It was 30 years ago today that then-Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, in the wake of the widespread controversy surrounding the publication of author Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, issued a fatwa ordering devout Muslims to kill Rushdie for the offense of blaspheming against Islam and the prophet Muhammad.
The then-89-year-old Khomeini proclaimed that anyone who died attempting to kill Rushdie would be granted the status of martyr, and thus admission to an afterlife of paradise. Anyone who succeeded would additionally win a bounty of $6 million.
The title itself refers to a legend told about Muhammad that said while he was speaking the verses that would make up the Qur’an, Satan sent him a few verses deemed blasphemous and tricked him into thinking they were from God. The offending verses were then withdrawn.
By the time the February 19, 1989 decree was issued, the book had already caused great consternation in the Muslim world, and even outbreaks of violence. In Rushdie’s homeland, the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi banned the importation of the book. In Islamabad, Pakistan, a crowd estimated to number 10,000 attacked the U.S. Information Center calling for Rushdie to be hanged and destroying an American Express office nearby. Six protesters were killed.
Muslims also organized book burnings in the UK and elsewhere. Ian McEwan, an author and friend of Rushdie, spoke about the terror of those days in a Guardian piece commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fatwa in 2014.
“No one knew anything. Were Iranian agents, professional killers, already in place in the UK when the fatwa was proclaimed? The mobs were frightening. They burned books in the street, they bayed for blood outside parliament and waved ‘Rushdie must die’ placards,” McEwan said.
Rushdie was forced to go into hiding and was placed under police protection. For 13 years, he was kept in various safe houses, moving 56 times in the first six months alone, according to Breitbart.
Rushdie went so far as to issue an apology of sorts, or at least an explanation, in the form of an essay titled In Good Faith that was published in 1990.
In a 2012 memoir, Rushdie wrote about his life on the run titled Joseph Anton, named after the alias he used, the author recalled writing in his diary and longing for a regular, boring life.
“I am gagged and imprisoned. I can’t even speak,” Rushdie wrote.
“I want to kick a football in a park with my son. Ordinary, banal life: my impossible dream.”
Khomeini died just four months after the fatwa was issued, whereas Rushdie is still living and writing to this day.
However, a 44-year-old Japanese translator of the book was killed in July 1991, found stabbed to death outside his office, according to a 1991 New York Times piece. Another translator, an Italian named Ettore Capriolo, was also stabbed earlier that same month but survived his injuries. Publisher William Nygaard was shot three times in Oslo in 1993 but survived his injuries. That same year, Turkish translator Aziz Nesin managed to escape an arson attack on a hotel where he was staying. That attack resulted in 37 deaths.
And the controversy has never really gone away. According to a 2016 Guardian story, 40 media outlets in Iran pooled their money to come up with an additional $600,000 to increase the bounty offered for Rushdie’s death.