The assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie is an attack on freedom of expression. In it there is a warning and a lesson!
PEN Centres in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth strongly and unreservedly condemn the attempt to kill Salman Rushdie last Friday morning New York local time. Salman Rushdie was invited to the Chautauqua Institution to speak about “the importance of the US offering asylum for writers and other artists in exile”. The attack was a form of censorship attempted by people who are against a world where ideas are created and exchanged freely.
Salman Rushdie, author of 14 novels including The Satanic Verses, has been under threat since 1989 when the leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini issued an Islamic decree, a fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s death: “I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur'an, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death.” he decreed. The reason, according to Khomeini, was that Rushdie insulted Muslims by committing blasphemy.
To understand the real reason behind Khomeini’s fatwa we have to look back at the socio-political upheaval and crisis that the Iranian regime was facing in 1988-89. In a report in the New Yorker Robin Wright wrote, “Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini never read Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, his son Ahmed told me in Tehran, in the early 1990s.” The question is why was the fatwa issued a full five months after The Satanic Verses was published? It was only after several angry demonstrations in other Islamic countries against the book took place that Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa. Many experts and political observers believe the real reason it was issued was to divert attention away from a crisis that the regime was facing internally at the end of the long Iran-Iraq war.
In 1988 Ayatollah Khomeini ended the war when he pronounced, “I drink the glass of poison.“ accepting the ceasefire proposed under UN resolution 598. Until then the regime had been pushing for “war until victory”, despite one million people being killed, two million being injured or disappeared, four million people being displaced and it costing more than one trillion dollars. During the eight years of the war the Iranian regime also brutally suppressed any dissidents and opposition voices. Thousands of activists were imprisoned, thousands more were executed.
Since it was issued in 1989 the fatwa has been reiterated by the current supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei who in 1992, 2004, 2015 and 2019 emphasised that the fatwa on Salman Rushdie is “solid and irrevocable”. In 2019 Twitter suspended his account, presumably for inciting violence. Along with the fatwa there are bounties offered by different organisations in Iran. The 15th Khordad Foundation, supervised by the current supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, increased their bounty on Rushdie from US$800,000 to US$3.3 million in 2012. In 2016 a State-run media group increased their bounty to US$4million.
The fatwa and the bounties have emboldened many Muslim fundamentalists to attack publishers and translators of The Satanic Verses. In 1991 the Japanese translator of the book was killed by a Bangladeshi student. In the same year the Italian translator was attacked but survived with injuries. The renowned Turkish writer Aziz Nesin just survived after he was targeted for supporting Rushdie and freedom of expression.
The latest terrorist act against Rushdie is likely linked to the Iranian regime and its proxies. The New York police identified the person who stabbed Rushdie as Hadi Matar, 24, of New Jersey. He was born in the US but his parents are from South Lebanon, the stronghold of the Iranian backed Hezbollah. Reports indicate that Hadi Matar’s social media accounts had photos of Iranian leaders, including Ghasem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone attack in Baghdad in 2020.
Like the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris the assassination attempt against Salman Rushdie is a direct attack on the basic human right of freedom of expression. It is an attempt to silence criticism and ideas and must be condemned.
The attack on Salman Rushdie is also a wakeup call for governments that they have an obligation to protect their citizens and people at risk, like Salman Rushdie. It is ironic that he was about to speak about the need for the US government to provide asylum to writers who fear for their lives.
We call upon the Australian government to; review its security protocols around similar possible threats, to provide asylum to writers, journalists and artists whose lives are threatened by regimes like the one in Iran and to expedite their settlement in Australia.