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Salman Rushdie and the Ideological Divide in Iran

In February 1989, five months after Salman Rushdie published his polarizing fourth novel “The Satanic Verses,” Iran’s then supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, commanded all Muslims to murder the author for blaspheming Islam. When a 24-year-old New Jersey man attempted to fulfill the deed decades later, stabbing Rushdie repeatedly during a talk in upstate New York Aug. 12, Iran’s government was relatively muted. The regime said nothing of the attack until American officials blamed Tehran for inspiring it; Iran’s foreign ministry rebuked the accusation, blaming the author and his supporters for provoking believers. Little else was said. The apparent shift in tone can be explained by the weakening of political Islam in Iran and inattention to the ideals of the revolution.

A Cause for Celebration?

The attack on Salman Rushdie was largely met with silence by Iranian authorities. Besides a slew of celebratory commentaries and headlines in some conservative, state-backed media outlets and an indignant statement from Iran’s foreign ministry, until today no senior official (political or religious) have commented on the attack.

“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,” Kanaani said Aug. 15, denying Tehran’s involvement in the attack in the same breath.

The hardline Kayhan newspaper, whose editor is appointed by the Supreme Leader, called the attack on Salman Rushdie divine revenge and condemned Donald Trump and former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to suffer the same fate. Mocking the possibility that Rushdie may lose an eye as a result of the assault, Jam-e Jam, a newspaper belonging to the state-owned broadcasting corporation, ran a headline titled “eye of the devil [was] blinded.” Iran Online, another site owned by the official government news agency, described the fate of sacrilege as being attacked and killed, and Khorasan newspaper, a conservative newspaper, reacted to the attack with the headline “the devil is on the way to hell.”

This response is comparatively muted to the decades of vocal outrage against Rushdie. In September 2012, the 15 Khordad Foundation, a government revolutionary organization supervised by Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, set a reward of 2.8 million dollars for killing Salman Rushdie, then added half a million dollars to the prize and increased it to 3.3 million dollars. This foundation did not show any reaction to the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, and its website did not publish any news about this incident.

Khamenei himself did not react to this incident. His official website published an older news item about Israel’s attack on Gaza, but his office has not yet published an Op-ed about this. The silence comes despite the fact that his office wrote in a May 2019 tweet that “Imam Khomeini’s verdict regarding Salman Rushdie is based on divine verses and just like divine verses, it is solid and irrevocable.”

Khamenei had warned of Rushdie’s death in 1993, stating “Imam (Khomeini) shot an arrow towards this man who is a liar and a slanderer. His arrow has left the bow, and the targeting is accurate. Sooner or later, this arrow will hit the target. Indeed, his (death) sentence must be implemented, and it will be.” He hasn’t seemed to celebrate the arrow hitting its mark.

Ideological Retreat

The quietude of Iranian officials regarding the attack on Salman Rushdie can be interpreted as an ideological retreat. The revolutionary regime is based on the legitimacy of religious scholars, “Maraji al-taqlid,” or “sources of emulation.”

Although the origin of this fatwa is religious and related to the Shia religion, the Maraji did not support this attack. Some people believe that Maraji differ on the status of Salman Rushdie’s apostasy, and although they consider him guilty, they do not consider him deserving of death. Mohsen Kadivar, an Iranian Islamic theologian, philosopher, and leading intellectual reformist, believes that ruling on apostasy is forbidden in modern Islam.

Meanwhile, many prominent members of Iran’s civil society criticized the attack on Rushdie. In a statement published a few days after the attack, 260 Iranian writers, poets, artists, journalists, human rights activists, and political figures condemned the attack on the British-American author, describing it as an attack on human values. “Our hearts beat with him,” the statement read.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a university professor and a well-known reformist said, “The attack on Salman Rushdie [was] met with such a negative reaction from Iranians that even government officials remained silent.” Organizations of Iran’s National Front, a political opposition group, also condemned the attack on Rushdie, and the Iranian Writers Association considered the attack an attack on freedom of expression.

While some Iranians expressed sympathy, others expressed skepticism. Some interpreted the attack on Rushdie as a conspiracy theory—an American government effort to demonize the Iranian regime as it attempts to win support abroad. They pointed to the supposed coincidence between the attack on Rushdie, news of a foiled attack against former National Security Adviser John Bolton (another plot, conspiracy nuts suspect, that was concocted by U.S. government forces), and renewed efforts to revive a nuclear deal.

Mohammad Marandi, the senior adviser of Iran’s nuclear-negotiating team, said “isn’t it odd that as we near a potential nuclear deal, the U.S. makes claims about a hit on Bolton… and then this happens?” Reformist and political activist Abbas Abdi, who was sentenced to 8 years in prison on political charges, did not consider the coincidence of this event with the nuclear talks as random. The newspapers Arman Melli, Donya-e-Eqtesad, Kayhan, and Javan also considered the attack on Rushdie to be the result of a conspiracy to derail the nuclear negotiations.

Overall, however, the intense popular and government Islamism that motivated the fatwa and decades of ensuing support has seemed to wane. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s prime minister between 1981 and 1989, supported the fatwa when it was published but said nothing after the Rushdie attack. Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council, reiterated condemnation of Rushdie during his knighting in 2007 but, like Mousavi, was silent after the attack. Iran’s youth, whose forefathers were so enraged by Rushdie’s blasphemy, seem to be comparatively dormant.

The apparent decrease in support among Iranian officials and citizens for Rushdie’s death since the early years of the Islamic Republic correlates with a decreased enthusiasm for political Islam across the board. This trend is especially noticeable among Iranian youth, who have suffered great economic, social, and political costs as a result of the regime’s attempts to export political Islam abroad and impose an austere flavor of it at home.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Mohammad Salami holds a Ph.D. in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami


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