British-Iranian author Salman Rushdie was stabbed Friday in New York. The writer is on a ventilator and has serious injuries. The perpetrator is a 24-year-old man, who is believed to have worked alone. No motive has been revealed yet, but the writer has been threatened for years since the publication of The Devil’s Verses in 1988. Six questions about Rushdie and the fatwa imposed on him after that book was published.
1 What about Rushdie and the fatwa again?
On February 14, 1989, then-Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini (who was already in ill health and would die on June 3) called on Iranian radio to kill Salman Rushdie, as well as anyone involved in the publication of Rushdie’s novel. The Satanic Verses (The Devil’s Verses), because that book would be anti-Islamic. At the time, there was already a lot of controversy surrounding the novel, which was published in the United Kingdom in September 1988 and was due to be released in the United States the week after the fatwa (an Islamic legal decree or opinion). The very title, which refers to Quranic verses that the devil is said to have put in the mouth of the prophet, would be blasphemous, and the prophet Mohammed would be portrayed in it in a blasphemous manner. The book was banned in several non-Western countries as early as 1988.
2 What happened after the fatwa and can it be lifted?
In the US and UK, some bookstores decided not to sell the book after threats; there were also firebombings on bookstores. Rushdie went into hiding and lived in various secret locations in the United Kingdom for nine years after the fatwa. Rushdie’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in 1991 at the age of 44 at Tsukuba University, where he worked. Rushdie’s Italian translator Ettore Capriolo and Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher William Nygaard survived attempts on their lives. In 1998, Iran announced that it no longer supported the fatwa, but a fatwa cannot be lifted and Iranian state media increased the price on Rushdie’s head in 2016 (something that has happened with some regularity since 1989). At that time, Rushdie was now living in the United States. In 2019, the Twitter account of Iran’s current leader stated that the fatwa was still in effect and “irrevocable,” according to Reuters.
3 How did Iran react to the attack?
The Iranian government has not yet officially responded on Saturday, but Reuters news agency cites the Iranian newspaper’s comment Kayhan: „A thousand bravos […] for the brave and dutiful person who attacked the renegade and evil Salman Rushdie in New York […] We must kiss the hand of the man who tore open the neck of God’s enemy.” The editor-in-chief of Kayhan newspaper has been appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini.
4 Was Rushdie still protected?
Yes. “There are now more than 3 million” [dollar] on his head”, says his Dutch publisher Mizzi van der Pluijm of publishing house Pluim. Van der Pluijm, who has worked with Rushdie for over thirty years, and coincidentally signed the contracts for Rushdie’s books last month Midnight Children (1985), The Devil’s Verses (1988) and Joseph Anton (2012) reissue follows his situation through his American literary agent.
Van der Pluijm got to know Rushdie when she was the “youngest servant” at the then publishing house Veen die The Devil’s Verses had issued. “Then we all suddenly had to board a bus, which drove a long way through Amsterdam, and I first met him in a heavily armed bunker on the naval terrain.”
5 Did Rushdie often visit the Netherlands?
Rushdie came to the Netherlands once every three years, says Van der Pluijm. On Dutch territory, his security was the responsibility of the Dutch state: it checked what the risk was and drew up a security plan. “Then you went with security to Schiphol, where he was the first to get off the plane, passed customs via a different route than the usual and then we got into an armored car. You never just go out with him. But you can have a lot of fun with him.” When Rushdie was the only foreign writer to have ever written the Boekenweekgift in 2001, he was dancing in a group of people at the Boekenbal with a whole circle of security guards around them. It did, of course, limit him, that security.
Also read this interview with Rushdie from 2012: ‘I was about to go crazy’
6 How did Rushdie react to the fatwa?
“Rushdie quickly decided that he should not allow himself to be enslaved spiritually: that he should continue to write and perform, because ‘otherwise they would have won’”, says Van der Pluijm. “But in the Netherlands, for example, he was not allowed to walk the three hundred meters from his hotel to the bookstore, then he had to get in a car.” In the autobiographical Joseph Anton he tells how he felt under that constant pressure.
Van der Pluijm suspects that he was less strictly protected in the United States than when he was in the Netherlands. “I think that was one of the reasons he moved there. He wanted to be free. I understand that an officer was present at the event where he was stabbed and that he intervened.” Rushdie was due to speak at a meeting about writers’ safety in America.
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