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What’s fueling the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?

BACKGROUNDER | The 75-year-old author’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses offended some Muslims for its references to Muhammad, Islam, and the Quran

Salman Rushdie Elmar Kremser/Sven Simon/Picture-Alliance/dpa/AP

What’s fueling the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?
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After 33 years of avoiding his enemies, novelist Salman Rushdie barely escaped death on Aug. 12, when a man jumped on stage at a New York event as Rushdie was preparing to give a lecture and stabbed him repeatedly. Alleged attacker Hadi Matar, 24, was the U.S.-born son of Lebanese immigrants. The 75-year-old author was expected to survive his injuries, but the attack shocked Westerners. What is a fatwa anyway, and how did this one find its target after more than 30 years?

What do some Muslims have against Rushdie? Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses offended some Muslims for references to Muhammad, Islam, and the Quran they regarded as blasphemous. Rushdie was born in India and lived in Britain, but the book sparked violent protests around the globe. The following year, Iran’s former spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s death. A semiofficial organization in Iran has offered a $3.3 million reward for his assassination.

A fatwa? What’s that? A fatwa is a legal opinion issued by a Muslim religious authority. Historically, most have dealt with minor issues surrounding Islamic daily life, but some have carried more weight. A 1515 Ottoman fatwa purportedly assigned the death sentence to Muslims who used books from printing presses, while a fatwa issued in 1845 gave approval for vaccinations.

Is Iran behind the attack? Tehran has denied responsibility and instead blames Rushdie and his ­supporters. The Iranian government in 1998 attempted to distance itself from the fatwa, saying it would ­“neither support nor hinder” assassination attempts. But as Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes has pointed out, government leaders can’t undo the decisions of religious leaders, and Khomeini’s ruling has con­tinued to generate enemies for Rushdie. Iran’s current spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, ­reaffirmed the fatwa in 2005.

How did Rushdie avoid assassination for 33 years? Rushdie used the pseudonym “Joseph Anton” and lived under 24-hour protection from the British government for more than a decade. Eventually, he moved to New York, where he has lived more openly and with less protection.

Have others associated with Rushdie’s book been attacked? Khomeini directed his fatwa against everyone involved in the book’s publication and called on “all ­zealous Muslims to execute them quickly.” In 1991, the book’s Japanese translator died in a stabbing incident, and an attack in Italy left another translator dead. The deadliest attack was in 1993. Thousands of Muslims in Turkey set a hotel on fire, killing 37 people but not their intended target: Aziz Nesin, who had begun translating the novel into Turkish and barely escaped the arson attack.


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