The recent brutal attack on the Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie has rightly sparked renewed debates about freedom of speech, censorship or radical forms of Islam. The motive for the assassination was a fatwa issued in 1989 by Iran’s supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. However, many contemporary commentaries miss one thing, and that is that this religious-legal position was not only an individual death sentence, but above all a political act that had cultural-mobilization, geopolitical and domestic political significance.
Iranian politician and later representative to the UN Human Rights Council, Mohammad Javad Larijani, commented on this aspect exactly this way a year after the fatwa. “Until now, people have thought that political power is power defined as military and economic. But the imam’s fatwa showed that the sources of political influence lay elsewhere; the main source of power is influencing the will of the people,” Larijani indicated the importance the local regime attributed to the act itself.
While Saudi religious scholars argued that Rushdie must be given a chance to repent and forgive, the Iranian fatwa meant that Iranians were determined to defend the faith without any compromise.
The Iranian leadership had big goals from the beginning. Central to them was the ambition to make the Islamic Republic the moral ideal of the entire Muslim community, headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a political and moral authority. An inspiration that will ignite similar revolutions across the Islamic world. This essentially clashed with the ambitions of neighboring Saudi Arabia, which saw itself as a protector of the holy places and the faith, and deepened the rivalry between Iran and the Saudi kingdom that continues to this day.
While Iran in 1989, after eight years of conflict with neighboring Iraq, was struggling with economic problems, an internal political crisis and was in almost complete isolation internationally, the eyes of a large part of the Muslim population were fixed on its eastern border, where the Soviet Red Army was ignominiously withdrawing from Afghanistan. And Saudi Arabia, which together with the USA financed the armed resistance of the Mujahideen, could rightfully count itself among the winners and take credit in the hearts of many Muslims for the defeat of the godless communists.
It was at that moment that Khomeini’s fatwa came and effectively erased Saudi claims to the leadership of the defenders of the faith. It is symptomatic that it came suddenly, only some six months after the publication of the book, long after it had been banned in several Muslim countries. Rushdie and his work became a mere placeholder in the cultural-political struggle for the hearts of Muslims. And the fatwa as a means by which Iranians stood up against the supposed oppression and contempt of Muslims by the West. While Saudi religious scholars argued that Rushdie must be given a chance to repent and forgive, the Iranian fatwa meant that Iranians were determined to defend the faith without any compromise.
The fatwa played and plays an important role also from the point of view of Iran’s internal politics in the political struggles between conservatives and reformists. Again, in many ways, purely on a symbolic level, because even the supporters of the hardest line did not actively try to enforce the fatwa after many years. Her role was cultural-mobilizing, and Aaron Nimcovich’s chess quote that “the threat of an attack is often more dangerous than the attack itself” is apt in relation to Rushdie.
In the late 1990s, when Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami sought to mend relations with the West, he declared the Salman Rushdie affair “completely settled.” His government distanced itself from the reward for its execution. On the contrary, conservatives, including the current leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly stated that the fatwa – one of the significant obstacles to warming in international relations and a symbol of a purist conception of the revolutionary ethos – remains valid without reservation.
At this point, it is probably too early to predict whether the bomber, Hadi Matar, was directly connected to Iran, or whether this was a lone wolf attack that merely sympathized with the narrative pushed by conservative hardliners. There has been some media speculation about the bomber’s alleged ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, a force designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but no concrete evidence has yet emerged to support these claims. If we do not count Matar’s activities on social networks among them, in which he openly sympathized with radical Shiite propaganda, and which in the end rather reveal a typical story of the radicalization of the second generation of immigrants.
Personally, I am more inclined towards the second option, which of course does not remove the moral responsibility for this brutal act from anyone. I am convinced that the importance of the fatwa reached its peak many decades ago, and the current glorification of the attack, by Iran’s conservative media and politicians, has no other than political motivation, in which the writer Salman Rushdie, rather than a human being of flesh and blood, is once again a mere pawn on an external chessboard and internal political disputes. And it is no longer about the work itself.
The author is a columnist.