamic culture professor Hitoshi Igarashi, was knifed to death near Tokyo at Tsukuba University.
In 1993, The Satanic Verses’ Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, of H. Aschehoug & Co., who had sought and been granted police protection, was shot three times and seriously wounded outside his Oslo home.
Turkey’s top journalist, Ugur Mumcu, was killed by a car bomb.
New York City’s World Trade Center was bombed on February 26, 1993, by Islamic terrorists. Six people died and 1,000 were injured.
Iran’s dictator and agency of religion increased the bounty on Rushdie; most of Iran’s parliament, the majlis, signed a statement saying the writer deserves to die.
As bookstores were bombed—Collet’s and Dillons in London, Abbey’s in Sydney—libraries and bookstores exercised soft censorship, refusing to stock The Satanic Verses; a dozen printers in France refused to print the French edition.
Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue was sealed off during a bookstore bomb scare. Rushdie notes: “In those days there were still bookstores up and down Fifth Avenue.”
Cody’s bookstore in Berkeley, California, was bombed.
Collet’s bookshop was bombed again.
Death protests against Salman Rushdie were held outside Liberty’s department store in London and at Penguin’s British bookstores.
Iran declared that the death order was irrevocable, claiming that the commandment to assassinate Salman Rushdie was supported by the “entire [Islamic] world”.
A public library in Rochdale, Lancashire, was bombed.
* this is a partial, not complete, list of Iran’s probable sponsored Islamic terrorism
Iran’s current dictator avows Rushdie’s death sentence. “As recently as 2016,” Borger reports, “state-run media … in Iran raised the bounty on the writer’s head. Abbas Salehi, the deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance at the time, said: “Khomeini’s fatwa is a religious decree and it will never lose its power or fade out.”
After Islamic terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001—the day Leonard Peikoff calls Black Tuesday—Rushdie ceased using an alias and commenced a return to living at liberty. During an interview with Agence France-Presse in Paris in 2019, Rushdie was still accompanied by armed policemen. Yet he said he thought the decree had lost its power. “We live in a world where the subject changes very fast,” he said. “There are now many other things to be frightened about — and other people to kill.”
Salman Rushdie, a father who’s been married and divorced several times, wrote in his memoir that the “fear that spread through the publishing industry was real because the threat was real. Publishers and translators were threatened by the fatwa, too. And yet the world of the book, in which free people made free choices, had to be defended. [I] thought often that the crisis was like an intense light shining down on everyone’s choices and deeds, creating a world without shadows, a stark unequivocal place of right and wrong action, good and bad choices, yes and no, strength and weakness. In that harsh glare some publishers looked heroic while others looked spineless.”
Rushdie made other key assertions in his 2012 memoir:
“[As Iran commanded that Rushdie be murdered, British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher was on television, understanding the [presumed] insult to Islam and sympathizing with the insulted.”
“The [Rushdie-] Clinton meeting was front-page news everywhere, and the coverage was almost uniformly positive. The British press seemed to be playing down the significance of the Clinton meeting, but the predictable fundamentalist responses to it were given plenty of ink. That, too, was predictable. After Thanksgiving Clinton seemed to wobble. “I only met [Salman Rushdie] for a couple of minutes,” [President Clinton] said. “Some of my people didn’t want me to. I hope people won’t misunderstand. No insult [to Islam] was intended. I just wanted to defend free speech. I think I did the right thing.” And so on, pretty gelatinously. It didn’t sound like the Leader of the Free World taking a stand against terrorism.”
“…in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy, which awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, decided not to issue a formal statement condemning the fatwa.”
“[Establishment and New Left darling and Washington Post publisher Katherine] Kay Graham came [to an event supporting Rushdie] and said almost nothing.”
Only the Ayn Rand Institute, founded by Rand’s heir, Leonard Peikoff, in 1985, unequivocally defended Salman Rushdie on principle. In a 1989 newspaper advertisement—an unpublished essay attributed by the ARI to Peikoff—signed by various intellectuals and supporters, asserted that Ayatollah Khomeini’s “attack on Salman Rushdie and his publishers represents religious terrorism. Americans oppose the Ayatollah’s death-decree, but our government is doing nothing to combat it.”
Denouncing then-President George H.W. Bush for issuing “a limp condemnation coupled with the vague statement that Iran would be held “accountable” if American interests are harmed” and former president Carter for doing “nothing while Iran held Americans hostage,” the ARI’s ad claimed that “[t]his time Iran is attempting to hold our minds hostage.”
The ARI’s ad asserts that:
“The ultimate target of the Ayatollah, as of all mystics, is not a particular “blasphemy,” but reason itself, along with its cultural and political expressions: science, the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution. If the assault succeeds, the result will be an Age of Unreason — a new Dark Ages. As Ayn Rand wrote in Philosophy: Who Needs It, in her prescient 1960 essay “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World”:
The conflict of reason versus mysticism is the issue of life or death–or freedom or slavery–or progress or stagnant brutality. . . . Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding is possible.”
The ARI ad called for the United States to “take military action against Iran, until the Iranian government rescinds the Ayatollah’s death decree. The Ayatollah’s threat against American lives is an act of war. It calls for reprisals. Targets should include the known training camps where Iranian terrorists are being schooled and bred.”
Salman Rushdie ultimately faced Iran’s death threat with courage. In a 1995 interview with The Sunday Times, on the eve of his first scheduled public appearance since the assassination threat—an onstage moderated discussion in London about his then-new novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh—Rushdie spoke about writing again under the shadow of mass death, bombings, attacks and Iran’s irrevocable threat to murder him.
“Writing this was a very important step for me,” Rushdie said. “I had spent two and a half years talking to politicians, which is not my favorite occupation. Then I realized it was foolish to let this disagreeable business get in the way of what I love doing best. I wanted to prove to myself that I could absorb what has happened to me and transcend it. And now, at least, I feel that I have.”
What is known about the attempt to assassinate Rushdie?
On Friday, August 12, at around 10:47 a.m., Salman Rushdie, 75, was on stage at the Chautauqua Institution’s theater in Chautauqua in Western New York. Rushdie was preparing to deliver an address on the United States of America being a haven for persecuted writers.
An attacker charged the stage. Rushdie had taken a seat near the moderator, a co-founder of City of Asylum, a Pittsburgh organization for exiled writers. The New York Times reported that “[a]udience members gasped.” Several leaped to their feet.
“Mary Newsom, who attended the lecture, said that some people thought at first that it might be a stunt. “Then it became apparent that it was clearly not a stunt.”
According to the Times of London, Rushdie’s would-be assassin was charged with attempted murder after the author was stabbed more than a dozen times during the talk about freedom of expression. “Appearing in court in New York, Hadi Matar, 24, entered a not guilty plea,” the newspaper reports. “He is said to have burst on to the stage at an event on Friday in an attack that left Rushdie at risk of being blinded in one eye and with serious wounds to his liver and arm. Rushdie, 75, remains in hospital on a ventilator, apparently unable to speak. The motive behind is unclear but officials are said to be investigating [Islamic] extremist material shared by Matar online.”
“The assailant stabbed Mr. Rushdie in the abdomen and the neck, the police and witnesses said, straining to continue the attack even as several people held him back,” claimed the New York Times, which added that Rushdie “was taken by helicopter to a nearby hospital in Erie, Pa., where he was in surgery for several hours ... Mr. Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said Friday evening that Mr. Rushdie was on a ventilator and could not speak. “The news is not good,” Mr. Wylie said in an email. “Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”
The New York Times, which opposes absolute free speech and supports appeasing Iran, reports that “the police were working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the local sheriff’s office and that investigators were in the process of obtaining search warrants for a backpack and electronic devices that were found at the institution.”
The assassination attempt “stunned onlookers, who had gathered in the 4,000-seat amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institution, a summertime destination for literary and arts programming” and took “five men to pull him away and he was still stabbing,” according to eyewitness Linda Abrams, who attended the lecture in the front row. “[The assassin] was just furious, furious. Like intensely strong and just fast.”
Other witnesses described blood running down Rushdie’s cheek and pooling on the floor. A medical doctor in attendance, Rita Landman, said that Rushdie appeared to have multiple stab wounds, including one on the right side of his neck. “Ralph Henry Reese, 73, who was onstage with Mr. Rushdie to moderate the discussion, suffered an injury to his face during the attack and was released from the hospital on Friday afternoon, the police said.” Matar was booked in county jail on one count of attempted second-degree murder and one count of second-degree assault.
PEN America’s CEO, Suzanne Nossel, said in a statement that “we can think of no comparable incident of a public attack on a literary writer on American soil.” After Rushdie was released from the hospital, moderator Reese described Rushdie as:
“[O]ne of the great defenders of freedom of speech and freedom of creative expression. We revere him and our paramount concern is for his life. The fact that this attack could occur in the United States is indicative of the threats to writers from many governments and from many individuals and organizations.”
The New York Times wrote that “[s]everal witnesses said the attacker was able to reach Mr. Rushdie easily, running onstage and approaching him from behind. Chuck Koch, an attorney from Ohio who owns a house in Chautauqua, was seated in the second row and ran onstage to help subdue the attacker. Mr. Koch said that several people worked to separate the assailant from Mr. Rushdie, and were able to do so before a uniformed officer arrived and placed the attacker in handcuffs. As the attacker was being restrained, another attendee, Bruce Johnson, saw a knife fall to the floor, he said. Michael Hill, Chautauqua’s president, said at the news conference on Friday afternoon that [accused combatant] Matar had a pass to access the institution’s grounds like any typical patron.”
Time’s Anisha Kohli reported potential security gaps—no metal detectors or bag checks—at the venue where Rushdie was speaking. His intended assassin reportedly purchased admittance to the lecture. Anders Hagstrom reported for Fox News that the accused religious terrorist’s mother, with whom the 24-year-old lives, said: “He sleeps during the day and wakes and eats during the night. He lives in the basement.” Police think he’s an Islamic terrorist, Hagstrom wrote.
Rushdie’s book publisher’s CEO, Markus Dohle, promptly issued an evasive statement about Iran’s Islamic death commandment: “We are deeply shocked and appalled to hear of the attack.” Similarly, Britain’s leader at the time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson dropped the context of the reason Iran broke with Britain in 1989 while posting on Twitter that he was “appalled“ that Rushdie had been stabbed “while exercising a right we should never cease to defend.”
New York’s governor, too, ignored the state-sponsored religious death sentence in a timid post without specificity: “Today’s attack on Salman Rushdie was also an attack on some of our most sacred values — the free expression of thought.” One of the few to explicitly acknowledge the context of Iran’s Moslem death sentence was Adam Gopnik, who raised the issue of offending Moslems. Writing an essay in the New Yorker, he argued that the assassination attempt:
“was horrific in the madness of its meaning and a reminder of the power of religious fanaticism to move people. Authorities did not immediately release a motive for the attack, but the dark apprehension is that the terrorist who assaulted Rushdie was a radicalized Islamic militant of American upbringing—like John Updike’s imaginary terrorist in the novel Terrorist, apparently one raised in New Jersey—who was executing a fatwa first decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, upon the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. The evil absurdity of the death sentence pronounced on Rushdie for having written a book actually more exploratory than sacrilegious—in no sense an anti-[Moslem] invective, but a kind of magical-realist meditation on themes from the [Koran]—was always obvious. (Of course, Rushdie should have been equally invulnerable to persecution had he written an actual anti-[Moslem]—or an anti-Christian—diatribe, but, as it happens, he hadn’t.)”
In an interview days before the assassination attempt with a German magazine—conducted in Rushdie’s agent’s Manhattan office, where Rushdie arrived without bodyguards—Rushdie discussed Iran’s death decree. “A fatwa like that is a serious matter, fortunately the Internet didn’t exist back then. The Iranians had to fax the fatwa to the mosques. That was a long time ago, you know, but now my life is relatively normal again,” he said.
Rushdie told German media: “…I always tell people: Don’t be afraid. But the bad thing is, death threats have become commonplace. It’s no longer just politicians who get it, but even American teachers who go through certain books in class.”
Two weeks before he was stabbed, Rushdie expressed major concern about America’s disunity—though he framed the issue within the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision. “I’ve had serious concerns that the U.S. won’t make it,” Rushdie said. “That the problems are irreparable and the country is falling apart.”
Rushdie had recently expressed opposition to letting the death threat dominate his life. “It destroys my individuality as a person and as a writer,” he told the Guardian last year, referring to Iran’s fatwa. “I’m not a geopolitical entity. I’m someone writing in a room.”
Gopnik, in his New Yorker essay, put what he describes as “the terrorist assault on Salman Rushdie” in context, arguing that the knifing is “triply horrific to contemplate. First in its sheer brutality and cruelty, on a seventy-five-year-old man, unprotected and about to speak—doubtless cheerfully and eloquently, as he always did—repeatedly in the stomach and neck and face. Indeed, we accept the abstraction of those words—“assaulted” and “attacked”—too casually. To try to feel the victim’s feelings—first shock, then unimaginable pain, then the panicked sense of life bleeding away—to engage in the most moderate empathy with the author is to be oneself scarred. (At the time of writing, Rushdie is reportedly on a ventilator, with an uncertain future, the only certainty being that, if he lives, he will be maimed for life.)”
Gopnik disclosed that, hours before the assassination attempt, Rushdie had written to Gopnik for help in “securing safe refuge for Ukrainian writers who face grave perils that are silencing their voices at a time when they badly need to be heard.”
While Gopnik, Rushdie and intellectuals focus on emotional empathy, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the judicial ruling about the right to abortion, however, the Rushdie assassination attempt underscores the ominous implications of the threat to free speech: mass death on a catastrophic scale. As Rushdie’s friend Gopnik observes in his essay: “Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a figure involved in the U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations, announced on Twitter that he “won’t be shedding tears for a writer who spouts endless hatred & contempt for [Moslems] & Islam.”
This demonstrates that the assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses is commanded, sanctioned and probably sponsored by America’s Iranian Islamic enemy, which seeks nuclear weaponry to annihilate the West.
Read the third and final part of this report next month on Autonomia.
Next: Salman Rushdie, Part 3: U.S. response, freedom of speech, what now and how’s Rushdie?
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