When Salman Rushdie wrote his novel The Satanic Verses in September 1988, he thought its many references to Islam might cause ripples.
“I expected a few mullahs to be offended, insult me, and then I could defend myself in public,” Rushdie told an interviewer much later.
The Indian-born author came from a career as a copywriter, crafting slogans such as “naughty but nice” for cream cakes, for example. He had no idea the tsunami of outrage that was to overshadow the rest of his life, or that he was about to become a geopolitical trap.
By October 1988, he was already in need of a bodyguard in the face of a deluge of death threats, trip cancellations and withdrawal. One Muslim-majority country after another banned the book, and in December thousands of Muslims demonstrated in Bolton, Greater Manchester, and burned a pile of books. In Islamabad, six people were killed in a mass attack on the Pakistani capital’s American Cultural Center to protest the book. There were riots in Srinagar and Kashmir.
The day after these riots, February 14, 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a religious decree, a fatwa, calling on all Muslims to execute not only Rushdie but all those involved in the publication of the book. The fatwa effectively carved the death threat in stone, making it impossible to erase. An Iranian religious foundation offered a bounty of $1 million, $3 million if an Iranian committed the murder. Iran has severed relations with Britain over this.
Rushdie went into hiding and lived for several years, mostly on a remote farm in Wales, under the pseudonym of Joseph Anton, celebrating his literary heroes Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. In 2012 he published a memoir of his life in hiding under this title.
Western intellectuals have mostly flocked to Rushdie’s defense, portraying the issue as a litmus test of the West’s willingness to uphold the principle of free speech in the face of deadly threats.
Bookstores in the UK and US soon found themselves having to urgently decide where they stood on this issue, in the face of a wave of bombings against shops that continued to sell it.
In February 1989, Rushdie expressed remorse, saying, “I deeply regret the distress the publication has caused to sincere followers of Islam.” The words, however, had little impact. In June 1989, Khomeini died, but the fatwa survived under his successor, the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and there seems to have been a renewed effort to implement it. Later that month, a Lebanese of Guinean descent, calling himself Mustafa Mazeh, blew himself up in a hotel in Paddington, west London, preparing a bomb to kill Rushdie.
In 1990, Rushdie again expressed remorse, said he embraced the Islamic faith, disagreed with the views expressed by characters in the novel, and opposed the publication of the book as a book of poached. But Khamenei rejected the apology, quoting his predecessor as saying: “Even if he repents and becomes the most devout Muslim on Earth, there will be no change in this divine decree.”
Unable to reach Rushdie himself, the extremists sought out his literary collaborators. In July 1991, Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi, a professor of Islamic culture, was stabbed to death at the university of Tsukuba where he worked, northeast of Tokyo. A few days earlier, the Italian translator of the book had been assaulted and seriously injured in his Milan apartment by an assailant who had introduced himself as an Iranian, claiming to be looking for the translation of a pamphlet. Two years later, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot and seriously injured.
In 1997, a reformist Iranian president, Sayyid Mohammad Khatami, took office and began signaling that he would no longer actively seek to carry out the fatwa on Rushdie, or encourage anyone to kill him, as part of an overture westward and a restoration of diplomatic relations with Great Britain.
Rushdie expressed relief at the assurances offered by Khatami’s government and said he had no regrets for his book, even after spending a decade in hiding.
“Satanic Verses are as important to my work as any of my other books,” he said. He retracted his 1990 claim to embrace Islam, admitting he said so to get the fatwa lifted. When asked if he was a Muslim, he replied: “I am happy to say that I am not.”
He called his efforts to appease extremists by affirming his faith and calling for the removal of the book “the biggest mistake of my life”.
He dropped his alias and at least partially emerged from hiding in September 2001, and has steadily increased the frequency of his public appearances.
But the threat against him had not evaporated. Despite assurances from the Khatami government, the fatwa remained in place, backed by Iran’s supreme leader. An Iranian religious foundation increased the bounty on Rushdie’s head, and more than half of the country’s members of parliament, the majlis, signed a statement saying the writer deserved to die.
Long after the Khatami government was removed from office, Khamenei remains supreme leader and has made it clear that the shadow over Rushdie’s life will not be lifted. As recently as 2016, 40 Iranian public media organizations banded together to raise $600,000 to complete the bounty on the writer’s head. Abbas Salehi, the then Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, said: “Imam Khomeini’s fatwa is a religious decree and it will never lose its power or fade away.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse in Paris in 2019, Rushdie was still accompanied by armed police but he seemed to believe the world had moved on from the fatwa. “We live in a world where the subject changes very quickly. And this is a very old topic. Now there are a lot of other things to be afraid of – and other people to kill,” he said.