Twenty Years Ago Today: Rushdie's Fifth Anniversary in Hiding

Salman-Rushdie-holding-a--002Twenty years ago today, it was Valentine's Day, much as it is now. But the only valentine the Islamic Republic of Iran had for author Salman Rushdie was the anniversary of the judgement that he should die for insulting Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. This was no empty threat; one would-be assassin had blown himself up in a hotel in Paddington and two people were expelled from the UK for plotting Rushdie's murder in 1992. People connected with the book were attacked across the world - the Norwegian publisher was shot and wounded, the Italian translator was stabbed, and the Japanese translator was murdered. The Turkish translator was spotted by fundamentalists at a hotel, and thirty seven people died in the fire they set to kill him (though he actually survived). Many more people died during protests against the book, and the riots that tended to follow. Nowhere in the world was safe for Rushdie. So he went into hiding, living under the name 'Joseph Anton', moving to a new safe house every few weeks. He received armed protection from Special Branch, which by 1994 had already cost over £5m. Rushdie contributed to the costs - after all, sales of The Satanic Verses were rather brisk - but much of the burden still fell on the taxpayer. Some people disapproved of this, as you might imagine - though not as much as Iran, which broke diplomatic ties with the UK, and did not restore them until 1998.

While many may argue over whether or not Rushdie was actually insulting Islam, this is beside the point; being insulted should not give anyone the right to respond with murderous violence. If the fatwa was truly issued because of a perceived insult to a religion, then this is no more than the action of a bully that cannot get its own way; although there's reason to suspect that the fatwa was motivated by other reasons. Ayatollah Khomeini could well have been responding to criticism of himself in the book, or using the fatwa as a way to distract people from other issues, such as the recent capitulation in the Iran-Iraq war.

(Islam, of course, is not alone in behaving this way. Most religions have been just as barbaric at various times, as have many secular organisations. There's something rotten about humanity when it comes in large numbers).

As of 2014, the fatwa against Rushdie has not been rescinded, nor has he actually been harmed. The government of Iran pledged in 1998 to neither support nor hinder any assassination of Rushdie, and he now lives in the United States. He lost several years of his life, a lot of money and a marriage to the fatwa, and many others lost much more.

And here's a clip from the 1990 Pakistani film International Guerillas, in which Salman Rushdie is killed by flying Korans that throw lightning:

(the whole thing can be found on YouTube if you really want; note that Rushdie wrote to the BBFC to ask them not to ban it)

Also, Rushdie's impromptu, unadvertised 1994 performance on Have I Got News For You can be seen at DailyMotion. It's scary how young everyone looks.