On Feb. 14, 1989, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, condemning author Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy. Rushdie had recently penned the book "The Satanic Verses," which depicted Rushdie's interpretation of the life of the prophet Mohammed, including an episode in which the prophet was unable to distinguish between revelation and the influence of Satan.
More than three decades later, on Aug. 12, 2022, Rushdie was stabbed in the neck by New Jersey resident Hadi Matar, who reportedly was "sympathetic to Shia extremism." The attack came amidst a flurry of other thwarted plots by the Islamic Republic against former U.S. officials and Iranian dissidents. While some may have seen it as ancient history, the Khomeini fatwa clearly still reverberates today.
In 1989, Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death. On Tehran radio, the Supreme leader stated: "I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an, and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, where they find them."
In essence, Khomeini pitted Islam against the West. The following day was a national day of mourning in Iran. Crowds poured into the streets, stoned the British Embassy, and chanted "Death to Britain" repeatedly. A $2.8 million bounty was put on Rushdie's head.
Three days later, American booksellers B. Dalton, Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble decided not to stock Rushdie's book, while the book's publisher, Viking/Penguin, closed its offices amidst bomb threats to install a new security system.
On the fourth day, Rushdie made the following statement: "As author of The Satanic Verses, I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others."
Ignoring the apology, Khomeini repeated his death edict the next day. On Feb. 20, the International Rushdie Defense Committee was founded in London by writers, booksellers, journalists and human rights groups who decried Iranian "armed censorship." The day after that, the European Community withdrew their heads of mission from Tehran. Iran responded in kind. The Iranian parliament soon voted to sever all relations with the UK, where law had recently been passed condemning Khomeini for incitement, and another calling for Rushdie's safety.
Elsewhere around the world, hell broke loose. Violent demonstrations, bomb threats, and clashes were reported in India, Germany, Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, Australia, France, and beyond. Here in the United States, firebombs caused damage in two California bookstores. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution condemning the threats against Rushdie and his publishers, affirming its commitment to "protect the right of any person to write, publish, sell, buy and read books without fear of intimidation or violence."
Violence continued through the spring of 1989. Muslims in Belgium were gunned down after speaking out against the fatwa on television. London bookstores were firebombed for carrying The Satanic Verses, amidst a spate of other clashes and demonstrations. Norwegian bookstores were set afire after releasing a translation of Rushdie's book. A bookshop in Sydney was also firebombed.
That August, an adherent to Khomeini's ideology accidentally blew himself up in his London hotel room. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon deemed him "the first martyr... who died while preparing to attack the apostate, Salman Rushdie."
While Khomeini died on June 3 that year, his fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding for many years to follow. In fact, the continuity of enforcement of Khomeini's edict cast a bright light on the Islamic Republic's violent and intolerant ideology. It was one thing for this repressive regime to clamp down on the free speech of its own citizens. It was quite another to try and curtail the free expression of intellectuals beyond its borders.
The Iranian regime's radical ideology has not changed in the intervening years.
If anything, it has hardened.
Intermittent attempts by Western governments to probe for signs of moderation have failed. This is the case even today. The attack on Rushdie comes amidst desperate diplomatic efforts in Vienna to encourage the regime to curb its dangerous nuclear ambitions. The regime has responded not only with this attack, but also several other plots targeting former U.S. government officials, such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Iranian dissidents, such as journalist Masih Alinejad.
Doctors say that Rushdie will likely lose an eye. The nerves in his arm were severed. And his liver was damaged. Authorities are now working to determine whether the Islamic Republic ordered this attack, or whether it was merely inspired by the Khomeini edict.
In truth, this is a distinction without much difference. The illiberal and repressive regime in Iran unleashed chaos back in 1989. It continues to do so today. Whether ordered directly or inspired, these attacks on American soil must be met with resolve by our elected leaders.
This is not the time to yield billions of dollars in sanctions relief to the regime. This is the time for policies that isolate the Islamic Republic, along with warnings that violence against former officials, intellectuals and dissidents will not stand.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.