Well, it finally happened. Eons ago, more than a decade before 9/11, Salman Rushdie wrote a novel that led Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to issue a fatwa calling for his death. Back in those distant days, few of us in America had any idea what a fatwa was. Most of us, indeed, were surprised to learn that one of the prerogatives of Islamic leaders was the power to demand, in the name of God, that someone be slaughtered for writing a book.
How could that be? Yes, we all knew about Muslim terrorists—but we’d also been told over and over that they didn’t represent real Islam. They were fundamentalists, zealots, who’d misinterpreted the Koran and hijacked the faith. Real Islam, we’d been assured, was more or less like real Christianity, dedicated to the Golden Rule and love thy neighbor and so on, only with different liturgies and prayers and more exotic-looking houses of worship. For heaven’s sake, hadn’t whole swathes of the Left—including, ahem, Rushdie himself—cheered just a few years earlier when the tyrannical Shah was removed from the Peacock Throne and the pious Khomeini (Time’s “Man of the Year”) installed as the Iranian head of state?
The fatwa wasn’t even the beginning of what became known as the Rushdie affair. Before the Ayatollah spoke up, The Satanic Verses was banned in many countries, most but not all of them in the Muslim world. In English towns, Muslim mobs burned copies of it. There were deadly anti-Rushdie riots on the subcontinent. Bookstores in the United States and Britain were firebombed, leading some booksellers to refuse to carry the novel and others to keep their copies of the book out of sight.
And after the fatwa was pronounced? Well, it won the full-throated endorsement of—among others—Muslim academics, Muslim student groups in the West, and the Muslim singer Cat Stevens, who at the time went by the name of Yusuf Islam. Some Christian and Jewish leaders, while not supporting the fatwa, took Rushdie to task for having offended Muslims. So did Jimmy Carter. British Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie, who would later be awarded a knighthood, said death was “perhaps too easy” for Rushdie; the late British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said, “I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.” Various jihadist groups expressed a desire to do a great deal more than that.
Courageously, two winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature with Muslim backgrounds, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz and Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, gave Rushdie their support. Through it all, Westerners struggled with the dawning realization that Islam was a very different creature indeed from Christianity.
No, the Rushdie affair wasn’t the West’s first encounter with Islamic violence. Jihadist terrorists had bombed Western embassies, military installations, and commercial airliners. They’d killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. They’d taken hostages in the American Embassy in Tehran. Yet none of these jihadist atrocities inspired meaningful numbers of Westerners to educate themselves about Islam.
From one perspective, the Rushdie riots and bookstore bombings were just a new round of jihadist violence. But from another, they represented something we’d never seen before: a form of jihad that targeted not Western government buildings, military vehicles, and sports venues but a foundational Western freedom—the freedom of expression. And by targeting freedom, the ayatollah and his supporters began to open Western eyes to the reality of the Islamic worldview.
Yet we weren’t there yet.
“Though everybody understood,” I wrote in my 2009 book Surrender,
that this brouhaha was in some fundamental sense all about religion, there seemed nonetheless to be an unspoken assumption that Khomeini’s fatwa was a freakish departure from the usual order of things, even in the Muslim world. People talked about it as if it could be explained entirely by Khomeini’s quirky personality and, perhaps, by the seemingly unique degree of fanaticism that was gripping Iran at that particular moment. That the fatwa might, alternatively, be understood as illuminating the eternal nature of Islam itself—and the attitudes toward freedom, especially freedom of speech, that are inextricable from the religion’s theological essentials—was a possibility on which few prominent Western commentators chose to focus.
Not yet, anyway.
For years after the fatwa, Rushdie lived in hiding, forcing the would-be assassins to find other targets. His book’s Japanese translator was killed; its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher were severely injured in murder attempts. Thirty-seven participants in a Turkish literary festival died at the hands of an anti-Rushdie mob. Nonetheless, Rushdie eventually decided to cast off his fear and take the chance of living in the open.
In an odd way, Rushdie was lucky back in 1989. When Muslims came for his book, the Western literary and cultural establishment, with very few exceptions, closed ranks around him. In later years, other creative artists who offended the Religion of Peace weren’t so fortunate.
No, they weren’t hit with fatwas. But in November 2004, the Dutch author and raconteur Theo van Gogh, who’d made a short film about the mistreatment of women under Islam, was butchered in an Amsterdam street. After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran cartoons of Muhammed in September 2006, murderous riots swept the Islamic world, and the Norwegian government forced an editor who’d reprinted the cartoons to beg Muslim leaders for forgiveness. When PEN, the authors’ rights organization, gave an award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, several of whose staffers had been massacred by jihadists in January 2015 for mocking Islam, leading writers including Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Cunningham, and Michael Ondaatje signed an angry letter calling Charlie Hebdo “anti-Muslim.” Today, throughout the Western world, theatrical companies, movie studios, art galleries, and book publishers reflexively reject any artwork that might offend Muslims.
So it was that when Hadi Matar, an admirer of “Shia extremism” and of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, rushed Rushdie on a stage in Chautauqua, New York, and stabbed him multiple times in the face and neck, the New York Times identified him in its seventh paragraph as “a 24-year-old New Jersey man.” Not until the last two of the story’s 23 paragraphs did it mention the 33-year-old fatwa.
On the BBC, a guest “expert” described the assault on Rushdie as representative of “a pattern of violence in America” and took the opportunity to inveigh against the Second Amendment—even though Matar had used a knife, not a gun. NRK, the state-run TV network in Norway, where I live, managed to run an entire full-length report on the Rushdie attack without once mentioning the fatwa.
The early accounts and images of the attack on Rushdie were so horrific that many expected the worst. Early reports from the hospital said that he was on a ventilator and unable to speak, and would probably lose an eye; more recent reports indicate that he has been removed from the ventilator and is able to talk. Which means that Matar (“to kill” in Spanish) may have damaged his sight but not his speech.
We can only hope that as a result of this shocking crime, at least some of the innumerable people in the West who’ve carefully toed the Muslim line on speech—in many cases, perhaps, without giving it the slightest bit of serious thought—will rediscover their voices, and their cojones, and learn a long-overdue lesson in courage from Salman Rushdie.