Rushdie’s Moral Heroism

Thirty-three years ago, Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a religious decree suborning the murder of author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, a work of magical realism partly inspired by the life of the prophet Muhammad. A multi-million dollar bounty was offered by the 15 Khordad Foundation, a revolutionary organization supervised by the Supreme Leader, to whoever carried out the sentence of death.

When attempts to appease the regime with an apology were spurned, Rushdie retreated into hiding and was forced to spend the second half of his adult life under the threat of assassination. As part of an attempt to restore diplomatic relations with Britain in 1998, the Iranian government of Mohammad Khatami indicated that it would no longer support Rushdie’s murder. Three years later, Khatami declared the matter “closed.”

Iran’s religious leaders, however, are a good deal less interested in the requirements of international diplomacy, and have been remarkably forthright in saying so to anyone who cared to listen. Khomeini’s fanatical successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly stated that the fatwa will not—indeed, cannot—be lifted, even if Rushdie “repents and becomes the most pious Muslim on Earth...” Just three years ago, the Supreme Leader’s Twitter account was briefly locked after it posted the following tweet:

Although important details are yet to emerge, pronouncements like that one almost certainly explain why a 24-year-old man named Hadi Matar attacked Rushdie at a literary festival in Chautauqua, New York, on Friday, August 12th. Matar rushed the stage upon which Rushdie was seated and stabbed the writer repeatedly in the neck and abdomen until he was physically restrained by attendees. A grim irony—Rushdie was reportedly waiting to deliver a lecture in which he would describe the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers and artists.

Rushdie’s attacker has been taken into custody and charged with attempted murder, but his victim sustained serious injuries during the frenzied assault. The same evening, Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, delivered the distressing news that, “Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”

The Satanic Verses was published in 1988. The following year, it was banned in India and copies were burned during street protests in Bradford, UK. An American Cultural Centre in Islamabad was attacked after the book’s publication in the United States. Khomeini’s fatwa was broadcast on Iranian radio on February 14th:

We are from Allah and to Allah we shall return. I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur'an, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death. I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, Allah willing. Meanwhile, if someone has access to the author of the book but is incapable of carrying out the execution, he should inform the people so that [Rushdie] is punished for his actions.

A wave of bloodshed ensued. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator was stabbed, and 37 people perished in a fire targeting the book’s Turkish translator. While the violence and threat level appeared to abate with the passage of time allowing Rushdie to emerge from hiding and re-engage with public life, his growing sense of security has proved to be illusory. Indeed, the intervening years serve only to emphasize the most alarming lesson of all—that no-one marked for death can ever afford to lower their guard or return to what Rushdie called “a normal life.”

Rushdie is not the only person Iran has sought to terrorize in recent months, even as the regime seeks to renegotiate an agreement with the West regarding its nuclear program. American law enforcement has just uncovered assassination plots by operatives associated with the Iranian regime against President Trump’s former NSA, John Bolton, the dissident Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, and Iranian-American poet (and Quillette contributor) Roya Hakakian. Writing in the New York Review of Books a year ago, Hakakian relays the story of her 13-year-old child opening the door to FBI agents, who then informed Hakakian that Iranian operatives were concocting a plan to kill her.

In a timely essay for Quillette in May, Paul Berman observed:

Roya Hakakian and Masih Alinejad happen to be friends, as Hakakian noted in the New York Review, and the combined threats against them suggest a broader policy of violence and intimidation on the part of the Islamic Republic and its operatives in the United States.

This is a policy aimed not just at a couple of inconveniently articulate emigrés, but at the larger circles of the Iranian emigration in America and everywhere else, whose members are bound to pause an additional thoughtful moment before piping up in public about life and oppression back home in far-away Iran. The policy is a display of power. It terrorizes. It succeeds at doing this even if any given plot is foiled, or is suspended, or is merely intimated.

Roya Hakakian and How to Speak About What No One Wants to HearI. Roya Hakakian is an American writer from Iran who commands a distinctive ability to speak about large and horrific events in a chipper tone that appears to underplay the horrific quality and, by apparently underplaying, ends up subtly underlining. It is an artful tone. It is cagey, charming, disa…

We do not yet know the nature of the relationship between the Iranian government and Rushdie's attacker. Early news reports indicate that, “Matar has made social media posts in support of Iran and its Revolutionary Guard, and in support of Shi’a extremism more broadly,” which could point to inspiration rather than direction. Either way, this terrible event and the sheer ferocity of the violence provide a reminder of the dedication with which fanatics are prepared to pursue someone merely for writing a novel—a work of the imagination.

Rushdie understands as well as anyone that this threat is by no means unique to the Islamic Republic of Iran, but issues from adherents of all kinds of radical Islam who seek to impose their values on free societies and free-thinking people everywhere. In the wake of the Danish Cartoons controversy in 2005, he was one of 12 signatories to a defiant manifesto published in Charlie Hebdo titled “Together Against a New Totalitarianism,” the text of which we are reproducing in full:

Having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism. We writers, journalists, and intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity, and secular values for all. Recent events, prompted by the publication of drawings of Muhammad in European newspapers, have revealed the necessity of the struggle for these universal values.

This struggle will not be won by arms, but in the ideological arena. It is not a clash of civilizations or an antagonism between West and East that we are witnessing, but a global struggle between democrats and theocrats. Like all totalitarian ideologies, Islamism is nurtured by fear and frustration. Preachers of hatred play on these feelings to build the forces with which they can impose a world where liberty is crushed and inequality reigns.

But we say this, loud and clear: nothing, not even despair, justifies choosing obscurantism, totalitarianism, and hatred. Islamism is a reactionary ideology that kills equality, freedom, and secularism wherever it is present. Its victory can only lead to a world of injustice and domination: men over women, fundamentalists over others. To counter this, we must ensure access to universal rights for the oppressed or those discriminated against.

We reject the “cultural relativism” which implies an acceptance that men and women of Muslim culture are deprived of the right to equality, freedom, and secularism in the name of respect for certain cultures and traditions. We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of “Islamophobia,” a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it.

We defend the universality of freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit can be exercised in every continent, with regard to each and every abuse and dogma. We appeal to democrats and independent spirits in every country that our century may be one of enlightenment and not obscurantism.

Signed by: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Chahla Chafiq, Caroline Fourest, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Irshad Manji, Mehdi Mozaffari, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, Antoine Sfeir, Philippe Val, Ibn Warraq.

Salman Rushdie risked everything for his art. And like Flemming Rose, the slain cartoonists and satirists at Charlie Hebdo, and numberless courageous writers, thinkers, artists, and intellectuals hunted across the globe for violating medieval blasphemy taboos, he has stood up for free thought and expression, even as others have disgraced themselves by offering excuses for the perpetrators of lethal theocratic violence:

Rushdie’s steady courage and reliable willingness to defend individual liberty from first principles have ensured his status as one of the great moral heroes of our time. “A poet’s work,” remarks one of his characters in The Satanic Verses, “is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” It is a tragedy that Rushdie's dedication to this noble pursuit has cost him so much.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The Fatwa was an invasion of the sovereignty of every non-Iranian country in the world. It was essentially a declaration of war and should have been treated as such.


There’s a fine article just published by Bari Weiss about the disgraceful decline of (real) liberalism in the West, compared to 33 years ago:

BTW notice how certain controversial Americans have been banned from Twitter, while the violence-preaching Islamic creeps remain. This is one reason why the Section 230 protection that Twitter and other social media platforms illegitimately enjoy needs to end. Used as a vehicle for incitement to murder, a social media platform deserves no such protection, just like any other publisher.


I believe that the threat of Islamist violence has been a major factor in training people in Western countries to watch what they say…and, once this training is accomplished, the keep-quiet tendency is generalized to other aspects of political/philosophical/social discussion.

See my 2020 post The Multi-Front Attack on Free Speech.


In the west, we have accorded Islam and Muslims the freedom to enter our countries. We have extended to Islam and to Muslims the status of a religion of the book. We have agreed that Muslims can practice their religion freely.

It’s time to rethink this tolerance. Muslims are responsible for a majority of the crimes in Europe at this time. That Muslims have continued to tolerate and have not condemned Iran and the fatwa is enough to condemn them.

The test is simple: Do you condemn Muslim terrorism? Do you condemn the attack on Rushdie?



The situation in Africa is much worse. There is an on-going genocide of Christians in many Muslim majority nations (the worst being Nigeria) that is willfully ignored by the western press.

Tolerance as a virtue of the enlightenment is a kind of philosophical “disarmament” - a critical step on the way to any meaningful multicultural harmony - but it cannot be unilateral. A failure to come to terms with (or even recognize) this reality is a major feature of what Douglas Murray has chronicled as the “strange” death of Europe.

It’s past time for “peaceful” Muslims in the West to assume a higher profile in opposing the intolerant militancy of their supremacist co-religionists abroad as well as the terrorist violence of the “insurgents” nurtured in their own communities. To the extent that they keep their heads below the parapet and simply disavow them as not “true” disciples of the Prophet they are de facto collaborators - abdicating a moral and religious responsibility and abusing our hospitality.



I appreciated Maajid Fawaz’s explainer on this - the Venn diagram to illustrate the difference btw people who are Muslim and practicing a religion (which of course should be tolerated), vs the subset who make it malignant.

And as society moves ever so slowly to reversing woke excesses, the conflating of denouncing islamism or jihadism as criticism of peaceful practitioners of a religion also needs to finally go.


This. :point_up_2:

There are people who interpret their religions as being very peaceful, or very violent. This is true of all religions, not just Islam.

Demanding that peaceful worshipers of Islam constantly denounce the violent worshippers buys into the idea that these two religions are the same. This makes no sense to me. The person who lives their life quietly in peace, and the violent radical Islamist douchebag may both have the same name for their god, but obviously are practicing two entirely different religions with two entirely different beliefs.


So, you think that the complete silence of US Muslim leaders regarding Rushdie is OK?

At this time, the “peaceful Muslims” give aid AND comfort to the violent terrorist Muslims. When the “peaceful Muslims” denounce and TURN IN the terrorists, I will agree that they are separate. Right now, they are not.


Yup. We don’t (or shouldn’t) expect Catholics to start every sentence with “sorry about the priestly reach-arounds”.

That’s true. It’s been a few days…or a few decades if you start the clock from the fatwa itself. But the US Catholic Church (or various popes for that matter) haven’t exactly been Usain Bolt on that file either. Doesn’t make delay in either case correct, but if you choose to criticize one, I would suggest considering criticizing both (if you didn’t previously).

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No. I don’t do “whataboutism”.

Where are the Muslim leaders on this attack on Rushdie?

The two issues are, as well, completely unrelated. In the Catholic case, you have individuals doing bad things. In the Muslim case with the fatwa, you have a high official, at a level almost of the Pope, calling for the death of someone.

So, no relationship, and no equivalence.


Perhaps not; but DID you do it when it came to Catholics and priests?

True. The pope didn’t “order” reach-arounds, thankfully. But the pope and the church knew about it and did nothing about it for decades. Not sure that’s a great look either.

I’m not equating “calling for murder” and “tolerating reach-arounds”. Yes, one is worse than the other. But I think you’d agree both deserve denunciation. So do you/did you expect the same rapidity of denunciation on both?


I don’t do “whataboutism”. Sensible people do not.


I honestly have no idea who the “US Muslim leaders” are other than the abominable organization known as CAIR. And even they have already done as you demand.

“No one has the right to physically attack a public speaker over an objection to their speech. Such acts of criminal violence are unacceptable. Period."

Are you sure what you are calling “complete silence” does not have more to do with the media sources you consume?


OK, that’s good. One organization has spoken out.


Alas they are the same religion but civilized people just ignore the barbarism in the same way that Jews and Christians no longer stone those who work on the sabbath. However, as we see, many Muslims continue to apply the barbarisms in the Koran with great zeal. One might say that all Jews are backsliders since not even the Hasidim stone those who work on the sabbath, whereas many Muslims are more strict. Christianity in contrast to both of the above teaches us to love our enemies. True, nominal Christians mostly ignore that, but one has to take note of what the religion actually teaches. Even ‘peaceful’ Muslims might be in sympathy with jihad. Polls have revealed things like 80% of Muslims in various lands continue to believe that apostates should be killed.

Another difficulty is that peaceful Muslims can have fundamentalist children as we saw with the thousands who left the West to go join ISIS. No other religion has this problem.


It took too long but the Church has apologized for the abuse. The pope was just here in Canada apologizing for our residential schools. Personally I think he laid it on too thick.


You are absolutely right. We (Americans) never stood or will ever stand against this ideology nor those that push this hate. Some members of congress and many in the progressive movement insist it is a movement of peace and simply misunderstood. They believe it and demand we continue to negotiate nuclear arms deal with a terror cult.

Yes. Practicing a religion within the lawful boundaries afforded to all citizens is what any reasonable person should expect. Silence in the face of violent crimes and incitement should not be on that list.

One problem is that, while there are moderate Muslims, there is no (organized) moderate Islam.