Twenty-seven years ago, an 86-year-old theocratic leader offered piles of cash for the murder of a foreign citizen. The offense was a fictional story that presented a supposedly less-than-flattering depiction of the founder of a religion of which the author is no longer a member. And that bounty has only increased.
If you care one bit about free expression, I shouldn’t have to tell you how worrying this is.
In 1988, British Indian author Salman Rushdie published his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses.” It immediately sparked white-hot fury in the Muslim world for its perceived disrespect to the Prophet Muhammad. Copies were set alight, deadly riots broke out and effigies of Rushdie were burned.
Feb. 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa and $1 million reward for Rushdie’s death. The writer went into hiding under British police protection.
Sunday, the Iranian state-run Fars News Agency issued a statement declaring a new, additional prize. The story’s accompanying graphic features a cartoon Rushdie with a red target and a white arrow on his head. According to the statement, the funds were announced at the the Islamic Republic’s Digital Media Exhibition.
“[The] prize of $600,000 by 40 people … was funded by institutions and media,” read the announcement, translated from Persian.
While this is the most significant development in years, Rushdie has been under varying degrees of threat for decades. Since this new bounty, he dropped his appearance at India’s Jaipur Literature Festival. While Rushdie has so far remained unscathed, those near him haven’t been as fortunate.
“The Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in 1991, and the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was stabbed at his apartment in Milan in 1991 but survived,” reported The Guardian’s Sian Cain on Monday. “The Norwegian publisher William Nygaard survived being shot three times in Oslo in 1993, while the Turkish translator Aziz Nesin escaped an arson attack on a hotel in 1993 in which 37 people were killed.”
All these years later and Iran still holds a grudge.
“The Iranian government distanced itself from calls for Rushdie’s death under former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who declared in 1998 that the fatwa had ended,” reported The New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink on Monday. “But the religious authorities said it could not be withdrawn by anyone other than Ayatollah Khomeini, who died four months after issuing it. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in 2005 that the fatwa remained valid. … The total bounty [is now] nearly $4 million. ... Iranian hard-line organizations tend to make symbolic gestures involving the Rushdie fatwa every year around its anniversary.”
As I wrote in my Jan. 21, 2015 column, “Reserving the right to offend,” the response from other religious leaders, especially the Catholic Church, to capital punishment for ideas has been disappointing. The month after the fatwa was issued, Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano attacked the “The Satanic Verses” as “blasphemous.” In 2005, when violence erupted after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed a dozen editorial cartoons, most depicting Muhammad, Pope Benedict XVI condemned the publishers. And in January 2015, after French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked, Pope Francis pointed the finger at the dead cartoonists for making “fun of the faith of others.”
I would hope this latest announcement by Iran would inspire some introspection from those who, in the past, have kept quiet or chose to blame the victim. If we don’t speak out against this now, there may come a time when we can’t.
The good news is, the quickest way to make someone want something is by telling them they can’t have it. After being initially banned in more than a dozen countries, sales of the book skyrocketed. I, myself, had been meaning to get around to reading Rushdie’s work one day. Iran’s latest announcement was just the reminder.
Guess which book I picked up from the library today.