In 1989, a novel penned by British Indian novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie caused Iran’s then-supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s declaration of a fatwa — a legal opinion or ruling issued by an Islamic scholar — calling “good Muslims” to assassinate the author. Now, more than two decades after the novel’s publication, the Islamic community is still up in arms over The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie’s novel has been cited by critics as one of the author’s most galvanizing works. Set in a modern world filled with destruction, mayhem and miracles, the novel begins with a brutal terror attack on a London-bound airline flight. After the plane explodes just over the English Channel, two opposing antagonists fall to Earth: Gibreel Farishta, India’s biggest star, and Saladin Chamcha, an expatriate returning from his first visit to Bombay in 15 years. When the two wash up on the snowy sands of an English beach, Rushdie’s fiction draws on metamorphoses, dreams and revelations to lead the reader to opposing views of good and evil.
The Islamic world vehemently opposed Rushdie’s novel, which was characterized by members of the Muslim faith as an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad. The title of the novel refers to verses originally included by Muhammad in the Quran, in which the prophet discussed three female deities, contradicting the Muslim monotheistic beliefs held today. Muhammad later redacted verses that mentioned the deities and said that Satan had deceived him into including the verses, according to scholars. It is unclear, though, how long the deities remained a part of the Muslim faith.
Muslims were angered not only because the title of Rushdie’s novel pointed out an alleged contradiction in their faith, but also because he offers some subtle and some very evident criticisms of the Muslim faith throughout the novel.
As a result of the Islamic backlash, the novel was banned in 12 countries (India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, Venezuela and Pakistan), and Rushdie was forced to live under constant police protection in the United Kingdom. In 1989, the U.K and Iran broke diplomatic ties over the ordeal.
Last week, at Asia’s largest literary festival in India, the author was expected to address the crowd via a video link, after deciding not to travel to the country in person following several death threats. The video, however, was cut by the owner of the hotel where the event was hosted after being urged to do so by Indian officials.
“There are a large number of people averse to this video link inside this property. They have threatened violence,” Ram Pratap Singh, owner of the hotel at which the festival was held, told the large crowd. “This is necessary to avoid harm to all of you.”
The country’s unwillingness to allow Rushdie to be heard has now sparked a torrent of new Muslim-centric controversy against the author. On Tuesday, Iran used IRNA, its state-run media outlet, to reiterate the Muslim world’s distaste for the author. The “special report” cites a press conference given by India’s Press Council chairman Markandey Katju, who referred to the Booker Prize-winning author as a “substandard and poor writer.”
In closing the piece, quoting a portion of Katju’s rant against Rushdie, the Iranian state-run media takes a swing at the Western world: “Since the overwhelming number of Indians are deeply religious, unlike in the West where the hold of religion has considerably weakened, care must be taken in India not to insult any religious figure directly or indirectly.”
Rushdie, who now resides in New York, concluded after the debacle in India that traveling to the literary event may not have actually put his life in danger. On Jan. 21, the author said in a Twitter post: “‘Rajasthan police invented plot to keep away Rushdie’ I’ve investigated, & believe that I was indeed lied to. I am outraged and very angry.”
It was reported that Iranian officials ended the call for Rushdie’s death in October 1998. But some people have wondered whether Iran’s recent growing tensions with the West and recent reports of the country’s alleged attempts and willingness to kill targets on U.S. soil will lead to a renewal of the author’s Islamic death sentence.