Social Studies March 2005

In Hindsight, the War on Terror Began With Salman Rushdie

It is not outlandish to think of the World Trade Center as The Satanic Verses, magnified immeasurably.

For most Americans, February 14 was Valentine's Day, the most insipid holiday on the calendar. The date deserves to be better known for another reason. On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader and revolutionary dictator of Iran, pronounced a fatwa (an Islamic legal judgment) against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. It said:

"In the name of Him, the Highest. There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses—which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran—and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content are sentenced to death.

"I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr."

At that moment, as Daniel Pipes writes in his invaluable 1990 book, The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West, Rushdie was attending a book party in London. Soon after, a car provided by British security services whisked him underground, where he remained, hiding, for years. An Iranian charity placed a bounty of $1 million (later increased) on his head.

The uproar had begun a few months earlier with protests and riots against the novel in Britain, India, and Pakistan (where the American Cultural Center was assaulted by a mob). Khomeini's edict was followed by a diplomatic commotion that lasted about a month. On June 3, 1989, Khomeini died. After that, the uproar quieted and the issue receded. The edict was irrevocable after Khomeini's death, and indeed many Islamists reaffirmed it, but in 1998, Iran's foreign minister promised his British counterpart that the Iranian government would do nothing to implement it. Rushdie emerged to live semi-publicly in New York City.

Most Americans quickly forgot the whole ugly business. The affair seemed a historical curiosity, one of those flare-ups that leave few traces. At the time, all but a few Western intellectuals saw it as a free-speech case. Rushdie's tormentors appeared to be a particularly overzealous, but not otherwise exceptional, offended group.

Well, the episode was a free-speech case, and Rushdie's tormentors were offended, but the incident deserves reappraisal with hindsight's benefit. "Looked at in the larger sense," says Pipes, now the director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank in Philadelphia, "it was an act of aggression by the Islamists, an opening salvo in a war to which [Osama] bin Laden and many others have since acceded." More specifically, it represented the emergence of Islamist totalitarianism—not a religion but a political movement, demanding absolutist rule under Islamic law—as a global insurrection using terrorism as its instrument.

The Rushdie affair baffled many Westerners, who wondered how such rage and violence could be caused by a novel—by no means the most inflammatory book written about Islam. The 1989 explosion did not fit the ordinary Western template for international conflict. No national policies or state interests were at stake. Nor, really, was Rushdie's book itself the prime mover in the affair; another book, or a film or a speech or anything, might have done just as well.

With post-9/11 hindsight, it is clearer that the conflict was between political ideologies, not policies or states. Khomeini and his supporters believed that their societies and culture could not coexist with the garbage they felt was spewing forth from the West. As Khomeini had said in a 1979 interview with an Italian journalist, "We are not afraid of your science and of your technology. We are afraid of your ideas and of your customs. Which means that we fear you politically and socially."

The outburst was no mere howl of inchoate rage, as I and others assumed at the time. Some protesters, no doubt, were moved by generalized anger; but Islamist opinion leaders, and many of the protesters, were expressing a distinctively anti-modern ideology, in which the book's role was chiefly symbolic and catalytic. "The aim is to weaken the Islamic faith among Muslims," said Radio Tehran, "thereby secularizing Muslim societies." Rushdie's book was "only a link in the chain of the new anti-Islamic cultural ploys."

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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