Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
Nearly 10 years after he was driven underground, Salman Rushdie believed he was free. The author had been living under heavy security and highest secrecy in London. But in 1998, the Iranian government of President Mohammad Khatami publicly distanced itself from the religious fatwa calling for his murder.
The move was part of a landmark agreement with the United Kingdom. Iran issued a public guarantee not to push for Rushdie’s murder in exchange for an upgrade in diplomatic relations between London and Tehran.
“Well, it looks like it’s over,” Rushdie told reporters at the time. “It means everything. It means freedom.”
But there was a catch. The murderous 1989 decree over Rushdie’s satirical novel The Satanic Verses could not be officially revoked because the source of the fatwa — Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini — was dead. At least that’s what Rushdie was told, according to his memoir.
It was a deftly-crafted ambiguity that has defined Iran’s policy over the issue – and many other issues – in the intervening years. In 2006, Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Iran-backed Hezbollah, publicly lamented that the fatwa against the author had not been carried out, claiming it emboldened others to “insult” the Prophet Mohammed. In 2019, Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reminded his followers that the ruling against Rushdie was “solid and irrevocable,” in a tweet that led to the shutting down of his account. Khamenei still tweets from other accounts.
Four months before Rushdie was brutally stabbed at an event in New York on Friday, an Iranian news outlet, Iran Online, published an article praising the fatwa.
Throughout it all, Iran appeared to insist on continuing to dangle the executioner’s sword in front of Rushdie.
Regardless of their motivations, Iran’s cynical exploitation of some Muslims sensibilities is plain to see. The Satanic Verses draws on a deeply controversial story in early Islamic tradition that claims that Satan momentarily intruded in the divine revelations to the Prophet Mohammed. Iran didn’t ban the book straightaway; the country’s rulers only took action several months later, after the book inspired protests in Pakistan.
The ensuing fatwa proved to be politically useful. It elevated Khomeini in the eyes of Islam’s fundamentalists across the Muslim world, including among Sunnis. Yet then, as now, it had its prominent Muslim and regional detractors.
The New Yorker’s Robin Wright reports that Khomeini’s closest protege at the time, Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, criticized the decree. Montazeri, who also opposed mass executions of Iran’s dissidents, fell out of favor with the regime and was placed under house arrest in 1997.
A 1989 letter published in The New York Review of Books signed by Arab and Muslim scholars also decried the campaign against Rushdie.
“This campaign is done in the name of Islam, although none of it does Islam any credit,” the letter signed by five prominent intellectuals including the late Indian-born poet Aga Shahid Ali and the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.
“Certainly Muslims and others are entitled to protest against The Satanic Verses if they feel the novel offends their religion and cultural sensibilities,” the authors of the letter added. “But to carry protest and debate over into the realm of bigoted violence is in fact antithetical to Islamic traditions of learning and tolerance.”
In Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, the Mumbai-born author is depicted openly questioning whether he was being “sold out” by the London-Tehran 1998 agreement only days after he declared the threats to his life “over.” Joseph Anton was his pseudonym during his time underground and he refers to himself in the book in the third person.
Despite acknowledging that the death warrant would continue to hang over his head, he opted to emerge from his life in hiding and settle in New York where decades later, he would be brutally attacked in front of horrified onlookers.
The suspect in last week’s attack was named by authorities as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old from New Jersey.
Matar pleaded not guilty Saturday to attempted murder in the second degree and other charges.
True to form, Iran denied involvement in the attack and said Rushdie and his “supporters” had only themselves to blame. Hezbollah also said they had no information about the attacker and the plot in comments to CNN.
“Nothing was ever perfect, but there was a level of imperfection that was hard to take,” Rushdie wrote in his memoir of the 1998 decision. “Still, he remained resolved,” Rushdie added, referring to himself. “He had to take his life back into his own hands. He couldn’t wait any longer for the ‘imperfection factor’ to drop to a more acceptable level.”
Iran to give final response on EU nuclear deal proposal by midnight in Tehran - FM
Iran will give its final response on a proposal by the European Union for the revival of the nuclear agreement by midnight Monday, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said according to state media.
- Background: Iran is exchanging messages with the United States through mediation on three remaining issues, one of which is “guarantees,” Amir-Abdollahian said. “The American side has shown flexibility on two issues, which have been taken into account, and now needs to show flexibility regarding guarantees,” he said. The US State Department did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment. During the briefing, Amir-Abdollahian made no mention of the Iran’s previous demand that an IAEA investigation into traces of uranium at three undeclared sites is dropped.
- Why it matters: The revival of the nuclear deal which the US withdrew from in 2018 appeared to be nearing completion earlier this year. Yet the talks came to a standstill in March over a number of sticking points. They restarted earlier this month in Vienna after the EU offered a new proposal. With an increasingly tight oil market following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a resurrected nuclear deal would help lower energy prices after the lifting of sanctions off Iran’s oil market and pour more barrels into Europe.
At least 18 children, killed in Egypt church fire
At least 41 people, including 18 children, were killed after a fire broke out at Abu Sefein church in Giza’s densely populated Imbaba neighborhood on Sunday, according to a statement by the spokesperson of the Egyptian Coptic Church citing health officials.
- Background: The blaze that tore through the small Coptic church in Giza, greater Cairo, on Sunday killed also injured 14. At least 18 children were killed, according to hospital documents seen by CNN. The children were between the ages of 3 and 16. The fire was caused by an electrical failure in an air conditioning unit, the interior ministry said.
- Why it matters: The incident highlights the dangers posed by parts of Egypt’s underdeveloped infrastructure, especially in the country’s poorer and crowded neighborhoods. In 2020, an electrical fire at a hospital treating Covid-19 patients killed at least seven people.
Five Americans among injured in Jerusalem shooting attack
At least eight people, including five Americans, were wounded in a shooting attack targeting a bus near the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City early Sunday morning.
- Background: Two Americans are being treated at the Hadassah Medical Center, and three at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, according to the hospitals. At least two of the Americans injured were tourists, the hospitals said. The shooter fled the scene, with members of the security forces, the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in pursuit. Police said a helicopter from the Israel Police’s aerial unit assisted in the search. The suspect later turned himself in to the police. The weapon he carried was seized, according to a police spokesperson. Israeli media said the suspect is a Palestinian who holds Israeli citizenship. A security source confirmed to CNN the suspect holds Israeli citizenship and is from East Jerusalem.
- Why it matters: Sunday’s shooting comes after hostilities in Gaza last weekend left dozens of Palestinians dead. A ceasefire between Israel and the Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza was announced last Sunday. Although militant groups in Gaza such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised the attack, the suspect has no known ties to militant groups.
Around the region
A man in the UAE was fined up to 15,000 dirhams (around $4,000) for telling a woman she would “teach her a lesson she would never forget,” reported the state-owned Emarat Alyoum news outlet.
The woman filed a civil lawsuit, and the Abu Dhabi family court ruled in her favor, while the man was fined for material and mental damages, reported Emarat Alyoum, without providing further details on either the cause of the disagreement or details of the two parties’ relationship.
The news comes amid a spike in gender-based violence in the Middle East and growing calls by activists to bolster legal protections of women in the region.
The gruesome killing of college student Naira Ashraf in Egypt triggered a barrage of both condemnation and praise for the accused, with some male social media users advocating for similar violence against women.
Just last week, Egyptian state media reported the killing of another college student by a young man after she reportedly ended their relationship. The man had reportedly threatened to kill her prior to her death, and is now in pre-trial detention pending investigation, state media said.
One in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once in her lifetime, according to UN Women, mostly by intimate partners.
In the Middle East, at least 37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, according to the same UN research.
By Nadeen Ebrahim