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The attack on Salman Rushdie

The attack on Salman Rushdie


The British-Indian writer has been seriously injured after being stabbed at a literary event in the US. What does Iran have to do with it?

“The verdict today, which clearly implicates the government of Iran in the murder and assassination of four Iranian citizens in Berlin several years ago is further evidence that the government of Iran is dedicated to the direct sponsorship – operational and financial – of acts of terrorism…”

Nicholas Burns, State Department spokesman, 1997

The 1990s were a terrifying time to be an enemy of Iran.

Greece, Germany, France.

Nowhere was safe if you had ever been critical of the Islamic Republic that governs the state.

Writers, poets, ordinary citizens. 

Iranian dissidents were stabbed, shot, injected with potassium, victims of car crashes. 

In all, more than 80 people were killed by Iranian operatives in what became known as the Chain Murders.

While all this was happening, a British writer, born in India, was forced into hiding.

The Satanic Verses: they bought it not to read, but to burn…”

‘Whose Speech’, The Fifth Estate investigative documentary programme, 1989

In 1988 Salman Rushdie had written a book, called The Satanic Verses.

“Two months ago the first book burnings in Bradford – a mill town in northern England. It’s an unlikely place to be fomenting revolution.”

‘Whose Speech’, The Fifth Estate investigative documentary programme, 1989

The book was inspired by the life of the prophet, Muhammad. It was meant to be satirical… but it angered millions of Muslims.

“Frenzied Muslims rioting and taking to the streets around the world demanding vengeance for what they believe is the writer’s blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and his family.”

The 60 Minutes Interview, 1990

Salman Rushdie said that his book was being misunderstood… to no avail.

“People says I’ve called Muhammad’s wives prostitutes. It’s not true. I’ve done no such thing.”

‘Whose Speech’, The Fifth Estate investigative documentary programme, 1989

The danger to Salman Rushdie’s life reached a critical point on Valentine’s Day 1989. 

In homes across Tehran and the rest of Iran, the voice of Ayatollah Khomeini, the country’s supreme leader, crackled over the radio.

“I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses book is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran – and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content are sentenced to death.”

Ayatollah Khomeini, Radio Tehran, 1989

The Iranian state had called for the death of Salman Rushdie, with a religious decree, or a fatwa.

And within hours, Rushdie went into hiding.

“Somewhere in London, no one but, Scotland Yard knows exactly where, Rushdie holes up in a series of flats moving to another location every time Scotland Yard’s Special Branch thinks it prudent that he do so.”

The 60 Minutes Interview, 1990

For nine years, he only made brief public appearances. 

At a U2 concert in Wembley Stadium. On an episode of Have I Got News For You, which had to be aired without any pre-publicity.

“With Paul we were hoping to be joined by Tub of Lard but unfortunately it pulled out at the last minute so instead we just went out onto the street and grabbed the nearest passerby along with his nine bodyguards, Salman Rushdie.”

Angus Deayton, Have I Got News For You, 1994

Rushdie’s police protection allowed him to avoid the fate of his Japanese translator, who was stabbed to death.

And in 1998, he was able to breathe a sigh of relief. 

In an attempt to normalise relations with the UK, the Iranian government relaxed the death sentence. 

“The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has no intention to threaten the life of the author of The Satanic Verses.”

Iranian government official, CBS Sunday Morning, 1998

Salman Rushdie came out of hiding.

“I’m just getting back to the ordinary business of being a writer and I’m very happy to be there.”

Salman Rushdie, CBS Sunday Morning, 1998

But Rushdie was still in danger. 

Because the fatwa was never actually lifted. 

And in 2005 Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, reaffirmed it.

It would be enough to scare most people into locking their door and never coming out, but Salman Rushdie had long since re-entered society.

He was living a relatively normal life.

And that’s what brought him to an educational centre in New York state last Friday.

A man rushed on to the stage and attacked Salman Rushdie, who was about to speak at a literary event.

“The author, who’s 75, was airlifted from the scene to a hospital in Pennsylvania. He had sustained approximately 12 stabbed wounds puncturing his eye and liver and causing serious injury to his neck, chest and abdomen.”

Sky News

The man who was going to moderate Rushdie’s lecture could scarcely believe it.

“It was very difficult to understand. It looked like a sort of bad prank, and it didn’t have any sense of reality. And then when there was blood behind him, it became real.”

Henry Reese, CNN

Iran has denied responsibility for the attack.

But there were no “get well soons”.

“According to Iran’s foreign ministry, author Salman Rushdie and his supporters are the only people to blame for Friday’s attack on the novelist. The foreign ministry went on to say today that ‘no one has the right to accuse Iran in this regard.’”

CBS Miami

There is no evidence that Rushdie’s suspected attacker, Hadi Matar, was an operative for Iran.

But the 24 year old is reportedly sympathetic to Shia extremism and the Iranian state.

And even if Salman Rushdie was beginning to forget about Iran’s fatwa, many Muslims had not.

It was only in 2016 that Iranian media added $600,000 to the huge bounty on Rushdie’s head.

The fact that Hadi Matar wasn’t even born when Rushdie was first sentenced to death shows just how long a shadow Iran’s fatwa has cast over the British author.

Its shadow is likely to stretch on… for the rest of Salman Rushdie’s life.

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.