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"Satan on the Path to Hell"
Iran's fundamentalists never forgot the death edict against author, Salman Rushdie
It might surprise most Westerners that something as terrible as yesterday’s stabbing of author Salman Rushdie is celebrated anywhere, but that is precisely what happened among hardliners in Iran. Khorasan, the country’s conservative newspaper, represented the view of many in its banner headline - “Satan on the Path to Hell” - printed with a picture of Rushdie on an ambulance stretcher.
Many Westerners thought that the death edict ordered in 1989 by the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was long forgotten and shelved. Iran watchers, however, knew that revolutionary elements of the Iranian government had for decades never abandoned their goal of punishing Rushdie, himself a Muslim, for what they considered his blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammad in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses.
Everyone took the fatwa against Rushdie and his publishes seriously when it was originally issued. Khomeini said that anyone who carried out his edict would be a “martyr” who would go to paradise. British police had put the London-based author under round-the-clock protection. Others connected to the publication of the novel were not so lucky. The Japanese translator was stabbed to death at a university in Tokyo. The book’s Italian translator survived a beating and stabbing in his Milan flat. Later, the novel’s Norwegian publisher was shot outside his Oslo home.
Rushdie’s life was turned upside down. In his first six months in hiding, British police moved him 56 times. After six years, and adopting the pseudonym Joseph Anton, Rushdie returned to limited public appearances in 1995. For a while, Iran’s leadership seemed publicly to back away from the fatwa. The country’s president, Mohammad Khatami, said in September 1998, that the Rushdie matter was “completely finished.” That same month, Iran’s foreign minister assured his British counterpart at the United Nations that Iran would no longer encourage anyone to attack Rushdie. The Still, despite a request from some Western countries, Iran’s leaders refused to cancel the standing $2 million bounty on Rushdie’s head.
Behind the scenes, the country’s hardliners knew that the public assurances from their reform-minded president were part of a carefully calculated campaign to re-establish diplomatic relations with the U.K. The revolutionary 15th Khordad Foundation had increased the death bounty by $500,000. A religious group with ties to the government added another $300,000 around the same time the country’s diplomats claimed that the Rushdie file was closed. In 2012, hardline religious groups added another half a million dollars, bringing the bounty to $3.3 million. By 2016, Iranian media outlets committed another $600,000 to the death warrant.
Iran’s hardline clerical leaders do not allow their 83 million citizens to use most popular social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his top deputies, however, do use the platforms to spread their militant messaging. Twitter refused to suspend or ban Khamenei after he had tweeted in 2018 that Israel was “a malignant cancerous tumor…that has to be removed and eradicated.” Twitter cited its policy on world leaders, emphasizing that, “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.”
Emboldened by getting a free pass after threatening the existence of Israel, Khamenei followed up on February 14, 2019, by renewing the death edict against Rushdie. His tweet was unambiguous: “Imam Khomeini’s verdict regarding Salman Rushdie is based on divine verses, it is solid and irrevocable.”
There was little public outrage at Iran’s public resumption of the call for Rushdie to be killed. Twitter’s response to the tweeted death threat from Iran’s Supreme Leader? It kept his account open but suspended the Ayatollah from further tweeting until he removed the threat. When the Ayatollah ignored that request, Twitter hid the threat from view, although it had by then been retweeted tens of thousands of times. Three days later, Twitter reinstated all Ayatollah’s account privileges and deleted the threatening tweet that Iran refused to take down.
The years of increasing the fatwa bounty and the 2019 renewed death edict by Iran’s Supreme Leader is why those who closely follow developments in Iran were not surprised at the grim and unsettling news of the violent attack on Rushdie yesterday. It is simply the culmination of a long campaign that was too easily dismissed in the West as only empty and stale threats.
In the celebrations yesterday among Iranian hardliners, one account (Syria News) associated with the Revolutionary Guards, summarized the patience that is so antithetical to Westerners but is a hallmark of fundamentalists: “The order was carried out at a place they never thought about. It's not important if he doesn't die; it's important that they understand the battle is not over.”