When Salman Rushdie wrote his novel The Satanic Verses in September 1988, he thought its many references to Islam might cause some ripples.
“I expected a few mullahs would be offended, call me names, and then I could defend myself in public,” Rushdie would tell an interviewer much later.
The Indian-born author had come from a career as an advertising copywriter, confecting slogans such as “naughty but nice” for cream cakes, for example. He had no idea of the tsunami of outrage that was to overshadow the rest of his life, or that he was about to become a geopolitical booby trap.
By October 1988, he already needed a bodyguard in the face of a deluge of death threats, cancelling trips and hunkering down. One Muslim-majority country after another banned the book, and in December thousands of Muslims demonstrated in Bolton, Greater Manchester, and burned a pile of the books. In Islamabad, six people were killed in a mob attack on the US cultural centre in the Pakistani capital to protest against the book. There were riots in Srinagar and Kashmir.
The day after those riots, 14 February 1989, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a religious decree, a fatwa, calling on all Muslims to execute not just Rushdie but everyone involved in the book’s publication. The fatwa effectively carved the death threat into stone, making it impossible to erase. An Iranian religious foundation offered a $1m bounty, $3m if an Iranian carried out the killing. Iran broke off relations with Britain over the issue.
Rushdie went into hiding and lived for several years, much of the time in a remote farmhouse in Wales, under the alias Joseph Anton, celebrating his literary heroes Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. In 2012 he published a memoir of his life in hiding under that title.
Western intellectuals mostly flocked to Rushdie’s defence, depicting the issue as a litmus test of the west’s readiness to stand up for the principle of freedom of expression in the face of lethal threats.
Bookshops in the UK and US soon found themselves having to urgently decide where they stood on that matter, in the face of a wave of firebombings of stores that continued to sell it.
In February 1989, Rushdie expressed remorse, saying: ‘‘I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam.” The words had little impact, however. In June 1989 Khomeini died, but the fatwa lived on under his successor, the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and there appeared to be a renewed effort to put it into effect. Later that month, a Guinean-born Lebanese man, calling himself Mustafa Mazeh, blew himself up in a hotel in Paddington, west London, preparing a bomb to kill Rushdie.
In 1990, Rushdie again expressed remorse, said he embraced the Islamic faith, did not agree with views expressed by characters in the novel and opposed the book’s publication in paperback. But Khamenei rejected the apology, quoting his predecessor as saying: “Even if he repents and becomes the most pious Muslim on Earth, there will be no change in this divine decree.”
Unable to reach Rushdie himself, extremists sought out his literary collaborators. In July 1991 the Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi, a professor of Islamic culture, was knifed to death at Tsukuba University where he worked, north-east of Tokyo. A few days earlier, the book’s Italian translator was attacked and badly wounded at his Milan apartment by an attacker who had identified himself as an Iranian, pretending to seek translation of a pamphlet. Two years later, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot and seriously injured.
In 1997, a reformist Iranian president, Sayyid Mohammad Khatami, took office and began signalling that he would no longer actively seek to execute the fatwa on Rushdie, or encourage anyone to kill him, as part of an opening to the west and a restoration of diplomatic relations with Britain.
Rushdie expressed relief at the assurances offered by Khatami’s government, and said he had no regrets over his book, even after spending a decade in hiding.
“The Satanic Verses is as important in my body of work as any of my other books,” he said. He recanted his 1990 claim to embrace Islam, admitting he had said it to get the fatwa lifted. Asked if he was a Muslim, he replied: “I am happy to say that I am not.”
He has called his effort to appease extremists by affirming his faith and calling for the withdrawal of the book the “biggest mistake of my life”.
He dropped his alias and at least partially emerged from hiding in September 2001, and steadily increased the frequency of his public appearances.
But the threat against him had not evaporated. Despite the reassurances from the Khatami government, the fatwa remained in place, upheld by Iran’s supreme leader. An Iranian religious foundation increased the bounty on Rushdie’s head, and more than half of the members of the country’s parliament, the majlis, signed a statement saying the writer deserved to die.
Long after the Khatami government was voted out of office, Khamenei remains the supreme leader and has made it clear that the shadow over Rushdie’s life would not be lifted. As recently as 2016, 40 state-run media organisations in Iran pooled together to raise $600,000 to top up the bounty on the writer’s head. Abbas Salehi, the deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance at the time, said: “Imam Khomeini’s fatwa is a religious decree and it will never lose its power or fade out.”
In an interview with Agence France-Presse in Paris in 2019, Rushdie was still accompanied by armed policemen but he seemed to believe the world had moved on from the fatwa. “We live in a world where the subject changes very fast. And this is a very old subject. There are now many other things to be frightened about – and other people to kill,” he said.