As Salman Rushdie recovers from a brazen murder attempt last Friday, the Iranian author and dissident Masih Alinejad wonders about her own future.
Now living in her third safe house in three weeks – with the latest she’d just been whisked to by the FBI when I called her on Wednesday – Alinejad is shaken, as well she should be.
“This is f—ed up,” she said bluntly. Earlier on Wednesday, she had gone to a newspaper office to do an interview when the FBI interrupted and told her she needed to immediately go to a new safe house “because the threat level is high.”
An American who was born and raised in Iran, Alinejad is the feminist writer who has led a movement for Iranian women to have the choice to uncover their hair and demand basic rights. She has millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter where she posts her own videos, and those of women in Iran uncovering their hair and in other acts of protest.
Alinejad has become a constant thorn in the side of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Lately she has enraged the government by going a step beyond women’s rights and questioning the validity of an Islamic-based government.
That is why, she believes, there have been constant threats against her of late. A year ago, the FBI informed her that she was the target of a kidnapping plot, with the goal of spiriting her out of the United States to Iran. Luckily, that plot was foiled.
But just three weeks ago, New York police arrested a 23-year-old man waiting in his car outside Alinejad’s home in Brooklyn with a loaded gun. The State Department subsequently informed Alinejad that they believe the suspect was indeed tied to the Iranian government. Since then, she has had to move two more times.
Last week, days after the Justice Department charged a member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard over a plot to murder former Trump administration national security adviser John Bolton, the Indian-born novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times ahead of a public lecture in Chautauqua, New York. A 24-year-old suspect, Hadi Matar, was arrested at the scene of the crime — which took place three decades after Iran’s supreme leader issued a 1989 fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death for alleged blasphemy against Islam in the author’s novel “The Satanic Verses.”
Rushdie remains hospitalized after being stabbed roughly 10 times in the neck, stomach, chest and eye; his agent has said the author is likely to lose an eye.
These attacks, coming on American soil, represent new threats to freedom of expression, and bring to mind the 2018 murder of Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which a U.S. intelligence report said was approved by Saudi ruler Mohamed Bin Salman.
Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, said the recent cases represent an alarming new trend. “There is definitely a rising phenomenon of the long arm of authoritarianism, of repressive governments around the world reaching across national boundaries into foreign countries to menace dissidents,” she said in an interview with WaxWord.
Threats to writers by authoritarian governments are not new. Some 277 writers around the world were in jail in 2021 for their writing, according to PEN. “The idea that governments are retaliating against writers for the crime of telling stories, putting forward ideas, publishing books, that’s very real, and it’s a worldwide phenomenon,” she said.
But attacks on U.S. soil are something altogether different.
I have written before about the danger of allowing Saudi Arabia to escape any consequences for its involvement in the murder of Kashoggi — which the U.S. government has taken no action to address.
The ripple effects of that act of impunity, shocking to any civilized person, can be seen in these outrageous murder attempts on Rushdie and Alinejad, who continues to post her views on social media despite the threats.
Alinejad said she sees a direct relationship in the current threat against her. “When the United States buries human rights under business — this is the consequence,” she said. “The lives of authors and activists are under threat by those who dare to assassinate us and butcher us.”
FBI Moved me to 3 “safe” houses only in one week. I’m thankful to my adopted country; the US for protecting me from the government of my birth country Iran who want to kill me.
But we have to make America “safe” for those who criticize Islam. @NBCNews
— Masih Alinejad
(@AlinejadMasih) August 17, 2022
Nossel argues that Americans could be doing much more given that the very real threat of violence on U.S. soil. “The idea was always you get to the U.S. and you get to safety — and that’s no longer the case,” she said. “The U.S. and governments around the world need to do more to protect exiled and dissident writers. They are suffering highest price for what others do freely – we have to recognize how vulnerable they are.”
Alinejad would like the opportunity to speak on the same stage as Rushdie, in Chautauqua, to take up the baton. “I’m a lonely soldier now,” she confessed. But, she added, “I have two options: I can be miserable or I can make the mullahs miserable. I prefer the second.”