ON FEBRUARY 14, 1989, precisely twenty-five years ago, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called upon “all brave Muslims of the world” to murder the apostate Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, a novel condemned as blasphemous. Less noted was the breadth of the fatwa, which included:
all the editors and publishers aware of its contents […]. I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, God Willing.
In cities across the world, religious fanatics took to the streets to burn books, with the predictable consequence of injury and death. Bloodthirst led to the also predictable expansion of the targets, and soon translators of the book were deemed worthy of a swift dispatch as well.
Hitoshi Igarashi, The Satanic Verses’ Japanese translator, was stabbed in the face and died in his office. All the while Rushdie was in hiding, the subject of worldwide headlines and debate. One looks back and shivers at the Western editorials and press releases urging that the Anglo-Indian author of Midnight’s Children and Shame had gone too far, and that the offending of religious sensibilities was a line not to be crossed, not even in the secular democracies of Europe and North America.
This could only have been construed by the clerics, and correctly, as a victory for the principle of intolerance. If only the fence-sitters and appeasers had absorbed the full meaning of the death threat. In 1989, the ruling caste of Iran had just concluded the century’s longest war – a pointless bloodletting in which a generation of Iranian youth were carelessly tossed away to satisfy the war-mongering chauvinism of fanatical old men.
The fatwa was, quite simply, the global extension of this barbaric principle. Under the Ayatollah, anyone in the world could, and would, be targeted for a summary execution by suicide bomber – for the broad and ever-expanding crime of blasphemy. Nor has the death threat been withdrawn. Indeed Iran’s crime syndicate, the Revolutionary Guard, has renewed the original declaration. Every Valentine’s Day, Salman Rushdie receives a reminder of this standing order. (He no longer takes it seriously.)
Twenty-five years ago, on February 14, 1989, war was declared by Islamic end-times fundamentalists upon freedom of thought, freedom of speech, literature, secularism, human expression – in short, against civilization. This war was declared from within Iran, the origin of one of the world’s most ancient, rich and refined cultural traditions, the Persian civilization.
A Persian scholar, Hitoshi Igarashi did more for Iranian culture and letters than any Ayatollah, suicide bomber, or book burner ever could, or will. He is a reminder that the global village is a living and active idea, and that the war on terror is not so much a war among countries or cultures as it is a war for a certain kind of human community. Resistance against and repudiation of the holy warriors’ efforts to set the terms on which the world’s people are to live – or as is often the case, to die – is the work of this century, if not beyond.