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Report: Salman Rushdie
Part 1: Who is Rushdie? What’s the background? Who ordered his assassination?
This is the first article in Autonomia’s debut series of reports about Salman Rushdie, the writer targeted for death by Iran on February 14, 1989. Rushdie was stabbed in the United States of America in an assassination attempt on August 12, 2022.
Who is Salman Rushdie?
Salman Rushdie’s a 75-year-old secular writer, author and satirist. His books are mostly fiction. Born in Bombay, India, he moved as a youth to England and became a British citizen and advertising copywriter, spending most of his life in London. Rushdie later wrote a surrealistic novel, The Satanic Verses, satirizing the Islamic prophet Mohammed, for which the Moslem dictatorship Iran sentenced Rushdie—and any and all connected to publishing or selling the book—to death on Valentine’s Day in 1989.
Neither Britain nor the United States retaliated against this act of war. Forced into hiding, Rushdie eventually moved to America, becoming an American citizen in 2016. He told Time magazine in 2017 that he no longer took Iran’s death order—an Islamic fatwa—seriously. Rushdie’s website bio states that he:
… is the author of thirteen novels—Grimus, Midnight’s Children (for which he won the Booker Prize and the “Booker of Bookers”), Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury, Shalimar the Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, Luka and the Fire of Life, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, and The Golden House—and one collection of short stories, East, West. He has also published four works of nonfiction—Joseph Anton, The Jaguar Smile, Imaginary Homelands, and Step Across This Line—and co-edited two anthologies, Mirrorwork and Best American Short Stories 2008. He is a former president of American PEN.”
Rushdie wrote about his experience as a refugee from the Islamic assassination decree 10 years ago in his memoir, Joseph Anton, which was also his chosen code name (based on names of Rushdie’s favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov). British police protected Rushdie from Iran’s assassins while he was in hiding. During his life in America, the undaunted Rushdie continued to write, travel and address audiences.
Salman Rushdie told Time in 2017 that he was “concerned that young Americans today seem too censorious, too willing to give up their freedom of speech in order to avoid offense.”
What is Iran’s recent history?
The recent history of Iran, without going into every essential detail, is that of a dictatorship under monarchy which allied with Nazi Germany. The shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, was monarch and dictator. After World War 2, the shah became convinced—with reason—that Soviet Russia was sponsoring opponents operating within Iran. The shah’s rule—with a secret police force—was brutal. In certain ways, however, the shah advanced Iran toward civilization. For example, the shah made a point to liberalize the country with roads, increased equality for women, liberalization of speech and alliance with the United States, primarily as a hedge against Soviet Russia. Iran was America’s ally.
The shah was superstitious, especially toward the end of his regime. Iran—a distant remnant of the once-powerful Persian empire—was predicated on nationalism which was fueled by the alliance with Nazi Germany. German philosophy, i.e., notions such as duty to the state, national identity and collective, became embedded in Iranian culture and the country’s elementary educational system. The shah correctly thought that opposition to his government was encouraged by Western leftists and Soviet Russia, which had allied with Arab nationalists against Israel. Soviet Russia, which formed and funded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964 with Arab terrorist Yasser Arafat in Moscow, sought to undermine the pro-American shah.
The shah’s reaction to the rising threat of Soviet-backed opposition was brutality against Iranians. This strengthened Islamic fundamentalist opposition. Iran’s mystics exploited Iranian nationalism, conflating nationalism with religion, i.e., Islam, and spreading religionism with a propellant; anti-Americanism. To oppose Shah Pahlavi’s brute force was to oppose America. An ayatollah calling himself Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as the Moslem mystic to oppose the Shah. Pahlavi’s acquiescence to this ayatollah—Pahlavi routinely punished or exiled Khomeini yet, as Khomeini gained influence, the Shah became paralyzed in fear and repeatedly and ultimately appeased and released Khomeini—led to Khomeini’s coup in 1979. The old mullah overthrew the Shah and took control of Iran.
Within days, frenzied religious zealots attacked Iran’s U.S. embassy, chanting “Death to America!”, seizing control in an act of war and taking Americans—including U.S. Marines—prisoner. Iran’s American prisoners were beaten, tortured and persecuted for 444 days. The United States of America did not retaliate with military defense.
Today, Iran is a theocracy—a totalitarian state with morality police based on and ruled by religion—with occasional internal outbursts of protest. In practice, Iran’s government constitutes an extremely religious dictatorship over citizens, especially artists, women and gays. Iran prohibits free speech, dance and sexuality, among other civilized human action, in the name of barbaric, archaic belief. Its premise is death.
Who was Ruhollah Khomeini?
The ayatollah known as Khomeini was an old mystic who led the Islamic revolution against the Shah of Iran. Khomeini seized control of the state in 1979, when frenzied Iranians celebrating the Islamic revolt attacked the American embassy in the name of the new dictatorship—under Khomeini’s orders or with his support—and took Americans prisoner. Americans were beaten, tortured and persecuted for 444 days.
The U.S. evaded this act of war. America did not retaliate with military defense. Instead, the U.S. under Jimmy Carter’s presidency attempted a disastrous mission to “rescue” war prisoners—dubbed “hostages” in the press as if Iran’s act of war was strictly a crime—which resulted in numerous dead American soldiers in Iran. Khomeini exploited the failed rescue mission as a victory for Iran and Islam.
The ayatollah’s rise was a gradual story of appeasement by the West and Iran’s shah, who intermittently punished Khomeini while consistently denying, enabling and abetting the old mystic. According to author David Harris, Khomeini once traveled in disguise to arrange his marriage to a nine-year-old girl. In his book about Iran’s 1979 attack on the U.S., The Crisis, Harris wrote that:
In 1932, in response to Reza Shah’s orders that everyone register with his government and adopt a last name, Ruhollah registered as Ruhollah Mostafavi, or “Ruhollah related to Mostafa.” He also, like many Persian men of action had done through history, adopted a second identity as a kind of nom de guerre. Ruholla now signed his private correspondence Mussavi al-Khomeini, “a sayyid descendant of the Imam Mussa from the village of Khomein,” and it was as the combination of these two identities that Ruhollah Khomeini would — in the name of Allah, Punisher of Tyrants — eventually lead the fight against [the shah].
For the next thirty years, Ruhollah Khomeini’s sermons in Qom’s Faizieh Seminary were marveled over for their erudition and attended to overflowing. He was first recognized as a mujtahid, “one who is capable of providing guidance,” and then as a marja -e-taqleed, a “source of imitation,” at which point he was empowered to issue fatwas. Khomeini reached ayatollah status in 1960. His “grand” appellation was added shortly before his exile in Najaf, more than four years later. The future imam had transferred his antagonism from Reza Shah to Mohammad Shah in 1941, almost as soon as Khomeini learned that the elder Pahlavi had abdicated in favor of his twenty-one-year-old son. The grand ayatollah to whom Khomeini had attached himself during this period dispatched him to lead a delegation of mullahs to [Teheran] to beseech the occupying British forces not to recognize the new shah. “We told the British to allow the monarchy to be ended,” Khomeini later remembered, “so that our [Moslem] people could choose a government of their own liking.” Unsuccessful, the future imam returned to Qom to concentrate on theology.
Khomeini’s path had next crossed the shah’s in 1945, at the end of World War II, as the British were preparing to withdraw from Iran, leaving the shah as the head of state in a loosely constitutional government. This occasion marked the first and only time the shah and the imam ever met one-on-one. Again, Khomeini had gone to [Teheran] leading a delegation sent by his grand ayatollah. This time they had been instructed to secure an audience with the shah to plead for a pardon in the case of a mullah who had been sentenced to death for participating in an assassination plot against some political opponents. The five-member delegation first met with a court secretary, who asked if they had a written message to deliver. Khomeini answered that no, the message was verbal and would require a face-to-face encounter.”
Khomeini died in 1989 after commanding death to writer Salman Rushdie for committing blasphemy against Islam; he ordered Moslems, especially Iranian Moslems, to assassinate Rushdie—as well as anyone and everyone publishing and disseminating Rushdie’s book.
Next: Salman Rushdie, Part 2: the 1989 death sentence and the 2022 assassination attempt
Editor’s note: this was edited for clarification on 11 October 2022
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