More than three decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini put a price of several million dollars on his head after the publication of the magical realist novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie appeared to be out of danger. The safe houses, the aliases, the reinforced doors, the 24-hour security detail – the extraordinary measures it took to protect him after the fatwa issued by Iran’s then supreme leader in 1989 – had given way to the rhythms of a normal life.
Rushdie, who for 10 years seldom appeared in public and for many years after that would be spirited to engagements without advance publicity, seemed to have reclaimed the life that the obscurantists sought to deny him. And living that life while refusing to play the role the ayatollahs had assigned him was his form of defiance, his way of standing up for the right to speak freely.
Embodying the struggle for the artist’s right to his or her words was a status Rushdie never sought but one which he accepted and maintained long after the fatwa seemed to fade in significance. In a lecture hall in New York on Friday, he was about to speak on the theme of the United States as a place of asylum for writers and other artists in exile when a young man approached him and stabbed him several times. The horrific attack has left the writer with what his son Zafar has called “life-changing” injuries – he could lose one eye and faces a long road to recovery. It was a barbaric moment of unthinkable cruelty. And it was an attack on a principle – free expression – that is too often taken for granted or even dismissed as a liberal platitude. On the contrary, this bulwark against tyranny is, in today’s world, increasingly contested.
Khomeini had reportedly never read The Satanic Verses when he declared his fatwa 10 years after taking power in the 1979 revolution. The furore was never really about the book; Rushdie became a convenient pawn for a regime that needed external enemies to solidify its grip on power at home. A decade after Khomeini’s death, the relatively reformist regime of President Mohammad Khatami said Iran no longer supported any attempt on Rushdie’s life, but the fatwa remained in place, and in 2019 Twitter suspended supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s account over a tweet that said the fatwa was “irrevocable”. In its reprehensible response to Friday’s attack on Rushdie, in which it blamed the writer himself, Tehran’s current leadership showed how little of the mindset of 1989 has really changed.
Liberal democracy was in better shape in the period of Khomeini’s absurd fatwa. Thirty years on, it is assailed in new ways, from rising dictatorships and even, in several western states, from within. The fight for free expression is the frontline of the wider battle in defence of democratic ideals. The appalling attack in New York underlines the stakes involved.