Chautauqua, New York—As author Salman Rushdie prepared to give a talk at the Chautauqua Institution on August 12, an assailant rushed the stage and stabbed him multiple times. At this writing, Rushdie is in surgery, his assailant in custody.
Thirty-three years have passed since Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa (an Islamic legal ruling) demanding Rushdie’s execution for the nonsensical crime of blasphemy. The fatwa, issued on February 14, 1989, followed the publication of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a novel inspired in part by the life of Muhammad.
Lest religious fervor be insufficient to inspire Rushdie’s assassination, Iran added a $6 million bounty that still stands today.
On February 18, four days after the fatwa, Rushdie apologized for having given offense:
I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress the publication has occasioned to the sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.
But once zealotry has locked on target, nothing can call it off, as Khomeini made clear the following day:
The imperialist foreign media falsely alleged that the officials of the Islamic Republic have said the sentence of death on the author of The Satanic Verses will be retracted if he repents. Imam Khomeini has said: This is denied 100%. 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.
Psychologist Bob Altemeyer, creator of the right-wing authoritarianism scale, notes that religious fundamentalism by definition cannot be flexible in its moral judgments, which create unchanging categories that impose order on a chaotic world. “Religious fundamentalists believe in the superiority of their religious teachings, and in a strict division between righteous people and evildoers,” Altemeyer said.
In 2006, on the anniversary of the original edict, as rumors circulated that the fatwa was no longer in effect, the Martyrs Foundation of the government of Iran made it clear: “The fatwa by Imam Khomeini in regards to the apostate Salman Rushdie will be in effect forever.”
In 2019, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei repeated the affirmation, calling the fatwa “solid and irrevocable.”
Such inflexibility is the organizing principle of the worldview. If Muhammad’s goodness is unchangeable, then anyone thought to have criticized or mocked the Prophet is definitely and unchangeably evil. Once damned, there is literally no mechanism by which Rushdie could be redeemed. To say otherwise would be to admit error in the original judgment or to compromise on the defense of the Prophet—two options unthinkable to the fundamentalist mind.
This more than anything is the clear and present danger of fundamentalism of every kind.
“Yet again we are reminded of the costs of criticizing faith, of refusing to grant it the privilege of being above the right to freedom of speech,” said Muhammad Syed, co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America, in response to the Rushdie attack. “We must not let the violence of fanatics cow us into silence. We must stand unflinchingly with those who satirize, critique, and even ridicule faith—which has proven itself time and time again to be a worthy target.”
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died five months after rejecting Rushdie’s apology, but his fatwa, the grotesque idea that “it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell” as an emblem of faith—that was always certain to live as long as Rushdie does. In the same way that an interlocked sense of grievance makes any resolution of the religiously-saturated Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem impossible, so the knife, even if he survives, will always be headed for Rushdie’s neck.