On August 12, the acclaimed writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times at a literary event in Chautauqua, New York by 24-year-old Hadi Matar. The attack appears to have been in connection to the fatwa issued against Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses, which has been embroiled in controversy for more than thirty years over its depiction of Islam. The book has even been banned in several countries. The writer is currently hospitalised, having been taken off a ventilator the day after the attack, and is on the road to recovery, though he has likely sustained life-altering injuries.
The attack highlights two things: first, the dangers of religious fanaticism that persist in the West, and are in fact growing in other parts of the world. And second, the power of the written word to shake institutions to their core, to defy censorship and abuse worldwide and, in some cases like this one, to ruin the writer’s own life.
The book was first banned in India (Rushdie is Indian-born) after its publication in 1988 and caused its own ripple effect on India’s fragile secularism. The Hindu right called then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s move “Muslim appeasement”, but the ban was maintained, followed by similar actions from Bangladesh, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and South Africa by the end of the year. In the following year, it was Iran’s turn.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa issued in 1989, like much else, was politics. Iran was emerging from an eight-year war with Iraq, with the new Islamic Republic that had overthrown its Shah, international isolation and severe economic problems on its hands. Exploiting issues of faith and martyrdom was a common strategy for Khomeini to distract from the failures of the Revolution. His fatwa ensured that Salman Rushdie lived underground for over a decade, moving nowhere without security and often travelling under assumed names.
The absurdity underlying the attack is that Ayatollah Khomeini had never read Rushdie’s book, If he had, he would have found that The Satanic Verses was far less of an attack on Islam than the obscure extracts deviously plucked from it might have implied. Nonetheless, in questioning at Chaquata County Jail, Matar (with knowledge of no more than two pages from the book) declared not only a strong dislike for Rushdie but also expressed his belief that the author had attacked Islamic belief systems.
Though Matar has been identified as an American national from a Lebanese family, investigators have found admiration for the Iranian government and a visible appeal to extremism in his social media activity. Additionally, his mother, who has disowned her son after the attack, reveals that after a month-long trip to the Middle East in 2018, Matar returned a notably different man, more religious and with a worrying preference for isolation in their basement. Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, it has been declared with some certainty that the attacker, though denying contact with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was acting in consensus with Khomeini’s attitude, and in agreement with the fatwa.
The long-term repercussions of the attack on Rushdie are still unclear, but so far the ten stabbings inflicted upon the writer have resulted in forty-eight hours under a ventilator, as well as a damaged liver and severed nerves both in an arm and an eye. When the turmoil began in 1988, Rushdie admits that he had anticipated some words of dissatisfaction from a few clerics, but never had he imagined the rage and violence that would emerge and endure because of it.
Still, Rushdie’s family have affirmed that the seventy-five-year-old is on his road to recovery and has not yet lost his fiery and defiant sense of humour despite it all. Tragedy has struck one of the greatest writers and thinkers of our time, but though the dangers of that fanaticism cannot be ignored, we mustn’t allow such attacks of delusional hatred to have a silencing effect on literature. In Rushdie’s own words, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
Patricia Köhring and Armaan Verma are Literature Editors at The Student.