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.
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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."

The fantasy that made Rushdie the agent of a Western plot was paranoid, but the appreciation of theocracy's fundamental incompatibility with liberalism was quite sane. Tehran, it turned out, understood the stakes better than Washington and London did.

There had been confrontations between Islamism and the West before, most notably the Iranian revolution itself. What set the Rushdie affair apart was the genuinely global character of the crisis. It sparked riots in Muslim countries, but also mass protests in Britain, bookstore attacks in California, and assassinations or attempted assassinations in Belgium, Italy, Japan, and Norway. (At least 22 people, including Rushdie's Japanese translator, were killed as a consequence of the Rushdie affair.) This militance, it should have been plain, was no isolated Iranian whim. Khomeini spoke for a global constituency of millions, some of whom were prepared to kill for the cause.

Khomeini was the head of Iran's government, but in the Rushdie affair he acted in a different capacity, that of the leader of a worldwide revolutionary movement. While the West still thought in terms of state actors, Khomeini operated both above and below the state level. "Like other leaders with a revolutionary message," wrote Pipes in his book, "he despised state boundaries." The paramount goal "was and is to get Muslims to live fully in accordance with the sacred law of Islam, the sharia."

To that end, Khomeini mobilized the tactics of terrorism: the valorization of suicide ("martyrdom"); the designation of civilians as combatants; the choice of a highly visible and symbolic target; the use of nongovernmental and civilian agents; perhaps above all, the capacity and determination to strike in cities and towns in the very heart of the West. The message to Westerners, not only to Rushdie, was: You are safe nowhere.

To have expected anyone to see all of this in 1989 would have been asking too much. Pipes, writing in 1990, concluded: "The global fear of early 1989 is not likely to be soon repeated.... No other leader [than Khomeini] challenged the existing order in so profound a way or had a vision of the just society that differed so fundamentally from the prevailing models." That was true in 1990. But it was not true for long.

Osama bin Laden is a very different creature from Khomeini, and the scale of 9/11 obviously dwarfs the Rushdie affair. But it is not outlandish to think of the World Trade Center towers as The Satanic Verses, magnified immeasurably but not beyond all recognition. Bin Laden is Khomeini's heir, and Rushdie and 9/11 are points on the same line. (Another point was November's murder of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, by an Islamist who promised that America, Europe, and Holland "will be destroyed.")

Khomeini's torch passed to bin Laden, and if bin Laden is captured or killed, the torch will pass again. The adversary is a movement, not a man. A poll conducted last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that bin Laden got favorable ratings from 65 percent of respondents in Pakistan, 55 percent in Jordan, and 45 percent in Morocco (against ratings of 8 percent or lower for President Bush). In 2003, another Pew poll found that "majorities of Muslims, in 10 of the 12 nations in which this question was asked, reject the idea that Islam should tolerate diverse interpretations of its teachings."

Pew cautioned, "This question is not a measure of Islamic fundamentalism or tolerance toward other religions and faiths." Maybe not. By a long shot, most Muslims are not Islamists, and most Islamists are not terrorists. Nonetheless, the Rushdie affair was, in retrospect, no flash in the pan. It was a prairie fire. On that February 14, what Americans now call the war on terror began in earnest.

In January, the Iranian media reported that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reaffirmed the fatwa, telling Muslim pilgrims that Rushdie's killing would be authorized by Islam. British officials, reported The Times of London, "anxiously played down" the comments, noting that the Iranian government had not changed its position.

Just so. Khamenei spoke not for a government but for an insurgency, one with millions of followers around the world. The West could not have understood that in 1989, but it cannot fail to understand it today.

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

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