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The 'Rushdie fatwa'

Shamil ShamsFebruary 12, 2014

25 years after the Iranian fatwa, author Salman Rushdie is still hated by many Muslims but he is not being hunted down as aggressively as before. What remains unchanged is the challenge to the freedom of expression.

Salman Rushdie in Berlin
Image: DW/H. Kiesel

On February 14, 1989, Iran's former religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious edict calling for the death of British-Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie, for writing the controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, which many Muslims regarded as demeaning their Prophet Muhammad. The term "Satanic Verses" refers to a set of alleged Koranic revelations that allowed prayers to be made to three pagan Meccan goddesses.

The book sparked violence around the world and was banned in several countries including India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Those associated with the publication and translation of The Satanic Verses were attacked. Rushdie's personal freedom was severely limited for 13 years and he was forced to live under police protection.

"When he was first accused of being offensive, he was genuinely perplexed. He thought he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation; an engagement from the point of view of an unbeliever, certainly, but a proper one nonetheless. How could that be thought offensive?” Rushdie writes in third person in his memoir Joseph Anton about the fatwa, which he believed was "baseless".

Cover of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses
Rushdie was knighted by the British Queen in 2007 for his services to literatureImage: Random House

A right to offend?

"If you feel offended by something, it's your problem," Rushdie said in 2012 at a book launching ceremony of his autobiography in Berlin. "To be offended by a book is quite difficult; you have to work very hard at it. When you close the book, it loses its power to offend you," he added.

But is the anger directed by Muslims at The Satanic Verses unreasonable? Was the fatwa against Rushdie really uncalled for, and is Rushdie unjustifiably maligned? Do the writers have the right to offend in the name of the freedom of expression?

Dwayne Ryan Menezes, a scholar of religious history at the University of Cambridge, says he finds it hard to empathize with those who do not recognize the richness and diversity of the Islamic world. "However," Menezes adds, "the ability to tolerate dissent and allow for freedom of expression testify to the strength and maturity of civilisations. Hence, it confounds me as to why the very same people behind some of the richest civilisations are not also the leading advocates of tolerance in the world today."

The expert also says that the fatwa issued against Rushdie clearly breaches Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stress that everyone has the right to the freedom of thought, conscience and expression. "I, hence, find the fatwa somewhat immature and certainly unjustifiable," Menezes told DW.

Relevance of the fatwa

On March 7, 1989, Britain broke diplomatic relations with Iran over the Rushdie controversy. But after almost a decade, the ties were restored when the then Iranian leader Mohammad Khatami gave a public commitment that his country would "neither support nor hinder assassination attempts on Rushdie." Iranian hardliners, however, still reaffirm the "death sentence."

In September 2012, an Iranian religious organization by the name of “15 Khordad Foundation,” increased the bounty on Rushdie's head from 2.1 million euros to 2.5 million.

The controversy surrounding the author re-emerged after violent protests broke out in a number of Muslim countries against a low-budget US-made film titled "Innocence of Muslims." Pakistan and Afghanistan blocked the internet access to this film and banned the video-sharing website YouTube altogether.

"Many Muslims saw the 'Innocence of Muslims' as an echo of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses," said Emrys Schoemaker, a communication analyst and researcher at the London School of Economics.

He says that in the past, the interaction between people with divergent views had been limited but that has changed with the advent of the information age. "There is no luxury of isolation anymore. Extremists bump into each other and don't have the skills to debate. The fallout of the whole thing is that these people take radical positions, which are designed to appeal to niche interest groups."

Politics and literature

Rushdie is not the only person who has prompted the ire of Muslims. In 1993, Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin wrote the novel Lajja (Shame), which offended many Muslims in the Indian sub-continent. The author had to go into hiding in India because of death threats by Bangladeshi Islamist groups. In 2005, Muslims protested widely when a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published satirical cartoons by the artist Kurt Westergaar depicting the prophet of Islam.

Experts say that since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, the Muslim world has radicalized manifold. The threat which was once faced by Rushdie and Nasrim has now extended to a number of authors and intellectuals in the world.

Ayatollah Khomeini (Quelle: irancima)
Islamists still uphold Komeini's fatwaImage: irancima

Lindsey German, convener of the London-based organization Stop the War Coalition says there are political reasons to people's reactions. She believes the Muslims' hatred for Rushdie should also be looked at in a broader political framework.

"I do not agree with the fatwa that was passed on Rushdie or the increase in bounty on his head. But this is not just about one author. It is about the Western governments' policies in the Middle East. Until western governments change their policies in Muslim countries, these things will continue to happen."


Karachi-based Shiite activist Syed Ali Mujtaba Zaidi told DW it was "necessary to remind (the West) again and again that we will not allow blasphemers to continue with their activities, and will make their lives miserable so that others will not follow them."

Manish Tripati, an Indian literary agent, however, argues that free speech is at risk not only in Muslim countries, but also in other parts of the world. "The sensitivity doesn't just concern Islam," he told DW. "Indian painter, Maqbool Fida Husain, was forced to give up his Indian nationality after he received death threats from Hindu fanatics. Husain spent the last years of his life in the United Arab Emirates. Intolerance is very often rooted in ignorance," Tripati said.

Pakistani poet Iftikhar Arif agrees: "When Martin Scorsese made The Last Temptation of Christ, many extremist Christian groups protested," Arif said, adding that religious people should be mature in their response.

Literary worth

"The Satanic Verses is a badly-written novel," believes Mohsin Sayeed, a journalist in Karachi. "What Rushdie wrote was acceptable in Britain and the West, but not in Muslim countries," said Sayeed. "The West shows double standards when it comes to issues it deems sensitive."

Taslima Nasrin (Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Nasrin's 'Lajja' is about a Hindu family, which is persecuted by MuslimsImage: AFP/Getty Images

But Sayeed, at the same time, thinks the book alone should not determine the overall stature of its author. The journalist is of the opinion that Rushdie's second novel, The Midnight's Children, is a "fine" book about the partition of British India.

Pakistani writer and poet M. Salman Usmani rates Rushdie very highly as a novelist who has contributed immensely to the wealth of English literature.

He is of the view that writers should only be judged by their literary merit and that many people make a fuss over Rushdie without even having read his books. "The strange thing about controversial writers is that people usually make an issue over the content and ignore their narrative," said the poet.