Salman Rushdie attack: Iranians react with mixture of praise and concern

<span>Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranians have reacted with a mixture of praise and concern over the attack on novelist Salman Rushdie, the target of a decades-old fatwa by the late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for his death.

It remains unclear why Rushdie’s attacker, identified by police as Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, stabbed the author as he prepared to speak at an event on Friday in western New York state. Iran’s theocratic government and its state-run media have assigned no motive to the assault.

Rushdie, 75, was taken to surgery, and Andrew Wylie, his spokesperson, said in a statement on Friday evening that the author had been put on a ventilator and had suffered significant injuries.

“The news is not good. Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged,” he said.

Rushdie’s interviewer, Henry Reese, 73, was also attacked and suffered a minor head injury, police said.

In Tehran, some willing to speak to the Associated Press offered praise for an attack targeting a writer they believe had tarnished the Islamic faith with his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses.

“I don’t know Salman Rushdie, but I am happy to hear that he was attacked since he insulted Islam,” said Reza Amiri, a 27-year-old deliveryman. “This is the fate for anybody who insults sanctities.”

Others, however, were worried that Iran could become even more cut off from the world as tensions remain high over its tattered nuclear deal.

“I feel those who did it are trying to isolate Iran,” said Mahshid Barati, a 39-year-old geography teacher. “This will negatively affect relations with many – even Russia and China.”

Khomeini, in poor health in the last year of his life after the grinding, stalemate 1980s Iran-Iraq war decimated the country’s economy, issued the fatwa on Rushdie in 1989.

The Islamic edict came amid a violent uproar in the Muslim world over the novel, which some viewed as blasphemously making suggestions about the Prophet Muhammad’s life.

“I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled Satanic Verses … as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, are hereby sentenced to death,” Khomeini said in February 1989, according to Tehran Radio.

He added: “Whoever is killed doing this will be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven.”

Early on Saturday, Iranian state media made a point of mentioning a man identified as being killed while trying to carry out the fatwa. Lebanese national Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh died when a book bomb he was carrying prematurely exploded in a London hotel in August 1989.

Front page headlines offered their own takes on the attack. The hardline Vatan-e Emrouz’s main story covered what it described as “A knife in the neck of Salman Rushdie”. The reformist newspaper Etemad’s headline asked: “Salman Rushdie close to death?”

The conservative newspaper Khorasan bore a large image of Rushdie on a stretcher, its headline blaring: “Satan on the path to hell.”

But the 15th Khordad Foundation – which put the $3m (£2.5m) bounty on Rushdie – remained quiet. Staffers there declined to immediately comment, referring questions to an official not in the office.

Reformists in Iran, those who want to slowly liberalize the country’s Shia theocracy from inside and have better relations with the west, have sought to distance the country’s government from the edict. Notably, reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s foreign minister in 1998 said that the “government disassociates itself from any reward which has been offered in this regard and does not support it”.

Rushdie slowly began to re-emerge into public life around that time. But some in Iran have never forgotten the fatwa against him.

On Saturday, Mohammad Mahdi Movaghar, a 34-year-old Tehran resident, described having a “good feeling” after seeing Rushdie attacked.
“This is pleasing and shows those who insult the sacred things of we Muslims, in addition to punishment in the hereafter, will get punished in this world too at the hands of people,” he said.

Others, however, worried the attack – regardless of why it was carried out – could hurt Iran as it tries to negotiate over its nuclear deal with world powers.

Since Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the accord in 2018, Tehran’s currency, the rial, has plummeted and its economy has crashed.

Meanwhile, Tehran enriches uranium now closer than ever to weapons-grade levels amid a series of attacks across the Middle East. “It will make Iran more isolated,” warned former Iranian diplomat Mashallah Sefatzadeh.

While fatwas can be revised or revoked, Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took over after Khomeini, has never done so.

“The decision made about Salman Rushdie is still valid,” Khamenei said in 1989. “As I have already said, this is a bullet for which there is a target. It has been shot. It will one day sooner or later hit the target.”