Commentary Magazine


The Ayatollah, the Novelist, and the West

Twice now in the span of a decade, the Ayatollah Khomeini has challenged some of Western civilization’s deepest values. In November 1979, by permitting a seizure of the American embassy, he violated the hallowed laws of Western diplomacy. Then, in February 1989, he struck again, this time against the concept of free speech, by calling for the murder of a British writer, Salman Rushdie, and of the publishers of Rushdie’s most recent novel, The Satanic Verses1

So far as an outsider can tell, Khomeini issued his edict against Rushdie to strike a blow at what he sees as a threatening, secular West. The chief irony of the affair, therefore, is that Khomeini succeeded in demonstrating how few Western governments are prepared to stand up against him and for their own values. This Western weakness has implications that go far beyond the Rushdie case itself and that may be felt for years to come.

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Salman Rushdie was born in 1947 in Bombay, India. He attended school in England, at Rugby, followed by King’s College, Cambridge University, from which he was graduated in 1968. After spending two years in Pakistan, he returned to Britain, where he has lived ever since, becoming a British subject by marriage. For several years, Rushdie worked as a copywriter in a public-relations firm; then, in 1976, he published his first novel, Grimus, a work of science fiction. A second novel, Midnight’s Children, came out in 1979, won the highly prestigious Booker Prize, and sold an impressive half-million copies. A 1981 novel, Shame, dealt with Pakistan.

The Iranian press has called Rushdie “a self-confessed apostate,” but he is better described as a lapsed Muslim, and he makes no bones about it: “I do not believe in supernatural entities,” he has said, “whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu.” Though Rushdie is hardly alone in his views, what he stands for perturbs many Muslims. They are especially offended because he has renounced his ancestral country, language, and the Muslim way of life in favor of England, English, and secularism.

Yet while Rushdie has adopted England as his home, he has hardly taken it to his bosom. Thus in The Satanic Verses, the British immigration officials who arrest one of his characters behave like the goons of a police state, “thumping and gouging various parts of his anatomy” in such a way that the bruises will not show. As Cheryl Benard of the Baltzman Institute in Vienna concludes in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, it is not Muslims who come off the worst in Rushdie’s vision: “It is Britons more than Muslims who might have cause to find [The Satanic Verses] blasphemous. If Islam is portrayed as somewhat rigid and medieval, then the contemporary West, in his pages, is a nightmare out of [the movie] Blade Runner.” New York City he calls “that transatlantic New Rome with its Nazified architectural gigantism, which employs the oppressions of size to make its human occupants feel like worms.” In the cruder terms of one of his characters, the West comprises “the motherfucking Americans” and “the sisterfucking British.”

This kind of thing notwithstanding, The Satanic Verses is an elusive and sophisticated tale, written by an accomplished novelist. Unfortunately, however, to assess its offensiveness in Muslim eyes, it must be looked at through those eyes—which is to say in a literal and anti-literary way. Specifically, to understand the book as many Muslims do, one must take every statement in it as representative of the author’s own thinking, even though this is clearly not always the case.

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The Satanic Verses is not easy to summarize. It contains three stories which at first glance may appear unrelated. The first concerns two Indians (Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha) who fall out of a jumbo jet and miraculously survive. Their adventures in England, their fantasy worlds, and their eventual return to Bombay make up the novel’s central plot. The second story is a dream about aspects of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. It relies partly on historical fact, partly on the novelist’s imagination. The third story concerns a Muslim village in India whose entire population follows a holy woman into the Arabian Sea, expecting the waters will part for them to walk to Mecca. But the waters remain unparted, and virtually the whole village perishes. Juxtaposed as it is with a description of Khomeini’s exile in Paris, this is clearly intended by Rushdie as an allegory of Iran and the Islamic revolution.

The dream about Muhammad is the source of the controversy. It makes up two chapters of the book, “Mahound” and “Return to Jahilia.” (Mahound is an archaic and derogatory European name for the Prophet Muhammad; Jahilia, the Arabic word for “barbarism,” is Rushdie’s name for Mecca.) From the Islamic point of view, the most offensive passages are those referred to in the title, which have to do with the Satanic verses, a little-known but genuine issue in the history of Islam.

Before we look at the Satanic-verses episode, however, an important point needs to be established about the Islamic faith, namely, that its irreducible core lies in acceptance of the Qur’an (or, in the older transliteration, Koran) as the Word of God. At the very least, to be a Muslim means believing that God (Allah) sent His message to mankind via the angel Gabriel who passed it along to Muhammad; and that the Qur’an is inerrant. To doubt that the Qur’an is the exact message of God is to deny the validity of Muhammad’s message and to imply that the entire Islamic faith is fraudulent at base. Therefore, such doubt is usually seen as an act of apostasy.

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The Satanic-verses episode stems from the fact that Muhammad was born and lived in Mecca, long a major center of the polytheistic Arabian religions. Indeed, the town’s prosperity depended heavily on its role as a religious center, and the leaders of Muhammad’s own tribe, Quraysh, depended especially on the local shrines.

The emphatic monotheism of Muhammad’s message therefore posed a direct challenge to the existing order in general and to the leaders of Quraysh in particular. For this reason, in part, Muhammad’s initial teachings, although they did succeed in attracting slaves, servants, non-tribal persons, and other riffraff, met with a poor response among the well-to-do in Mecca. Winning these over became a major concern of Muhammad. It was in this context that the Satanic-verses episode took place, in about 614 CE., or one year after Muhammad began his career of public preaching.

According to al-Tabari (d. 923), a historian and commentator on the Qur’an who provides much of our historical knowledge about early Islam, the leaders of Quraysh suggested to Muhammad that he adopt a flexible attitude toward their idols, and they in turn would adopt a more friendly attitude toward his preaching. “If you make some mention of our goddesses, we would sit beside you [i.e., become Muslims].” Soon after this offer, Muhammad recited the following verse of the Qur’an, which makes reference to three of the most prominent Meccan goddesses:

Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza,
And Manat, the third, the other?2

At this point, according to the account in Tabari, Satan distorted the next words to make it appear that Muhammad was accepting the three goddesses and was confirming the validity of their intercession between man and God:

These are the exalted birds,
And their intercession is desired indeed.3

Naturally, Quraysh leaders were delighted by Muhammad’s acceptance of the three goddesses, for it meant that Islam was neither as monotheistic nor as radical as it had first appeared. The traditional religions would live on, at least in an attenuated form; the shrines of Mecca would retain their economic value.

But then the angel Gabriel (the nominal source of the Qur’an) came to Muhammad and revealed to him that the devil had deceived him into uttering the last two lines: in Tabari’s account, to be precise, Gabriel revealed that “Satan caused to come upon his tongue” the verse about “the exalted birds.” Now Gabriel abrogated these lines, replacing them with verses denouncing the cult of the three goddesses.

The complete Qur’anic text on this issue reads as follows:

Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza,
And Manat, the third, the other?
Shall He have daughters and you sons?
That would be a fine division!
These are but [three] names you have
   dreamed of, you and your fathers.
Allah vests no authority in them.
They only follow conjecture and wish-
   fulfillment,
Even though guidance had come to them
   already from their Lord.

What happened to the two lines, “These are the exalted birds,/And their intercession is desired indeed”? Had Satan leaped onto and then off of Muhammad’s tongue? Or had the Prophet tried to ingratiate himself with the city leaders, then regretted the effort and recanted? Or, worse, had he tried to win their favor, been rebuffed, and changed the text accordingly?

Obviously, this incident is one of the most delicate in Muhammad’s mission. Here is how W. Montgomery Watt, the leading modern biographer of Muhammad, steers a neutral course in his summary of the incident:

Muhammad must have had sufficient success for the heads of Quraysh to take him seriously. Pressure was brought to bear on him to make some acknowledgment of the worship at the neighboring shrines. He was at first inclined to do so, both in view of the material advantages such a course offered and because it looked as if it would speedily result in a successful end of his mission. Eventually, however, through divine guidance as he believed, he saw that this would be a fatal compromise, and he gave up the prospect of improving his outward circumstances in order to follow the truth as he saw it.

The phrase “as he believed” is Watt’s way of avoiding a judgment of the issue. In other words, this is the territory of faith where the historian dares not tread. But the novelist does.

In Rushdie’s novel, the Prophet speaks the false verses not because Satan puts them into his mouth, but because he sees an opportunity to advance his cause. Later, Mahound “returns to the city as quickly as he can, to expunge the foul verses that reek of brimstone and sulphur, to strike them from the record for ever and ever.” To cover this deception, Mahound adopts the notion, suggested by one of his followers, that the devil made him do it.

But Rushdie’s offense in this section goes beyond the charge that Muhammad weaved and bobbed as his interests changed; the real problem lies in the implication that the entire Qur’an derives not from God through Gabriel, but from Muhammad himself, who put the words in Gabriel’s mouth:

Gibreel [Gabriel], hovering-watching from his highest camera angle, knows one small detail, just one tiny thing that’s a bit of a problem here, namely that it was me both times, baba, me first and second also me. From my mouth, both the statement and the repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked.

This last point (“and we all know how my mouth got worked”) refers to Gibreel’s being forced to say what he does by Mahound. If this is true, then the Qur’an is a human artifact and the Islamic faith is built on a deceit. There is nothing left.

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But is that what Rushdie has implied? The whole sequence, after all, is part of a dream; and the dreamer, Gibreel Farishta, is a man whose name means “Gabriel Angel” and who suffers from “paranoid delusions” of being the Archangel Gibreel. Surely this places the author at a considerable distance from the story he tells. Furthermore, other Muslims have written on Muhammad and the Qur’an in ways objectively more offensive to Islam than Rushdie, and they have been attacked far less. For example, ‘Ali Dashti, an Iranian whose works were freely available after the Iranian revolution, is the author of an analysis of Muhammad’s mission which includes such statements as this: “The Lord who made observance of ancient Arab lunar time-reckoning compulsory everywhere and forever must have been either a local Arabian god or the Prophet Muhammad.”

Why then did Rushdie and his book so provoke the Muslims of England and South Africa, the Saudi authorities, mobs in Pakistan, and the Ayatollah Khomeini—especially as almost no one who protested the book had even read excerpts from it, much less the entire novel? The answer is that the title itself has an impact when translated into Arabic that it does not have in English. Here is Rushdie’s understanding of the matter:

Even the novel’s title has been termed blasphemous; but the phrase is not mine. It comes from al-Tabari, one of the canonic Islamic sources. Tabari writes . . . [that] Muhammad then received verses which accepted the three favorite Meccan goddesses as intercessionary agents. Meccans were delighted. Later, the Archangel Gabriel told Muhammad that these had been “Satanic verses,” falsely inspired by the devil in disguise and they were removed from the Koran.

Rushdie’s account is generally correct—but he makes one mistake. The exact term “Satanic verses” is not found in Tabari. Tabari says: “Satan threw [something] into his formulation, and these verses were revealed.” Admittedly, this is close in spirit to “Satanic verses,” but it is not the same. The term “Satanic verses” is an English one, devised by Orientalists. When rendered into Arabic, the phrase becomes Al-Ayat ash-Shaytaniya, using a word for “verses” (ayat) which refers specifically to the verses of the Qur’an. Back-translated into English, therefore, the Arabic title would be “The Qur’an’s Satanic Verses.” And, with just a touch of imagination, that is easily rendered as “The Qur’anic Verses Written by Satan,” or even “The Qur’an Written By Satan.”

In other words, the book’s title was not taken as referring to a bit of Islamic arcana concerning phrases not actually found in the Qu’ran. It was read as asserting that the Qur’an itself is the work of the devil—an assertion that Muslims found inconceivably offensive.

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The uproar over The Satanic Verses began with the book’s official publication date in Britain in late September 1988.

Indian Muslims had learned about the novel in mid-September from India Today, a biweekly magazine, which reviewed it, excerpted it, and interviewed the author. Presciently, the reviewer concluded that “The Satanic Verses is bound to trigger an avalanche of protests from the ramparts.” And, indeed, Syed Shahbuddin, a member of the Indian parliament, not liking what he read in India Today, began a campaign to have the novel banned. He met with quick success, as the finance ministry prohibited distribution of the book on October 5, 1988.

Meanwhile, Muslims in Britain also tried to have it banned, but in their case without success; they then resorted to protest in the form of book-burning ceremonies. The first such burning of The Satanic Verses took place in Bolton (near Manchester) on December 2, 1988; it attracted a crowd of 7,000 Muslims but scant press attention. A second burning on January 14, 1989, in the heavily Muslim town of Bradford, the so-called capital of Islam in the United Kingdom, did bring out the cameras, which showed the auto-da-fé—the novel attached to a stake and set on fire—in loving, if horrified, detail.

All this proved merely a warmup for the round of violence that began in Islamabad, Pakistan, on February 12. The events of that day are clear, though their causes remain in dispute. A crowd of some 10,000 took to the streets and marched to the American cultural center, where they shouted “American dogs” and “God is great” and set fire to the building. Five demonstrators died at the hands of the police, and about a hundred were injured. A Pakistani guard at the American center was shot by someone in the mob, making him the sixth casualty of the day. The next day, a rioter lost his life in Kashmir, India.

The odd thing about these riots was that British property was not attacked, although the novel had been out for months in the United Kingdom, and Rushdie was living in London. This may have had to do with the forthcoming American publication of The Satanic Verses, scheduled for February 22. Or the violence may have been directed toward those in the Pakistani opposition who wanted to exploit the opportunity to attack Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto—and the United States makes a better symbol of protest than Great Britain. This, in fact, is the way the Prime Minister herself interpreted the riots. Similarly, Rushdie for his part accused the leaders of the demonstration of exploiting religious slogans for political ends.

In any event, by the middle of February The Satanic Verses had occasioned, or excused, substantial disturbances among Muslims in several parts of the world. But although the riots and loss of life attracted great attention, there was still no real political issue for the West to confront. It took the Ayatollah Khomeini, a man who does not play by the usual rules, to mount such a challenge.

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Accounts differ as to how Khomeini learned about Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. One report says that he was watching a news program on Iranian television, saw the rioting in Pakistan, and was much affected by the scene. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a sight more compelling to Khomeini’s sense of solidarity than that of Muslims crying “God is great” before proceeding to die outside an American cultural center. A second account has him hearing about the Pakistan riots from a small transistor radio he takes with him on his constitutionals. A third version has him “shaken utterly” upon reading excerpts from The Satanic Verses (presumably in Persian or Arabic translation, as Khomeini knows no English); the name Mahound is said to have been especially enraging to him.

However he may have learned about the book, on February 14 Khomeini took the single most important step of the entire incident when, in an address to “all proud Muslims of the world,” he pronounced an Islamic legal judgment (a fatwa) against both Rushdie and his publishers:

The author of The Satanic Verses book—which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an—and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.

Khomeini called on Muslims to act quickly against Rushdie, and the President of Iran, Seyyed ‘Ali Khamene’i, characterized Khomeini’s statement as “an irrevocable dictum.”

To make the assignment more attractive, the head of an Iranian charity organization offered $1 million to a non-Iranian assassin, and 200 million rials (almost $3 million at the inflated rate of exchange but just $170,000 on the parallel market) to an Iranian. The next day, the religious leader of Rafsanjan (hometown of ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament) offered another 200 million rials.

Members of the Iranian parliament expressed their support for Khomeini and their “divine anger” at Rushdie. The Iranian ambassador to the Holy See announced that he would “kill Salman Rushdie with his own hands” if he could. In Spain, the representative of the Islamic Revolution News Agency made the same promise (and found himself instantly expelled from the country).

More importantly, a number of groups sponsored by the Iranian government declared their determination to get Rushdie. Mohsen Reza’i, leader of the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps, announced the readiness of his forces “to carry out the imam’s decree.” Interior Minister ‘Ali Akbar Mohtashemi called on the terrorists of Hizbullah to carry out the execution, and the leaders of the Lebanese Hizbullah quickly vowed to do “all that’s possible to have the honor.” So did other Lebanese groups—including Amal, the Islamic Unification Movement, and the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine. In addition, Ahmad Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command announced its intention to join the effort. The Revolutionary Justice Organization, going farther than the others, vowed to attack the British police, if necessary, on the way to an assault on Rushdie. Something of a rivalry soon developed among these groups: who would get to Rushdie first?

Then, on February 17, President Khamene’i of Iran announced that “the people might forgive” Rushdie if he repented. (Khamene’i added ominously: “In that case, the Americans themselves will kill him. They will not allow such a person to remain alive, to reveal their [conspiratorial] policies, and to bring disgrace upon them.”) The next day, Rushdie did offer an apology, though a minimal one; it concerned only the effects of his writings, and not the writings themselves:

As author of The Satanic Verses, I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that the publication had occasioned to 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.

An Iranian news-agency report suggested that the apology, “though far too short of a repentance, is generally seen as sufficient to warrant his pardon by the masses in Iran and elsewhere in the world.” But on February 19 Khomeini himself weighed in with an absolute rejection of Rushdie’s statement and, indeed, of any act of contrition on his part. Khomeini also denied foreign reports that Rushdie’s repentance would avert the “execution order” against him:

Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of [our] time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell. . . . If a non-Muslim becomes aware of his whereabouts and has the ability to execute him quicker than Muslims, it is incumbent on Muslims to pay a reward or a fee in return for this action.4

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One might have expected the world to dismiss Khomeini’s twisted edict as madness, root and branch. But one would have been wrong.

On the official level, to be sure, the Iranians found little support, even in the Muslim countries. The foreign ministers of the 44 states belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, meeting on March 13-16 in Riyadh, adopted not the Iranian position on Rushdie but a more moderate Saudi one, which called for a ban on the book though not the death of its author:

The conference declares that blasphemy cannot be justified on the basis of freedom of expression and opinion. The conference strongly condemns the book The Satanic Verses, whose author is regarded as a heretic. It appeals to all members of society to impose a ban on the book and to take the necessary legislation to ensure the protection of the religious beliefs of others.

Only the Libyan government publicly stood by the Ayatollah and his edict.

On the popular level, by contrast, anti-Rushdie violence by Muslims showed that Khomeini enjoyed a great deal of support. In the Indian subcontinent the violent demonstrations that began on February 12 continued for a month. The largest number of deaths in a single incident occurred on February 24, when rioting in Rushdie’s hometown of Bombay turned into a three-hour battle between the police and fundamentalist Muslims. The rioters burned cars, buses, and even a small police station. In response, the police killed twelve persons, detained 500, and arrested 800. On March 4, thousands of Pakistani demonstrators ransacked part of the Karachi airport in protest against the Rushdie novel, smashing doors and looting the VIP lounge; this was their way of welcoming home from Iran the pro-Khomeini Shi’i leader, Sajad ‘Ali Naqvi. Naturally, the Iranians gloried in these demonstrations, calling them a “manifestation of Muslim power throughout the world” and “symptoms of this very majesty.”

Confronted with such emotion, many leaders in Muslim countries sought to avoid the whole issue. They did not refer to it in public and they instructed their media to cover the controversy without comment. “I don’t care to comment about the action of the government of Iran myself,” was King Hussein of Jordan’s reply to a question on the subject.

From the vantage point of governments wishing to stay out of the picture, the easiest, least worrisome step was to proscribe the book and say no more. Indeed, with the exception of the Philippines, few non-Western governments containing substantial Muslim populations resisted Saudi and Iranian pressure to ban The Satanic Verses, and many banned all books put out by Viking Penguin, Rushdie’s publisher. Even in Israel, the Ministry of Religious Affairs requested that the Keter publishing house drop its plans for a Hebrew translation.

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As for the non-Muslim governments of the West, which after all had both the responsibility and the means for protecting the rights of those threatened by Khomeini, they responded in particularly timorous fashion. In Britain, both Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock, kept silent about the Ayatollah’s threat for a full week. The newly-installed American Secretary of State, James A. Baker 3d, could muster no stronger condemnation than to call the death threat “regrettable.” The Canadian government temporarily banned imports of The Satanic Verses; worse, Ottawa finessed the freedom-of-speech issue by relegating the decision to Revenue Canada, a tax agency. Bonn called the incident a “strain on German-Iranian relations.” But it was the Japanese government that produced the most spineless formulation of all: “Mentioning and encouraging murder,” it intoned, “is not something to be praised.”

Several governments—including the British, French, and Soviet—sought a way out of the diplomatic impasse by noting that Khomeini’s edict had been issued not by the Iranian government but by the “spiritual leader” of the Islamic revolution. Yet ten years of experience had shown this distinction to be utterly spurious, and in any case the entire machinery of the Iranian government had rushed to endorse Khomeini’s action.

Finally, on February 20, the foreign ministers of the Common Market agreed on a strong statement:

The Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the twelve member states of the European Community, meeting in Brussels, discussed the Iranian threats and incitements to murder against novelist Salman Rushdie and his publishers, now repeated despite the apology made by the author.

The ministers view those threats with the gravest concern. They condemn this incitement to murder as an unacceptable violation of the most elementary principles and obligations that govern relations among sovereign states. . . .

The ministers of the twelve decided to simultaneously recall their Heads of Mission in Teheran for consultations and to suspend exchanges of high-level official visits.

Yet not even the British government—which was the most centrally involved of the twelve—went so far as to break diplomatic relations with Iran, though it did demand that all Iranian representatives leave London, and withdrew all its personnel from Teheran. Observers could recall no precedent for maintaining diplomatic relations without personnel; the British move was understood as a way of expressing strong displeasure and regret simultaneously, and thereby signaling that normal relations could be rebuilt as soon as Khomeini’s edict was retracted. But far from retracting, the Iranians passed a bill that stipulated a complete break on March 7 unless the British government declared “its opposition to the unprincipled stands against the world of Islam, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the contents of the anti-Islamic book, The Satanic Verses.”

Prodded by feelers from Iranian “pragmatists,” British leaders did what they could to satisfy Teheran. On March 2, Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe went on the BBC World Service to show foreign listeners that his government wished to distance itself from Rushdie:

We understand that the book itself has been found deeply offensive by people of the Muslim faith. It is a book that is offensive in many other ways as well. We can understand why it could be criticized. The British government, the British people, do not have any affection for the book. The book is extremely critical, rude about us. It compares Britain with Hitler’s Germany.5 We do not like that any more than the people of the Muslim faith like the attacks on their faith in the book. So we are not co-sponsoring the book. What we are sponsoring is the right of people to speak freely, to publish freely.

Two days later, Prime Minister Thatcher made similar remarks.

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The Iranians acknowledged these gestures but demanded practical measures as well, such as the legal prosecution of Rushdie, confiscation of copies of The Satanic Verses, and an injunction against further publication of the book. These steps the British authorities did not even consider undertaking; so, as threatened, Teheran broke relations on March 7, in some of the most unusual language and reasoning to be found anywhere in international diplomacy. The Iranian statement noted that “in the past two centuries Britain has been in the frontline of plots and treachery against Islam and Muslims,” and it went on to provide details about the behavior of perfidious Albion in Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere. It alleged, too, that having suffered severe reverses at the hands of Islamic movements, London was now dropping its old military tactics and resorting to more sophisticated political and cultural weapons—such as sponsoring The Satanic Verses. But the Islamic Republic would not tolerate this plot, and was therefore breaking relations with the United Kingdom. A Teheran daily suggested that the break could easily last “at least a decade.”

In retaliation, the British government closed down the Iranian consulate in Hong Kong and expelled nine Iranians resident in the United Kingdom. The Foreign Office also urged British nationals to stay away from Lebanon. Further, the Foreign Secretary, using his strongest language since the controversy began, called the Iranian government a “deplorable regime” and (for the first time) condemned its recent “mass exterminations.”6

For all the animosity between the two states, however, neither side made a move to interfere with existing trade relations. The British continued to purchase Iranian crude oil, the Iranians continued to purchase a wide array of British goods; and such official British services as the Export Credits Guarantee Department (which provides short-term cover for British exports) witnessed a “fairly busy, regular market.” Meanwhile, an official of the Foreign Office, William Waldegrave, went on the BBC’s Arabic Service to put

on record that the British government well recognizes the hurt and distress that this book has caused, and we want to emphasize that because it was published in Britain, the British government had nothing to do with and is not associated with it in any way. . . . What is surely the best way forward is to say that the book is offensive to Islam, that Islam is far stronger than a book by a writer of this kind.7

Radio Teheran counted this admission as a major step forward from the Howe and Thatcher statements. But Iran made no concessions in return.

Exactly one month after the decision to withdraw top diplomats of the EEC from Iran, the foreign ministers met again and decided, under Greek, Irish, and Italian pressure, to send them back. Khomeini described the Europeans as returning in “shame, abjectness, and disgrace, regretting their deed.” Lamely, the French foreign ministry called this an “exaggeration.”

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Why did Ayatollah Khomeini make an international incident of The Satanic Verses? Curiously, critics and supporters of the Ayatollah offered diametrically opposed explanations.

Critics were nearly unanimous in seeing his act in political terms. Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr saw the fatwa as “a political affair and not a religious one,” and the leader of the main Iranian opposition group, the Mujahidin-e Khalq, agreed.

Some emphasized domestic political tensions in Iran. Amir Taheri, author of Holy Terror. Inside the World of Islamic Terrorism, saw in The Satanic Verses “an issue likely to stir the imagination of the poor and illiterate masses” in Iran. Harvey Morris of the (London) Independent interpreted Khomeini’s edict as a “revolutionary coup de théâtre” intended to replace the Iraq-Iran war as a focus of national unity. Other commentators emphasized foreign-policy aspects. Youssef M. Ibrahim of the New York Times explained Khomeini’s edict as a bid “to reassert his role as spokesman and protector of Islamic causes.” William Waldegrave of the British Foreign Office blamed the incident on “radical elements in Iran, which do not want their country to have normal relations with the West and the Gulf states.”

Supporters of the Ayatollah, on the other hand, read his move very differently, and primarily as a religious response. The Iranian chargé d’affaires in London stated unequivocally that to Khomeini the punishment of Rushdie was “much more important than relations between two countries.” And the top Iranian diplomat in Cyprus told a local audience that “the verdict issued by the Iranian leaders is a purely religious one and based on religious considerations.”

Which side is correct? Prima facie, there is strong evidence for the religious interpretation. First, the Muslims in India, Great Britain, and Pakistan who took to the streets before Khomeini spoke had no connection with the internal struggles of Iranian political life, and it was surely their actions that exerted so powerful an effect on the aged leader.

Second, there were and are more direct ways for Khomeini to shut down relations with the West or to exclude those he calls liberals from power in Iran. As an autocractic leader, he rules without rival; had he decided to stop the improving ties, he could simply have so decreed. A politician in his position of authority need not take the extreme step of placing a bounty on a novelist’s head.

Third, Khomeini generally means what he says, and says what he means—despite a persistent tendency both in Iran and in the West not to take his assertions at face value. In 1978, as Iranians and others tried to foresee what kind of government the Ayatollah would impose in Iran, the evidence that was plain to see in his writings over many years tended to be ignored in favor of a more conventional interpretation of his goals. Today, the insistence on a political explanation for the Rushdie fatwa risks falling into the same error.

Finally, the attack on Rushdie is consistent with other actions by the Ayatollah, two of which deserve mention. He took nearly the same step forty-seven years earlier, when he was still an obscure mullah. In 1942 Khomeini wrote The Discovery of Secrets, a polemic directed against Ahmed Kasravi, a prominent writer whose anticlerical views had gained a significant following in Iran. Khomeini pronounced Kasravi mahdurr ad-damm (“forfeit blood”), thus permitting any Muslim to execute him. His book was read by Muhammad Nawab-Safavi, who went on to found a terrorist group, the Fedayin-e Islam, and this group attacked Kasravi with knives, murdering him. Though Khomeini’s response to the execution is not on record, his close friend, Shaikh Sadeq Khalkhali, remembers it as “the most beautiful day in my life.”

Much more recently, Khomeini inflicted severe punishments on the producers of a Teheran Radio program entitled “Model for the Muslim Woman.” On January 28, 1989 they aired what the Ayatollah called “an un-Islamic interview”: a woman on the program said that she did not consider Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, to be a suitable model for herself, and claimed to prefer a more up-to-date exemplar—the heroine of a Japanese soap opera. Outraged, the Ayatollah sent a letter to the director of Iranian broadcasting, telling him that if the insult was deliberate, the offending parties would “undoubtedly” be condemned to death. Three days later, a court sentenced one of the producers to five years in jail, and two others to four years each and 50 lashes. And the court made clear that this relative leniency was due to an “absence of malicious intent” on their part; otherwise, all of them would have been sentenced to death. In the end they were pardoned, thanks in part to the intercession of Khomeini’s daughter.

_____________

 

Yet granted the offensiveness of Rushdie’s (literally interpreted) text, the offensiveness of his (misunderstood) title, and Khomeini’s religious extremism, it is still not clear why this book should have been made a top priority of the Iranian government. Here the reason would seem to lie in the strange vision of history held by Khomeini and other fundamentalist Muslims.

Their view is based on a kind of syllogism: strong Muslims live fully by the precepts of their faith; Muslims were once strong, but are now weak; therefore, Muslims are weak because they do not live in strict accordance with the Qur’an and the precepts of Islam. Were they to do so, it follows that they would regain the strength of centuries past. Khomeini’s first goal, then, is to get Muslims to live fully by the law of Islam, the Shari’a.

But there is one great obstacle to achieving this: the seductive culture of the West, which for two centuries has been drawing Muslims away from strict adherence to the requirements of their faith. Hence Muslims must engage in battle against Western civilization. And a battle this is, for the West is not a passive purveyor of its own culture, but actively thrusts it on vulnerable Muslims. The West does so because it benefits by weakening Muslims; this allows it to plunder Muslim lands and hire believers as cheap laborers. ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, explains the deep historical roots of the effort:

From the day Western colonialists harbored the intention of colonizing the Islamic countries—or to be more precise, to demolish and create havoc in the Islamic world—they sensed that they must deal with something called Islam. They realized that as long as Islam is in force, their path will be a difficult one, or may be virtually closed off.

Whoever is familiar with the history of colonialism and the Islamic world knows that whenever they wanted to get a foothold in a place, the first thing they did in order to clear their paths—whether overtly or covertly—was to undermine the people’s genuine Islamic morals.

Of course, the imperialists could not entirely do away with Islam, so they did the next best thing, which was to emasculate the religion, reducing the faith to empty ceremonies devoid of real content. By 1978, ceremonial Islam (or “American-style Islam”) prevailed at the state level everywhere in the world. But then, Rafsanjani continues, “with the advent of the Islamic revolution, pure Islam entered the scene, and all they had done became undone.” The Iranians threatened to lead all Muslims (and other oppressed peoples) against the hegemony of the great powers, the United States and the USSR especially.

Seeing the danger Iran posed, the powers fought back, and continue to fight back. “All the West’s plots,” declares President Khamene’i, “are aimed at stopping Islam and the revolution from becoming a world model.” That is why the Iranians, in turn, have to engage in combat with everything at their command.

According to the Iranian view, the war between Islam and “international blasphemy” has taken two main forms. First, the great powers put their agent, the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, up to a war which he obediently carried out against Iran. But this military aggression failed against the hard rock of Islamic fervor. “After ten years,” says Interior Minister Mohtashemi, “the world gave up the hope of fighting Islam within Iran through military conflict.”

Stumped, the Western governments next “summoned all their devilish experts and mercenaries to draw up anew a strategy against Islam.” At the conclusion of all these efforts, “global arrogance” (as the Iranians put it) devised a plan—warfare conducted (again) on the level of culture. This effort, according to a COMMENTARY on Radio Teheran, would involve two stages. First, “the aim is to weaken the Islamic faith among Muslims, thereby secularizing Muslim societies; this is then followed by an expansion of [Western] influence and the ultimate plundering of those societies’ vital resources.”

Not for a minute, then, did Iranian authorities believe that The Satanic Verses had been written by a single author pursuing the whimsies of his own imagination. According to Rafsanjani, Muslims reading this book “will not see a mad Indian behind it; they will see Britain, Germany, France, and the United States.” In picking Rushdie as the ostensible author, the Western intelligence services chose

a person who seemingly comes from India and who apparently is separate from the Western world and who has a misleading name [i.e., a Muslim name]. . . . All these advance royalties were given to that person.

One can see that they appointed guards for him in advance because they knew what they were doing. . . . All this tells of an organized and planned effort. It is not an ordinary work. . . . I believe there has not previously been such a well-planned act as this.

The effort required five years and $1.5 million. British intelligence even managed to have The Satanic Verses introduced in Britain as “the book of the year.”8 Had Muslims not protested, it would have been made into a film.

_____________

 

But how, an outsider might ask, can this novel hurt Muslims? The answer is, by dishonoring their faith and their traditions. It hurts to be “ridiculed by world arrogance,” and the resultant pain could turn Muslims against Islam. Fortunately for Islam, Muslims understood what was brewing, and showed, “with their rage,” that they intended to stymie the plot against them. Their steadfastness stopped the cultural campaign in its tracks.

Thus, in the Iranian view, the Rushdie affair, undertaken by the West as an assault upon Islam, instead became the occasion of a major Islamic reassertion, and therefore a turning point in the fortunes of the faith. Even in Turkey, according to one newspaper editorial, where the government had been taking quiet but effective steps toward “ridding the country of Islam,” the shock of The Satanic Verses awakened the true Muslims to the dangers in their midst.

Note that Iranian leaders speak always of “the West,” or “global arrogance.” They do not believe that British intelligence acted alone in putting Rushdie up to the job; as ever, the “little Satan” is seen as working hand-in-glove with the “big Satan,” the United States. One Iranian government statement referred to the novel as a “provocative American deed,” and called Rushdie “an inferior CIA agent.” As Mohtashemi put it, “The book’s author is in England, but the real supporter is the United States.”

There is, of course, no small irony in identifying Rushdie with the American government. After all, Rushdie is a Muslim of Indian origins who lives in England and holds a British passport. Furthermore, he is widely known as a “man of the Left,” who viscerally opposes the policies of the U.S. government. Indeed, he has written a screed against American policy in Central America entitled The Jaguar Smile. Yet in the minds of fundamentalist Muslims, anti-Westernism has a way of always turning into anti-Americanism. Britain may once have been the imperial overlord, but now it is nearly defanged; its military potential is all but gone. In contrast, Khomeini saw Americans ruling Iran from 1953 to 1978. Too, American culture, with its global impact, symbolizes the West. Whether Rushdie lives in London or New York City is a minor detail; the point is that the United States is the leader of the Western world, that lascivious place where attacks on the Prophet and the Qur’an are acceptable, even encouraged.

_____________

 

Demented as this conspiratorial theory may sound to us, when we consider the extent to which Western governments have backed down in the Rushdie affair, it is by no means self-evident that Khomeini was wrong from his point of view in making The Satanic Verses the launching pad for his latest battle against the West and its values.

Indeed, Khomeini’s edict achieved something remarkable. Throughout the West (and in other regions, too), he instilled an unprecedented fear which affected public figures. Suddenly, such topics as Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, Iran, and Islam took on a special delicacy and were subject to an informal censorship. In some cases, offending works of art were repressed; more often, private thoughts were simply not uttered.

In a temporary and partial way, then, Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in imposing his will on the West. Is the power he achieved an aberration or the beginning of a subtle shift in norms? While it is too early to say, it is clear that the answer depends far more on us than on him.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 Viking Penguin, 547 pp., $19.95.

2 The wording of the Qur'an used here is Rushdie's in The Satanic Verses; Rushdie writes that he relied on the N.J. Dawood and Muhammad AH translations, adding “a few touches” of his own.

3 These two lines, which lie at the center of the incident, are found in a wide range of Muslim sources, though their precise wording differs in each account.

4 The last sentence repudiated President Khamene'i's statement of two days earlier that “there is really no need for setting aside any money” for Rushdie's execution.

5 Howe was wrong; the only passage that invokes Nazi Germany comes in reference to New York City, as noted above. Rushdie contested Howe's characterization, challenging the Foreign Secretary to produce the offending sentence.

6 Those “exterminations” having taken place up to half a year earlier, many commentators found it unfortunate that the condemnation had to wait until diplomatic relations had been broken

7 Only the Swedish government, whose ambassador to Teheran called The Satanic Verses “blasphemous,” went further to satisfy Iranian demands.

8 This may refer obliquely to the fact that The Satanic Verses was shortlisted for the Whitbread and Booker Prizes, and that Home Secretary Douglas Hurd sat on the committee judging the 1988 Whitbread Prize (which Rushdie won).

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