Iran Issues a Fatwa Against Salman Rushdie

Tensions between the West and the Muslim world were heightened when the spiritual leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, called for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of a book the cleric considered blasphemous.

Summary of Event

On February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the fundamentalist spiritual leader of Iran, issued a Muslim legal order known as a fatwa in which he condemned to death all those associated with the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses (1988), beginning with its author, Salman Rushdie, and called on Muslims everywhere to carry out the execution of these individuals. Following the pronouncement against Rushdie and his associates, the 15 Khordad Foundation, 15 Khordad Foundation[Fifteen Khordad] a radical Islamist organization (although formally an Iranian charity), offered a reward of one million dollars to anyone who killed Rushdie. In the ensuing years, the Iranian government repeatedly reaffirmed the fatwa. Iran;Salman Rushdie fatwa[Rushdie]
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[kw]Iran Issues a Fatwa Against Salman Rushdie (Feb. 14, 1989)
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[kw]Rushdie, Iran Issues a Fatwa Against Salman (Feb. 14, 1989)
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Khomeini, Ayatollah
Rushdie, Salman

Salman Rushdie, a British citizen, was born in 1947 in India of Muslim parents and reared in the Muslim faith. As an adult, however, he discarded religious affiliation of any kind. Rushdie’s parents had sent him to England at age fourteen to attend Rugby School, a highly regarded private academy. Schooling at Rugby was followed by Kings College at Cambridge University, from which Rushdie graduated in 1968. In 1989 he was hardly unknown as a writer, having won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 for his second novel, Midnight’s Children. In 1988, he published The Satanic Verses, for which he received the prestigious Whitbread Award.

Soon after its publication, The Satanic Verses attracted negative attention in Muslim communities, both in Britain and abroad. Among the passages that offended the faithful were those depicting a fantasy about prostitutes pretending to be wives of the Prophet Muḥammad. The novel was burned in the streets of Bradford, England, home of a large Islamic immigrant community. It was also banned in India, Pakistan, and South Africa. On February 12, 1989, two days before Khomeini’s fatwa was issued, at least six persons were killed in Pakistan during a protest against the novel’s sale in the United States. Ten days after the fatwa was issued, twelve persons were killed and seventeen were wounded when police in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), India, fired on a large crowd converging on the British consulate to protest the novel’s publication.

In the ensuing weeks, protests that continued in India claimed at least four more lives and hundreds of injuries. A number of prominent American booksellers removed The Satanic Verses from display shelves, fearing for their employees’ safety. Death threats at Viking Penguin, the book’s publisher, became daily events. Bookstores in the United States and England were bombed.

Days after the fatwa was pronounced, the International Rushdie Defence Committee International Rushdie Defence Committee was launched in London. Chaired and coordinated by Article 19, Article 19 (organization)[Article nineteen] a London-based group that advocates for free expression, the committee represented a coalition of writers, publishers, booksellers, journalists, trade unions, and human rights groups. “The purpose of the International Rushdie Defence Committee (IRDC),” the group wrote, “is to uphold the fundamental right of the individual to freely express his or her beliefs and opinions in whatever form.” The group was named for Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. (1948) which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In June, 1989, just months after he issued the Rushdie fatwa, Khomeini died. His successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, reiterated the order, leaving Rushdie’s status unchanged. Subsequently, Iranian government officials argued that only the author of the fatwa could rescind it, and as Khomeini was dead, the order could never be revoked. Most, if not all, Muslims who supported the original order considered the Rushdie fatwa to be permanent.

Two tragedies occurred less than two and a half years after the order was promulgated to murder those associated with Rushdie’s offending book. In July, 1991, two translators of the work were viciously attacked: Ettore Capriolo, Capriolo, Ettore the novel’s Italian translator, and Professor Hitoshi Igarashi, Igarashi, Hitoshi the Japanese translator. Igarashi was slain with a knife; Capriolo survived a serious knife wound. With Rushdie still alive in November of the following year, the 15 Khordad Foundation, which had already doubled its million-dollar bounty on Rushdie, upped the ante again, offering an additional sum to “cover expenses for the extermination of the cursed writer.”

Rushdie’s supporters were disappointed when U.S. president George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. decided against meeting with Rushdie during the writer’s 1992 visit to Washington, D.C. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, “There’s no reason for us to have any special interest in him.” The following May, however, British prime minister John Major Major, John received Rushdie at the House of Commons in London, and several European parliaments officially offered the author their support.

Salman Rushdie holds his controversial book The Satanic Verses, in 1988. The work was considered blasphemous by many Muslims, including Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who imposed a death sentence on the British writer.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the autumn of 1993, international support for Rushdie intensified as the Rushdie Defense Committee U.S.A. Rushdie Defense Committee U.S.A. was launched. This organization was formed by a coalition of groups active in causes related to civil rights, human rights, and freedom of expression. The committee promptly called on the new U.S. president, Bill Clinton, Clinton, Bill to invite Rushdie to the White House. A group of prominent American writers, including Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, published an open letter saying, “We feel that President Clinton has an obligation, in keeping with our nation’s traditional defense of human rights, to do his utmost to defend the principle of freedom of expression that has been violated in the Rushdie affair.”

Whether or not he was responding to the Rushdie Defense Committee’s call, in November, President Clinton, along with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, met with Rushdie in the White House. Meanwhile, however, another violent event occurred in October when William Nygaard, Nygaard, William Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher, was shot and seriously injured.

For several years the situation remained fundamentally unchanged, although hopes were occasionally raised that the siege against Rushdie would end. To keep the pressure on, the 15 Khordad Foundation again raised its price on Rushdie’s head, to $2.8 million. Rushdie continued his life in hiding, protected by British guards.

In 1998, a significant change did occur. In exchange for diplomatic recognition by Britain, the Iranian government officially revoked its support for the fatwa that threatened the writer’s life. Rushdie was ecstatic, but the threat to his life had not ended. Because many believed that the original fatwa was irrevocable, Rushdie was still considered a target. Moreover, the 15 Khordad Foundation pointedly failed to withdraw its offer of a reward for the writer’s execution.

In February, 2002, extremist Iranian organizations reaffirmed Rushdie’s death sentence. In March of that year, Rushdie was banned from the flights of Air Canada, which cited inconvenient three-hour security delays necessitated by Rushdie’s presence. An international outcry, however, caused the airline to reverse its decision.


The impact of the Khomeini fatwa demanding the summary extrajudicial execution—the murder—of a British subject was profound. The order attacked basic long-recognized human rights to freedom of expression. In attempting to ride roughshod over the rule of law within any country in which the fatwa might be acted upon, the order also attacked the foundation of constitutional governments all around the world, not only in Britain. At the same time, the order had the effect of undermining international order, insofar as international order is governed by the rule of international law. Iran identified itself as a pariah state that respected the human rights of those outside its borders only when the Iranian regime found such respect convenient.

Moreover, the Rushdie affair gave rise to a general intensification of tension, distrust, and ill will between the West and the Islamic world. The fundamental clash between the values of Western liberalism, which form the philosophical foundation of liberal democracy around the world, and Islamist demands for rigid ideological conformity, reminiscent of demands made so recently by Soviet communism, were openly apparent. The yawning gulf between the two sides accorded well with the controversial thesis of the “clash of civilizations” advanced by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington. Huntington, Samuel P.

At the same time, the Rushdie affair galvanized writers and certain public officials in the West to rally around basic freedoms of conscience and expression, especially freedom of literary expression. Many of these persons, as well as organizations and institutions such as writers’ groups, national legislatures, and sitting governments, made public representations on Rushdie’s behalf. Notably, the British government used significant resources to keep the writer out of harm’s way. Illustrative of supportive acts among private persons were those of writers Norman Mailer Mailer, Norman and Susan Sontag, Sontag, Susan both prominent New York intellectuals. Mailer played an active role in rallying international support for the embattled Rushdie and published an open letter supporting the author’s right to freedom of expression. A literary event advertised as a lecture by Sontag was instead a speech by Rushdie, defying the fanatics’ standing threats.

The Rushdie affair resonated with the growing cultural divide between Islam and the West—between Muslim fundamentalists and the basic values and principles of liberal democracy—after the September 11, 2001, attacks September 11, 2001, attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City by Muslim terrorists. The polarization of opinion against the West in many Islamic countries when the United States and its allies attacked Afghanistan shortly afterward may well have been exacerbated by the fact that the West had refused to place Muslim feelings ahead of the human rights of one writer, his editors, translators, and publishers. Rushdie himself spoke out about the growing divide in a November, 2001, article titled “Yes, This Is About Islam,” in which he argued that the “mantra” of many in the West that the war on terrorism “isn’t about Islam” is untrue and that, on the contrary, “Of course this is ’about Islam.’” Iran;Salman Rushdie fatwa[Rushdie]
Satanic Verses, The (Rushdie)

Further Reading

  • Abdallah, Anouar, ed. For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech. New York: George Braziller, 1994. Soon after the Khomeini fatwa was issued, a French publisher sent invitations to nearly one hundred notable Arab and Muslim intellectual and cultural figures to write on Rushdie’s behalf. This resulting volume was intended to demonstrate solidarity with the writer and others in his position. Contributors excoriate the moral relativism of some in the West who preach “understanding” for Muslim fanaticism and decry the disgrace that the fatwa brought to Islam.
  • Chauhan, Pradyumna S., ed. Salman Rushdie Interviews: A Sourcebook of His Ideas. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Collection of interviews from a variety of sources sheds light on the author’s thought processes and literary imagination. Presents pieces of Rushdie’s biography as well as comments on his novels and on politics and historical analysis. Includes annotated bibliography and index.
  • La’Porte, Victoria. An Attempt to Understand the Muslim Reaction to “The Satanic Verses.” Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999. Examines the reasons some Muslims wanted Rushdie’s novel banned and provides historical context for this reaction to the work. Also discusses Islamic law and the issue of censorship. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Pipes, Daniel. “Salman Rushdie’s Delusions, and Ours.” Commentary 106, no. 6 (December, 1998). An authority on Middle East affairs dissects the position of Rushdie after Iran’s disavowal of intent to harm the writer or his associates and concludes that Rushdie would be deluded to believe he is out of danger, and that Islamic extremism remains a serious threat to the world.
  • Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York: Viking Press, 1988. Readers interested in the source of the controversy will want to investigate the novel that led to the fatwa against Rushdie.

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