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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Salman Rushdie: Attacked but Not Silenced

Salman Rushdie
In this file photo taken on September 10, 2018, British novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie poses during a photo session in Paris. JOEL SAGET / AFP

Dana Hourany

For years, Salman Rushdie, 75, had spent his time in hiding after the leadership of Iran issued a 1989 “fatwa” (edict) that called for his death after he published “The Satanic Verses” in 1988.

The British-Indian author, who was forced into hiding for over ten years, was due to appear on Friday, August 12 at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. “The United States as a safe haven for exiled writers” was the talk’s theme.

In the absence of any security, an assailant rushed onto the stage and stabbed the author ten times in the abdomen and neck.

Rushdie was transported by air to the hospital, where he underwent hours of surgery. He regained consciousness three days later and is now able to speak despite his severe injuries.

The assailant was identified as 24-year-old Hadi Matar, an American of Lebanese descent. According to media reports, Matar originally hails from the south Lebanese village of Yaroun. He was born and raised in California before moving to New Jersey.

Having spent all his life in the United States, Matar’s mother reportedly described her son as a “moody introvert,” particularly in the wake of a visit to his father in Lebanon in 2018.

The suspect pleaded not guilty to the charges and details about the motivation remain unknown. This incident sparked a large-scale debate on social media between supporters of the Iranian regime that praised Matar for attempting to fulfill the fatwa and those who condoned the attack and saw it as a dangerous assault on freedom of speech.

Who is Salman Rushdie?

Salman Rushdie was born in Mumbai to non-practicing Muslim parents, two months before India gained independence from Britain. He arrived in Britain at age 14 to pursue his studies and obtained an honors degree in history at King’s College.

Rushdie’s Muslim faith, compromising only 15 percent of the Indian population, faded as he transitioned to a new life as a British citizen.

The author dabbled in acting and advertising before publishing his first novel “Grimus” in 1975 which did not receive much recognition.

Five years later, the author published his second book, “Midnight’s Children,” which won the 1981 Booker Prize Award, selling over half a million copies.

Rushdie’s life would, however, change after “The Satanic Verses” was published. The book refers to some verses of the Quran that were omitted by Islamic scholars mentioning the Prophet Mohammad‘s brief departure from monotheism when he urged the worship of three pagan deities, Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat. The prophet was said to have been tricked by Satan.

The multi-layered plot of the novel centers on two characters who are on a spiritual quest as they fall from the sky in a plane that terrorists have hijacked, with minimal mention of the prophet.

Some Muslim groups were horrified by the book because they saw it as heretical and offensive to Islam. The book was first outlawed in India and Pakistan, with protests also taking place in Europe, the UK, Iran, and Lebanon.

An open invitation to kill

On February 14, 1989, Iran’s late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared a fatwa (verdict calling for his death) against Rushdie with a $2.8 million cash prize on his head. Khomeini stated that the person to carry out the fatwa would become a “martyr” with a special place in paradise reserved for them.

A semiofficial Iranian foundation also posted its own $3 million bounty.

Under British government protection, Rushdie would spend the next thirteen years in hiding and would frequently change locations under the pseudonym, Joseph Anton.

“I am gagged and imprisoned, I can’t even speak. I want to kick a football in a park with my son. Ordinary, banal life: my impossible dream,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir, “Joseph Anton.”

Although Rushdie had issued a statement in 1989 expressing his regret for “the distress that his novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ has caused Muslims,” his antagonizers were not swayed.

In 1998, Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami said that the fatwa would no longer stand. Khomeini’s successor on the other hand, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in 2005 that he “still believed Rushdie was an apostate whose killing would be authorized by Islam.”

Iran’s role

Iran has denied its involvement in the stabbing on Monday, August 15, while still faulting the writer.

“Regarding the attack against Salman Rushdie in America, we don’t consider anyone deserving reproach, blame or even condemnation, except for (Rushdie) himself and his supporters,” Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry remarked.

Iran’s state broadcaster media daily Jaame-e Jam commented in regards to Rushdie potentially losing an eye saying, “an eye of Satan has been blinded.”

Although the assailant hails from a small Lebanese village where the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah has strong influence, the party refrained from commenting with one official stating they have nothing further to add.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had expressed his support for the fatwa in a televised interview in the early 2000s. However, evidence relating Matar to Hezbollah or Iran has yet to emerge and is limited to posts and photos on Matar’s social media showing his sympathy for the causes of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC).

Matar was also carrying a fake driver’s license under the name of “Hassan Mughniyah,” in reference to the last name of Hezbollah’s International Operations Chief, Imad Mughniyah, who was assassinated by the CIA and Mossad in Damascus in 2008.

Mixed reactions

The attack generated mixed reactions.

Pro-Iran sympathizers and public figures such as Lebanese journalist Radwan Akil publicly endorsed the attack. Many others such as Nasrallah’s son, Jawad Nasrallah, renewed their pledge to Khomeini’s line and that of other prominent leaders.

The Lebanese Minister of Culture, Mohammad Wissam Mortada pointed the blame at Rushdie, tweeting “freedom of speech must remain within the parameters of politeness.”

Rushdie’s proponents saw the incident as a direct threat to freedom of speech.

“This sends a chilling message to all writers critical of Iran and its ideologies that nowhere is safe, not even Western countries,” Mariam Seifeddine, a Lebanese journalist, told Fanack. “It’s a dangerous precedent that reflects the growing influence of the Islamic Republic on its followers in Lebanon.”

On the other hand, pro-Iran literary expert, Hussein Najem*, whose name has been changed for security reasons, contends that the United States could have plotted the attack.

“How does this attack serve Iran? It’s clear that the United States gains much more from tarnishing the reputation of Iran and its allies. How could they [the US intelligence] have let someone with a fake driver’s license and a strong allegiance to Iran off their radar if the story were true?” Najem said.

When asked why the US would choose an assailant from Lebanon and not from Iran, the expert said “it’s easier to trigger sectarian tensions in Lebanon and use Hezbollah to pressure the Islamic Republic.”

Najem, however, did not expand on the political interests the US would gain from plotting this attack.

What happens now?

Rushdie is not the first writer to be attacked for his literature in the global south. Egyptian secularist writer and thinker, Faraj Fouda was killed by Muslim radicals in 1982 for advocating for the separation of religion and state in his books and columns. Clerics accused him of blasphemy and two men shot him outside of his Cairo-based foundation.

Nobel prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in his Cairo apartment in 1994 by an Islamic extremist that condemned the writer for authoring books he deemed blasphemous. Mahfouz survived miraculously.

Rushdie cannot be compared to writers from the MENA region in terms of social influence, claims literary scholar Ahmad Kamel. But he has emerged as a major player in the struggle against religious oppression.

“No one cared for Rushdie that much before the fatwa incident,” Kamel told Fanack. “He was not a revolutionary writer but most of his fame was induced by the hate campaigns waged against him, both in the late 1980s and now.”

Kamel emphasizes that Shia Islam should not be held solely responsible since all branches of Islam issue fatwas. Additionally, tribalism and blind adherence to leaders is not Shia-specific, Kamel said.

Seifeddine, on the other hand, worries that this extremist mindset could extend to future generations, especially if similar assailants are deemed heroes.

Such manifestations have already taken shape.

Dima Sadek, Lebanese journalist and staunch critic of Hezbollah and Iran, has received death threats for tweeting a photo of Iran’s leader, Khamenei, and late Military Officer, Qassem Soleimani with the caption, “Satanic Verses.”

Sexism and Xenophobia

While sales for the Satanic Verses continue to surge, online observers have noted that Rushdie had a past of sexism and xenophobia.

His ex, Padma Lakshmi said the author called her “a bad investment” for refusing to have sex with him due to her endometriosis, a painful condition that affects the uterus.

Rushdie was also reported to have described women in hijab as wearing “trash bags” while supporting the US militarism following the 9/11 attack in his 2005 novel “Shalimar the Clown” where he reinforces the popular rhetoric against Islam that was widespread in US media.

“Matar may have harmed Rushdie physically, but he has made him one of the most famous figures of our current time. Freedom of speech should always prevail,” Kamel said.

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