Salman Rushdie can be forgiven if, in recent years, he’s tried to put behind him the fatwa issued in 1989 by Iranian cleric Ruhollah Khomeini that called for the author’s death after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s allegedly blasphemous novel. In the immediate aftermath of the fatwa, Rushdie lived under the heavy security usually reserved for Mafia informants in a witness protection program. His fear was real and justified. In late 1989, Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh blew himself up in London making a bomb whose intended victim was Rushdie. Multiple attacks on translators and publishers followed, including the killing of Rushdie’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi, the shooting of a Norwegian publisher William Nygaard, and the near-death of a Turkish translator, Aziz Nesin, who escaped a mob attack that led to 37 people being killed in Silvas, Turkey.
Despite the violence, Rushdie gradually returned to public life, working on the theory that living as if he were in jail would grant his tormentors a victory. In 2017, the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm devoted an entire season to a story line about Larry David, the hapless hero of the show, coming under a fatwa after trying to a musical about The Satanic Verses controversy. Rushdie himself showed up in a cameo on the series, offering David advice on how to get “fatwa sex” (which was supposedly a much more intense than normal fornication).
With that season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it truly felt that Rushdie had the last laugh on his would-be killers. But the fatwa had never been rescinded. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to Khomeini, in fact has made clear that “the decision made about Salman Rushdie is still valid. As I have already said, this is a bullet for which there is a target. It has been shot. It will one day sooner or later hit the target.”
We don’t yet know the motives of Hadi Matar, currently being held for attacking Rushdie in New York. But the attack is just one more threat to Rushdie’s life in a series of them; Khamenei’s metaphor of a slow-moving bullet is suggestive. The original fatwa remains a horrific violation of human rights, even if the recent attack proves unrelated. The incitement to murder had been made, the idea planted. The only way to resolve such threats is through a long and grinding struggle on behalf of the values of free speech. This is not a conflict between the West and Islam (as certain crude ideologists invested in the “clash of civilizations” narrative like to suggest). It is a struggle as much within the West itself. It is a conflict that divides the party of freedom from the parties of intolerance and violence. The late Christopher Hitchens was one of Rushdie’s most eloquent defenders. His 1994 words in the London Review of Books are worth remembering now:
Yet within weeks of the original fatwah (now just past its fifth infamous anniversary), and increasingly over the past year or two, the whole grand implication of the Rushdie case disclosed itself as a contest, at once bitter and subtle, within Islam. The most salient instance of this is the recent publication, in Paris, of a volume entitled Pour Rushdie. Almost two dozen of the leading novelists, poets and essayists of the Arab and Muslim world offer, within the pages of this book, their reasons for sympathising with Rushdie and their reasons for regarding his own case as, in some important way, their own. Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate, is probably the best-known of these authors, but many of the leading Palestinian, Algerian and Tunisian voices were heard also. A separate petition, inscribed by 57 of the leading artists, writers and scientists of Iran, and requiring even more fibre from the signers, puts the same point in a different way. To take a side against Rushdie, or to be neutral and evasive about him in the name of some vaguely sensitive.