Two Decades On, Rushdie Death Sentence Fatwa Still Valid

By Patrick Goodenough | February 13, 2009 | 4:46 AM EST

Salman Rushdie's book prompted Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa (religious edict) against him.

( – Twenty years after Iran ordered the death of British author Salman Rushdie and his publishers for blaspheming Islam, Tehran has confirmed that the verdict still stands.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa (religious edict), issued on February 14, 1989, sent Rushdie into hiding under 24-hour police protection, and triggered attacks on bookstores and assassination attempts – at least one successful – against the publishers of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses.
The affair heightened suspicions between Islamic nations and the West, and soured relations between Iran and Britain for a decade.
Diplomatic ties, which were severed altogether and then downgraded, were restored to ambassador level in late 1998. More than a decade later, however, and despite hopes in the West that Iran may be mellowing 30 years on from the Islamic revolution, it refuses to retract the fatwa.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said this week Khomeini’s death sentence stood. Unlike a political decree, he said, a fatwa remains valid unless nullified by the cleric who issued it.
Khomeini died four months after issuing the decree, but not before declaring in an official statement that “even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to hell.”
Over the years since then, various Iranian leaders have reiterated that the fatwa remains valid, and rewards worth millions of dollars have been offered for Rushdie’s murder.
On the eve of the edict’s 20th anniversary, the official news agency Irna quoted Iranian lawmakers and analysts as reaffirming that it remains as valid today as it was when it was issued and stressing the importance of it being carried out.
No other fatwa had played as crucial a role in awakening the Islamic world, said one lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the westerners have launched extensive onslaught against the Islamic world and insulted Muslims’ sanctities on several occasions,” he said. The Rushdie edict led to Muslims reacting to contemptuous acts, he said.
Another lawmaker, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Bighash, said Rushdie lived in fear because he knew that Muslims were zealous about their religion and their prophet.
‘Rushdie rules’
In his edict, Khomeini declared the book to be in opposition to Islam, Mohammed and the Koran.
“I call on all zealous Muslims to execute [Rushdie and his publishers] quickly, where they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctity, “he said. “Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, Allah-willing.”
The Rushdie affair has generated considerable debate over the years about freedom of expression, intolerance, Islamic law (shari’a) and Islamic-inspired violence.
For some free speech advocates, the United Nations’ low-key response to the Rushdie death sentence paved the way for Islamic states and organizations to become increasingly forceful in their response to what they view as insults to Islam, and strengthened their continuing campaignfor a global ban on religious “defamation.”
Historian and veteran U.N. observer David Littman noted later that it took four years for the world body’s then top human rights watchdog, the Commission for Human Rights, to include a reference to the case in a resolution.
“This attitude of indifference emboldened member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) sympathetic to the enhancement of the shari’a and they proceeded to try to introduce Khomeini-style restrictions on freedom of speech about certain political aspects of Islam to the United Nations itself,” he wrote in the Middle East Quarterly in 1999.
“Thus did the ‘Rushdie rules’ begin affecting U.N. bodies, and especially the Commission on Human Rights, eating away at international norms.”
A year after the fatwa was issued, OIC member states adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which says all human rights and freedoms must be subject to shari’a.
Over the ensuing years, the issues raised by the Rushdie fatwa emerged again in more recent controversies involving Islamic sensitivities, such as the furor over the publication in European newspapers of cartoons satirizing Mohammed, and Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders’ provocative documentary linking the Koran and terrorism.
Rushdie and other critics have accused non-Muslim governments, publishers and corporations of practicing self-censorship and appeasement in the face of Muslim threats.
This week alone, an Indian newspaper editor and publisher appeared in a Kolkata court accused of hurting Muslims’ religious feelings after reprinting an opinion piece from a London newspaper that argued for the right to criticize religion; and the British government barred Wilders from entering the country, charging that his beliefs “would threaten community harmony and therefore public security.”
In a recent interview with The Times of London, Rushdie said the West should have realized that the Iranian fatwa was the beginning of a new era.
“There was a tendency from everybody to believe that it was an isolated incident rather than an indicator or something wider, to believe that it was all my fault,” he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow