Taking responsibility: On Salman Rushdie attack in New York 

Iran might not be directly involved in the attack on Rushdie, but it must revoke the fatwa

August 17, 2022 12:10 am | Updated August 18, 2022 01:01 pm IST

The Iranian Foreign Ministry’s comment, that only “Salman Rushdie and his supporters” were to be blamed for the gruesome knife attack on the author in New York State last week, is yet another reiteration of the clerical establishment’s well-known regressive position on the Rushdie affair. The 1989 fatwa against Rushdie, issued by Iran’s then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, because he believed the author’s The Satanic Verses was blasphemous, has already wreaked enough havoc across the world. It was a rare instance of a leader of a country issuing an extra-territorial death sentence against an author who was living in another country by invoking his pan-Islamist beliefs and clerical authority. Dozens were killed in riots. The book’s translators and publishers were attacked. It drove Rushdie underground for years. Thirty-three years later, Rushdie was attacked by a 24-year-old American citizen of Lebanese descent, whose social media accounts are reportedly filled with pro-Khomeini and pro-Iran content. Iran has denied any role. It is astonishing that Iran could not even issue a statement condemning the attack and the attacker. Worse, pro-state media in Iran applauded “the courageous and duty-conscious man who attacked the apostate and depraved Salman Rushdie in New York”.

In the past, Iran’s government had stayed away from Khomeini’s fatwa. In 1998, Kamal Kharrazi, Foreign Minister in the government of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, announced in New York that Iran would not attempt to kill Rushdie. As it was generally interpreted as an informal revocation of the fatwa, the U.K. normalised ties with the Islamic Republic. But hardliners tightened their grip on Iran’s institutions once Khatami’s two terms came to an end in 2005. In the same year, Ayatollah Khamenei repeated Khomeini’s position — that Rushdie was “an apostate whose killing would be authorised by Islam”. In 2019, the Ayatollah’s Twitter account was briefly suspended after he said the fatwa was “solid and irrevocable”, The edict clearly made matters worse for Rushdie, but it did not stop him from writing. He wrote some of his finest fiction and essays during this period, disproving, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “Orwell’s fine but fallacious dictum that ‘the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity’”. Rushdie continued to live under the Ayatollah’s sword, but remained a champion of the freedoms he believed in, something which those who bayed for his blood never managed to reconcile with. Iran may not have a direct role in the attack. But as the fatwa issued by the leader of its revolution has hunted down this harmless man of words for over three decades, Iran has the moral responsibility, at least now when he is recovering from serious wounds, to revoke the fatwa and unequivocally condemn the attack.

To read this editorial in Hindi, click here.

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