In​ his new memoir, Knife, Salman Rushdie composes an imaginary dialogue with the man who attacked him on 12 August 2022 as he was about to give a talk in the town of Chautauqua in New York State.* He tries to prove to Hadi Matar that the Rushdie he thought he knew has nothing to do with the real writer, at one point borrowing a metaphor from ‘The Shadow’, a short story by Hans Christian Andersen. In the story, a man’s shadow separates from his body and takes on a life of its own, travelling around and meeting people. It occasionally comes back to visit, each time more assertive, more sophisticated, eventually becoming more real than the man. Like all writers, Rushdie had a shadow self, and had to deal with people confusing him with his creations, but the shadow remained a function of the self. The fatwa severed the shadow from the man. It travelled all over the world, terrorised people and entrenched itself as more real, more compelling, than its human source.

Few people felt the weight of this shadow as did my generation in Iran, born around 1979. Fifteen years ago, after taking part in a panel discussion at the University of Tehran, I was standing outside the humanities building, leaning against the pedestal of the Ferdowsi statue, smoking and chatting to students. I had just published my second book and was basking in the unaccustomed attention. I answered questions, made jokes and doled out unsolicited advice. ‘Which writer has influenced you the most?’ one student asked. ‘Salman Rushdie,’ I replied right away.

Protests against ‘The Satanic Verses’ in London in 1989.

Her eyes widened in surprise. The fatwa was twenty years behind us, and ten years earlier the Khatami government had promised the West that Iran was no longer pursuing it, but Rushdie’s name was still taboo. I am far from courageous when it comes to standing against the government (which is one reason I live in the US and write in English), so my response wasn’t the result of defiance. It made no sense in literary terms either. I had read a few of Rushdie’s books. I thought Midnight’s Children was a masterpiece and enjoyed Shame, but I couldn’t get through Fury or The Ground Beneath Her Feet. The respect I had for him as a public intellectual had dissipated after he lent his unequivocal support to the invasion of Iraq. His work wasn’t the kind of literature I wanted to write or in a style I wished to imitate. I had never thought of him as an influence. I didn’t know where my answer had come from.

Coverage of the fatwa was relentless in the early years. Every time you turned on the radio you heard about Rushdie. Every time you passed a newspaper kiosk you saw his face plastered across the front covers. It made things more complicated that Rushdie looked like one of us, or one of our dads, the type who worked round the clock to make ends meet, beard unkempt, hair thinning, eyes glazed. Even his name sounded Persian. My most vivid memory is of footage I seemed to see hundreds of times. Rushdie walks into a room. Cameras are flashing all around him. He is wearing a slightly oversized suit, a sly smile. He approaches a table stacked with his books, picks up a copy and holds it up to the cameras. The image freezes. Iranian state TV’s graphic designers, equipped with the crude technology of the 1980s, paint drops of blood on his beard, make his eyes bloodshot, put two crooked horns on his head. Then a stern voice says that this man has insulted our holy book and holy prophet and deserves to die.

I was nine years old at the time and following the saga from Ahvaz, my war-torn hometown in the south-west of Iran. As a child I was a devout Muslim and the idea of someone so brazenly insulting what I deemed sacred horrified me. I passionately believed that Imam Khomeini uttered nothing but God’s truth and that if he wanted a man killed, he must have good reason. But I had also just started visiting the local library and books were beginning to exercise their spell. I spent the hot, humid summer holidays reading novels and developed a great respect for people who could create worlds and characters out of ink and paper. My horror at Rushdie was laced with admiration. In their campaign to demonise and dehumanise him, the state media inadvertently gave him awesome, godlike powers.

A week before The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, Khushwant Singh, editorial adviser to Penguin India, told an interviewer that it contained ‘derogatory’ references to Islam and might incite ‘communal violence’. At the time, no one paid much attention. ‘I expected a few mullahs would be offended, call me names and then I could defend myself in public,’ Rushdie later told the Independent. But the Penguin offices were soon inundated with angry letters and phone calls. The first major protests in the West were in Bolton and Bradford, where thousands of Muslims took to the streets and staged public burnings of the novel. These were followed by further protests in the UK and then in Pakistan.

It is tempting to draw a straight line between the protests and the fatwa. But what happens in Pakistan often has little or no bearing on Iran or Syria or elsewhere in the Muslim world. During those months there were no public protests against The Satanic Verses in Iran. No government official took a public position on the book. The news of the protests was barely covered. The only reference I have found in Ettela’at, the country’s main newspaper, is a one-paragraph story from 4 December 1988, headlined ‘British Muslims Protest against the Selling of an Anti-Muslim Book’. The book’s author isn’t named. The only review of The Satanic Verses appeared in Kayhan Farhangi, a magazine published by the Kayhan Institute, Iran’s most conservative news organisation. The reviewer accused Rushdie of ‘moral degradation’ and lamented his ‘false interpretation of Islam’, but didn’t call for violence against him. At the end of the piece, he acknowledged that Rushdie’s book was ‘nothing more than a work of imagination which tries to investigate the birth of a major religion from the point of view of a secular individual’, and therefore shouldn’t be seen as a historical account. Many liberals and academics in the West, accusing Rushdie of recklessness and deliberately causing offence, were far harsher on the book.

Midnight’s Children and Shame were already available in Persian and had been widely praised, though both contain passages a devout Muslim might find derogatory. In Midnight’s Children, for example, Rushdie writes: ‘When Muhammad prophesied, people wrote down what he said on palm leaves, which were kept any old how in a box. After he died, Abubakr and the others tried to remember the correct sequence, but they didn’t have very good memories.’ This undermines the sanctity of the Quran and questions the notion that God sent it down complete to the prophet during Laylat al-Qadr. This passage alone is as provocative as anything in The Satanic Verses. And yet, in a country where books are heavily monitored and censored, this passage and others circulated unaltered in Persian translation. In 1985, Midnight’s Children won Iran’s Book of the Year translation award, handed to its translator by Ali Khamenei, then the president and now supreme leader of Iran.

To ordinary people in Iran, the fatwa came out of nowhere. The country had just emerged from the Iran-Iraq War and was undergoing a series of economic crises. The 86-year-old Ayatollah Khomeini was close to death and the question of his successor was the main focus of those in power. No one had the time or energy to worry about a novel. Then, on 13 February 1989, two British Muslim activists, Kalim Siddiqui and Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, ran into Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance, at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. Khatami claims that he pulled Kalim aside and asked him about The Satanic Verses. ‘I told him what I knew about it,’ Kalim said, ‘that something drastic has to happen.’ Khatami said he was on his way to meet Ayatollah Khomeini and would talk to him about the book. The fatwa was issued the next day. Kalim always remained proud of his role in provoking such a strong reaction from men ‘who hadn’t even read the book’.

Khatami has never responded to these claims, but the chief of staff during his presidency, Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, took to Instagram after the Chautauqua attack to deny the meeting had ever taken place. Someone else, he said, had talked to Khomeini. Whether or not Khatami was involved, it’s clear that Khomeini had taken very little interest in The Satanic Verses controversy until a day before the fatwa was announced. He was told about it that evening and spotted an opportunity.

When V.S. Naipaul visited Tehran in August 1979, six months after the Islamic Revolution, he found himself on the set of a dystopian movie. Billboards advertised non-existent commodities, fancy restaurants didn’t have a single customer, cranes hung idle beside unfinished towers. Everywhere you looked you saw the face of Ayatollah Khomeini, ‘as hard-eyed and sensual and unreliable and roguish-looking as any enemy might have portrayed him’.

Khomeini was alert to the value of PR. ‘The blade of propaganda,’ he said in a speech, ‘is far sharper than any blade the enemies might use on the battlefield.’ He set up institutes to churn out propaganda and kept a tight leash on the media. The system he put in place promoted a stereotype the West came to believe in: Khomeini as a despot who sprang from the netherworld, a turbaned medieval tyrant visiting the 20th century. The Orientalism of the West benefited him politically and he did everything he could to feed it.

As Ervand Abrahamian argues in Khomeinism (1993), Khomeini was no fundamentalist, despite his public posturing. ‘“Populism” is a more apt term for describing Khomeini, his ideas, and his movement,’ Abrahamian writes. From his emergence in the 1960s, Khomeini had one goal in mind: seizing state power. Shia political theology offered him little help, so he concocted a hodgepodge of dissident Shiism and Marxism-Leninism. He was a savvy politician who understood socio-political crises as opportunities for consolidating power.

The closest precedent to the fatwa affair was the hostage crisis of 1980, when the US embassy in Tehran was seized by a gang of students drunk on anti-imperialist rhetoric. They brought signs and a couple of megaphones, but no food or sleeping mats since they planned to stay only for a day or two. To most observers, this looked like callow adventurism. Everybody in Mehdi Bazargan’s interim government distanced themselves from the students or called on them to go home. The only powerful supporter of the occupation was Khomeini. Through his son, he told the students: ‘You are in the right place. Stay put.’ He gave a fiery speech in support of them. The students then found themselves at the centre of a global drama, which Khomeini managed to prolong for 444 days.

Khomeini’s primary target wasn’t America, but Bazargan, a moderate who wanted Iran to maintain its relationships with the West. The battle over the new constitution, which would effectively place Khomeini above the law and criminalise any relationship with the US, was raging. He realised that a crisis of international magnitude would create the conditions necessary for him to get the upper hand and fanned the flames until he got what he wanted. The interim government resigned.

The Rushdie affair took place under very similar circumstances. Khomeini had done everything in his power to prolong the Iran-Iraq War because it guaranteed his monopoly over the political system. He called it a ‘daily gift’ and was deeply distressed when he had to accept peace, which he likened to drinking from a ‘poisoned chalice’. He knew that the end of the war would usher in a new political order. ‘He kept hitting himself with his fist,’ his son Ahmad remembered. ‘After accepting the ceasefire, he could no longer walk. He kept saying “My Lord, I submit to your will.” He never spoke in public again.’

After the war, the so-called Islamic left, which Khomeini implicitly supported in the 1980s, began to weaken. Its agenda of economic self-sufficiency and aggressive anti-Western rhetoric no longer appealed. The moderate right, led by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, came to the fore, advocating rapprochement with the West and opening up to foreign investors. All of this was anathema to Khomeini. Then, just as with the hostage crisis, an opportunity fell into his lap.

A few days after issuing his decree, which had captured headlines around the world, Khomeini wrote a ‘message to the clergy’:

God decided that the publication of The Satanic Verses happened at this particular moment so that the arrogant and the colonisers and the barbarians show their true colours in their hostility towards Islam. It was God’s plan that we stop simplifying things and attributing all our issues to mismanagement. Not everything is our fault. The imperial powers are determined to destroy Islam and the Muslims.

The confusion the fatwa produced in government officials is clear from Rafsanjani’s diary. In public, he called Rushdie’s writing ‘worse than an actual declaration of war’ and delivered back-to-back speeches about it, warning the Muslim world against laxness or forgetting what Khomeini had called on them to do. But his posthumously published diary takes a different line. After Khomeini rejects Rushdie’s apology on 18 February, Rafsanjani doesn’t conceal his annoyance: ‘This will jeopardise our attempts at a resolution and significantly damage our relationship with the West.’ In another entry, he mentions that he has been reading Islamic jurisprudence on insults to the Prophet Mohammad and implies that Khomeini’s fatwa was out of line. He wrote his diary with the intention of publication, so what he put down probably reflects only a fraction of his irritation.

In response to the fatwa, Western countries recalled their ambassadors. It was a decade before Iran took the first steps towards normalisation, orchestrated by President Mohammad Khatami, the man who apparently brought the novel to Khomeini’s attention in the first place. Rushdie saw through Khomeini. More than twenty years later, in his memoir Joseph Anton (the pseudonym he used while in hiding), he summarised the reason for the fatwa. After the Iran-Iraq War, ‘the dead cried out against the imam and his revolution became unpopular. He needed a way to rally the faithful and he found it in the form of a book and its author. The book was the devil’s work and the author was the devil and that gave him the enemy he needed.’

The best-known book in Iran about the fatwa is A Critique of the Satanic Verses Conspiracy by Ataollah Mohajerani. After the fatwa was announced, Mohajerani, an ambitious politician and aspiring writer, spent two insomniac months on a 300-page book explaining why Khomeini was right. He describes the Islamic Revolution of 1979 as a ‘slumber-ending clarion call’, which awoke Muslims the world over. The West couldn’t defeat Iran militarily or diplomatically, so instead attempted to undermine the spiritual foundation of Islam. A white man with a Western name wouldn’t be able to get the job done – better to use an Indian Muslim to pit Muslims against one another. According to Mohajerani, Rushdie received a handsome advance and in return was tasked with showing that the Prophet Mohammad was vulnerable to Satan, that his holy book was untrustworthy and some of it might have been dictated by the devil. Why did MI6 choose Rushdie? Because, Mohajerani writes, they had read his first two novels.

Consider Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children. The bastard son of William Methwold, blue-eyed and light-skinned, he is doomed to be a puppet of the British. Or Omar Khayyam, the protagonist of Shame: born to an unidentified British officer and an Indian mother, a deracinated, pathetic man compromised by his insatiable sex drive. According to Mohajerani, Rushdie, like Sinai, is ‘a man without an identity, without a culture … a body without joints and tendons’, an immigrant with empty suitcases, which the British could fill with whatever they wanted. This was all nonsense, of course, but I thought of it again when reading about Rushdie’s attacker.

Hadi Matar was born in California to Lebanese immigrant parents, almost a decade after the fatwa was issued. When his parents divorced, Matar moved with his mother and two sisters to the New Jersey suburbs, while his father returned to Yaroun in southern Lebanon. He struggled at school and had a low-level job at Marshalls department store. By all accounts, he was a lonely young man, quiet and reserved. ‘One time he argued with me,’ his mother reported, ‘asking why I encouraged him to get an education instead of focusing on religion.’ She blamed this new attitude on a recent trip to Lebanon to visit his father, who lived in an area controlled by Hizbullah. After he returned, Matar holed up in the basement and refused to talk to his family for months. It appears that in Lebanon he had embraced militant Shiism, but no one detected in him the potential for violence.

He arrived in Chautauqua, a quiet town in upstate New York, on the evening of 11 August 2022, with a bag that contained several knives and a fake ID. He spent the evening wandering round and slept on the lawn outside the venue where Rushdie was due to speak the next day. Shortly after Rushdie stepped onto the stage, Matar lunged at him and stabbed him repeatedly. He later told the New York Post that he had ‘read, like, two pages’ of The Satanic Verses and decided to attack Rushdie because ‘I don’t think he’s a very good person. I don’t like him. I don’t like him very much.’ Rushdie writes in Knife that as he fell to the ground he thought, ‘Why now, after all these years?’ It seemed anachronistic: ‘The world had moved on, and the subject was closed. Yet here, approaching fast, was a sort of time traveller, a murderous ghost from the past.’

In 1989, the fatwa had gone viral. You didn’t have to have read Rushdie’s book or know anything about Islam to have a reaction to it. People like Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh (who died priming a book bomb in a London hotel in 1989) and Matar were willing to take Rushdie’s life at the cost of their own to punish him for a crime they could barely define. This virus, originating from Khomeini, also affected people like me, a young nobody in the middle of nowhere and made me question my feelings about the man who had issued the fatwa. This is the reason why, when asked about my greatest literary influence, I blurted out Rushdie’s name.

After I moved to Tehran I learned that other writers of my generation shared my childhood feelings about Rushdie. Many of them, especially those who had grown up in religious families, experienced the same mixture of repulsion and admiration that I did. As literature became more important to them, and their religious feelings diminished, they increasingly found themselves on Rushdie’s side, some almost worshipping him because he made the clergy so angry. The virus inoculated many against its source.

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