The violence Iran stoked around Rushdie was not even about his novel

Strengthening the political clout of communal leaders was more the agenda

Iranian women hold banners during a demonstration against British writer Salman Rushdie, on February 17, 1989 in Tehran. AFP
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On Friday, the novelist Salman Rushdie was attacked and repeatedly stabbed while on stage to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institute in New York State. A 24-year-old man named Hadi Matar has been arrested. Rushdie appears to be recovering but his nerves and liver could be damaged and he may lose an eye.

Little is known about the suspected assailant. But in 1989 the government of Iran cynically put a target on Rushdie’s back and has kept it there.

After the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in September 1988, protests broke out in the largely South Asian English city of Bradford, and spread to India and Pakistan.

Few, if any, protesters had actually read the book, which they accused of being blasphemous. This is crucial, because the novel is not, in fact, blasphemous. It merely depicts the wild fantasies of an insane character, Gibreel Farishta, who is under the delusion that he has turned into the Archangel Gabriel.

Salman Rushdie at the Pen New England's Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award ceremony at the John F  Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, US, on  September 19, 2016. Reuters

These surrealistic, or rather magical-realist, fantasies include a fever dream that references the life and works of Prophet Mohammed, but no reader could come away with the idea that the novel was attempting to tell the tale of the birth of Islam or critique the religion. Although some Muslims may find the passages offensive, throughout the novel, the author was effectively reading his South Asian Muslim tradition, culture and experience through a magical-realist lens.

Of course, the protests were not really about the author or the book, but rather about strengthening the political clout of communal leaders, and an effort to make life difficult for local authorities. Protests about anything abstract or faraway are always really about very different targets much closer to home.

But Iran, still riding high on the revolutionary fervour of the 1980s, sought to place itself at the forefront of this latest iteration of highly manipulated so-called “Muslim outrage” supposedly against the West. On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's revolutionary supreme leader, issued a fatwa – or religious opinion which, in some Shiite traditions, can be considered effectively binding on followers – calling for the author and anyone else involved in the publication of the book to be murdered.

Pro-Iranian Hezbollah fundamentalists burn an effigy of British writer Salman Rushdie, who they accused of blasphemy on February 26, 1989, in Beirut, Lebanon. AFP

Tehran subsequently offered a $3 million bounty for Rushdie's assassination. He was forced to live in hiding for years, and a wave of violence followed. Five bookstores in Britain were bombed. The Japanese translator of the book was stabbed and killed, and the Italian translator seriously injured. The Norwegian publisher was shot three times and badly wounded. The list of other violent incidents is long.

The Iranian government and various official institutions not only reiterated the validity of the bounty and the fatwa, but have added to the amount of money they say they're willing to pay for this anti-civilisational terrorism.

All of this background to Friday’s attempted murder of Rushdie is widely understood, but the deeper roots of Khomeini's rage has been largely overlooked.

Chapter 11 of the novel paints a stinging and remarkably incisive caricature of Khomeini himself. It depicts "The Imam” – a fanatical cleric forced to live in the West, just as Khomeini was when he was exiled to France after being expelled from Iraq by Saddam Hussein. Among the many absurdities of this character is that he wants to stop time, an obvious parody of Khomeini's passionate hatred of progress and modernity.

“After the revolution there will be no clocks;” the character of the Imam decrees, "we’ll smash the lot. The word clock will be expunged from our dictionaries. After the revolution there will be no birthdays. We shall all be born again, all of us the same unchanging age in the eye of Almighty God.”

It is hard to imagine a more precise and stinging lampoon of Khomeini and his malevolent mission. There’s more besides in chapter 11 about the Imam character that would have caused Khomeini additional, and indeed greater, personal offence and outrage. He and his followers were certainly well aware of it when they decided the author had to die. Of course, they claimed to be responding to an attack "against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur'an." But there is no doubt it was, above all, about the wounded ego of a man anointing himself a "supreme leader".

The reported reactions to the brutal attempted murder of Rushdie in Iran's heavily-controlled media ranged from bland factual descriptions to joyous celebrations – and threats that Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo will be next – along with conspiratorial musings that it could really have been a western "false flag" operation to derail nuclear negotiations.

But not a hint of concern, regret or objection. None.

That Khomeini and his followers recognised him and his fanatical regime in the character of the Imam – and then acted precisely according to monstrous type in 1989 and ever since – tells us everything we need to know about their ongoing addiction to violence and hostility to creativity and freedom of thought.

It’s bad enough they’ve never stopped encouraging extremists to kill Rushdie to bolster their image among radical Muslims, especially since that powerfully stokes Western Islamophobia. That it is rooted in the wounded ego of a narcissistic tyrant is even worse.

Rushdie's attacker is unlikely to see any of the promised millions. But Iranian gloating confirms who is responsible for this heinous attack.

Published: August 15, 2022, 2:00 PM