Friday, 19 August 2022 10:05

Of Blasphemy and The Chalice of Poison...The Case of Rushdie vs. Khomeini Featured

Written by Husam Dughma
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By Husam Dughman

The civilized world, most especially the literary world, has lately been shocked and devastated by the news of the horrific attack on Indian British author Salman Rushdie in New York. Rushdie had for a long time been the target of a fatwa (religious edict) issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in the wake of the publication of Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in September 1988. The fatwa had called for Rushdie’s death, and the Iranian government offered over three million dollars to anyone who could carry out that (mis)deed. That was 33 years ago. With the passing of time, along with the Iranian government’s distancing of itself from the fatwa in subsequent years (although it was never revoked), it seems that Rushdie had felt gradually less and less fearful, prompting his subsequent emergence from his long years of hiding. Not only that, but Rushdie had begun to feel so secure and unthreatened that he started to go to various interviews and meetings without any special security to protect him. The German magazine Stern, which had interviewed Rushdie not long before he was attacked, has stated that he had gone to the interview unaccompanied by any personal guards, and that he later stated in his interview with that magazine that his life had become “relatively normal.” It appears that Rushdie followed the same pattern of behaviour when he went to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York on the 12th of August 2022.  According to eyewitnesses, the hall where Rushdie was to deliver the lecture did not have much in the way of security preparation: No bags were searched, and no metal-detection equipment was in place. All people could see was a couple of men- a state trooper and a county sheriff’s deputy- who were apparently providing general crowd-control security, but not much beyond that. Rushdie’s attacker took full advantage of what seemed to be a seriously compromised state of vigilance which resulted in a considerable lapse in the implementation of strict security measures at the said venue. He rushed onto the stage and lunged at the author, stabbing him multiple times, including stabs in the neck and abdomen, before staff and members of the audience finally managed to overpower him.

It has not yet been fully established that the above-mentioned attack on Rushdie had been caused by The Satanic Verses and Khomeini’s fatwa, but it looks that way. The perpetrator- Hadi Matar- an American-born 24-year old male of Lebanese origin is said to be a great admirer of the Islamic Republic of Iran. How The Satanic Verses can continue to rankle some Muslims long after the world had to all intents and purposes put the whole Rushdie affair behind it speaks volumes for the ever-burning hatred in the minds of religious zealots whose reaction to perceived insults appears to fester ad infinitum. They seem to lack both the wisdom and the magnanimity to elevate themselves above their strong sense of victimhood. Instead of acting like Francis Bacon once suggested, “Certainly, in taking revenge a man is but even with his enemy, but in passing it over he is superior, for it is a prince’s part to pardon” (The Essays), people such as Matar actually believe that they are doing God’s bidding in their perpetration of horrific crimes against people whose only “crime” is the practising of their right to freedom of speech. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if those fanatics really do have as much Islamic right as they think they do in the commission of serious acts of violence against those who do not share their beliefs.

When one examines the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), one finds that the subject of blasphemy is dealt with in one way or another by all three religions. The Torah vehemently opposes the blaspheming of the name of the LORD, and those who do so shall be put to death by stoning (Leviticus 24:16). The Gospels, too, are very strict concerning the matter of blasphemy; those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven and are guilty of an eternal sin (Mark 3:29). But what about Islam? The Quran does not actually have any explicit worldly punishment for blasphemy. In a couple of verses, for example, the Quran tells Muhammad not to sit with those who mock the Quran unless they change the subject (Al-An’am 68; An-Nissa’ 140). In a third verse, the Quran tells Muslims not to revile the idols that the disbelievers worship lest those disbelievers revile God out of spite and ignorance. The verse then states that God in the Hereafter shall deal with those who have reviled Him and who have mocked the Quran (Al-An’am 108). In other words, according to the Quran, it is not for Muslims on this planet to mete out their own version of mob justice against those whom they perceive to have insulted Islam; God shall deal with those in the world to come. Those hadiths (sayings by Muhammad) which are commonly considered by Muslims to be authentic seem to convey a similar message. It is, therefore, incumbent upon any thinking, independent, level-headed Muslim to refuse to be swayed by the ranting and blithering of self-appointed imams who issue their own fatwas, baying for the blood of those who are not even Muslims, who are citizens of non-Muslim countries, and who are talented writers that express their views in complex, multi-layered literary forms which are far too sophisticated for the simple-minded and the hot-headed to comprehend, especially when almost all of those “soldiers of God” have never even read the book in question. But that is not all.

To those rather cynical thinkers who appear to have a sharper sense of perceptiveness, a more penetrating insight, and not inconsiderable political acumen, Khomeini’s fatwa seems to have far less to do with the divine than at first meets the eye. This perspective is of particular importance, especially because- unlike Catholicism- Islam does not have one single, supreme religious authority who is qualified to issue religious edicts that are binding upon all Muslims. In the eyes of those sceptics, it may not have been entirely a coincidence that Khomeini issued his fatwa against Rushdie when he did, namely in February 1989. A mere seven months earlier, in July of 1988, Khomeini had been forced to accept a ceasefire in Iran’s 8-year war with Iraq, something which he likened to the drinking of poison from a chalice. Khomeini’s deep bitterness towards the acceptance of the ceasefire with Iraq had some historical background. For 13 years, between 1965 and 1978, the exiled Khomeini had resided in the lower half of Iraq, with its most prominent Shi’ite-revered cities of Najaf and Karbala’. Owing to an agreement between the then-vice president Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran, Saddam agreed to expel the Shah’s sworn enemy Khomeini from Iraq, apparently in return for the Shah’s discontinuation of his support for Kurdish rebels in the northern part of Iraq. Khomeini then went to France. He never forgave Saddam for this, and he consequently bore a very deep grudge against him that never, ever waned. When during the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war Saddam, on a good number of occasions, made peace overtures to Khomeini and expressed his willingness to sign a ceasefire between the two warring countries, Khomeini always, uncompromisingly rejected the offers. He was not willing to stop the war until the much-hated Saddam Hussein regime had been overthrown. That was mainly why he regarded his acceptance of the ceasefire with Iraq in 1988 as akin to death. Not only was Khomeini deeply resentful and very angry that he had been forced to let go of his earlier pledge to continue the war until Saddam had been removed, but he was also very conscious of the fact that many of his followers and admirers were now asking questions and expressing doubts in respect of his inability to achieve what he had ceaselessly promised he would achieve. His credibility among those followers and admirers was now at stake. One does, therefore, suspect that the issuing of the aforementioned fatwa, its timing, and the consequent anti-Rushdie outrage felt and publicly expressed by many Muslims all over the world served as a very convenient and welcome distraction from Khomeini’s abysmal failure to get rid of Saddam, thereby protecting and consolidating his standing among Muslims in general, and Shi’ites in particular.    

One can be comfortably certain that none of the above-mentioned considerations ever entered the confused little head of Hadi Matar. The word “hadi” in Arabic means “a guide”. It is rather ironic that this “guide” was very badly misguided.


Husam Dughman is a Libyan Canadian political scientist, religious thinker, linguist, and an expert on immigrants and refugees. He received his formal education in Libya and the UK. Mr. Dughman later worked as a university professor of political science in Libya. Due to confrontations with the Qaddafi regime, he resigned from his university position and subsequently worked in legal translation. Mr. Dughman has been working with new immigrant and refugee services in both Canada and the US since 2006.

Husam Dughman has published a book entitled Tête-à-tête with Muhammad. He has also written numerous articles on politics and religion. He has just completed the full manuscript of a book which he hopes to have published in the near future. The new book is an in-depth examination of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and the non-religious school of thought.         

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