The appalling stabbing attack on Salman Rushdie while speaking in Chautauqua, New York is a return to the violence that followed Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and his book, satanic verses, in 1989. Rushdie was attacked and seriously injured by a 24-year-old man from New Jersey. Little is known about the perpetrator at the time of this writing, except that he was not even born until several years after the fatwa was issued. At that time, many people died in communal violence in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; bookstores in Britain and the United States were bombed and burned; and Rushdie’s Norwegian editor was shot three times and survived, as was his Italian translator, who was stabbed. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was also stabbed in 1991. He died.
Intimidated by the violence, major bookstore chains in the United States stopped selling Rushdie’s book. satanic verses is a comic novel which received rave reviews when it was first published in Britain in the autumn of 1988. Some leading critics called it a masterpiece. On the other hand, the book offended many groups. 7,000 Muslims from Bolton in England staged a protest, followed by a book burning. They particularly objected to the use of the names of two of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives to identify two prostitutes and to Rushdie’s depiction of the removal of verses from the Quran because the Prophet considered them to be from the devil. Several countries, from India to Venezuela, banned the book over the next year. And in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, denouncing the book as blasphemous, issued the fatwa. Calling for the murder of Rushdie and others associated with the publication of the book, the fatwa was accompanied by the offer of a multi-million dollar reward by an Iranian foundation linked to the government.
Supporters of free speech and the press were horrified. The fatwa not only threatened Rushdie and people associated with satanic verses, but freedom of expression more broadly. If Khomeini and the Iranian government could suppress a book by threatening and exercising violence against an author, publishers, translators and booksellers, what would stop repressive regimes in different parts of the world from blocking more publications? who offend them? Many well-known authors took part in the protests against the fatwa. I remember speaking at a PEN-sponsored event in New York a few days after the fatwa was released in which other speakers included Susan Sontag, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and EL Doctorow. Many prominent writers in other parts of the world, including Nadine Gordimer, Günter Grass and Wole Soyinka, have also denounced the fatwa. Christopher Hitchens, who became a friend of Rushdie, denounced Islamic fundamentalism and made it a prominent theme in his writings in his later years.
Not everyone criticized the fatwa. Roald Dahl attacked Rushdie for insulting Muslims. John Le Carré first criticized Rushdie, then pondered the matter. Former President Jimmy Carter, known during his presidency as a human rights advocate, did not support the fatwa but chastised Rushdie for his insensitivity.