TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iranians on Saturday responded with praise and concern to the attack on writer Salman Rushdie, the target of a decades-old fatwa by the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that called 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 Friday in western New York. Iran’s theocratic government and its state media have not attributed a motive to the attack.
But in Tehran, some willing to speak to The Associated Press hailed an attack on a writer they believe tarnished the Islamic faith with his 1988 book The Satanic Verses. Images of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini still gaze down at passers-by on the streets of the Iranian capital.
“I don’t know Salman Rushdie, but I’m happy to hear he was attacked for insulting Islam,” said Reza Amiri, a 27-year-old delivery man. “That is the fate of anyone who offends holiness.”
Others, however, have voiced concerns that Iran could become even more cut off from the world as tensions remain high over its disrupted nuclear deal.
“I have a feeling 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, who was in poor health in the last year of his life after the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s decimated the country’s economy, issued the 1989 fatwa against Rushdie. The Islamic edict came amid intense uproar in the Muslim world over the novelwhich some saw as blasphemous in alluding to the life of Prophet Muhammad.
“I would like to inform all the undaunted Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled ‘Satanic Verses’ … and all publishers who knew of its contents are hereby sentenced to death,” Khomeini said in February 1989, according to Tehran Radio .
He added: “Anyone who is killed is considered a martyr and goes straight to heaven.”
Earlier on Saturday, Iranian state media reported that a man had been killed trying to carry out the fatwa. Lebanese national Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh died when on August 3, 1989, just over 33 years ago, a book bomb he prematurely detonated at a London hotel detonated.
At newsstands, Saturday front page headlines offered their own take on the attack. The main story of the uncompromising Vatan-e Emrouz involved what he described as: “A knife in the throat of Salman Rushdie.” The reformist newspaper Etemad headlined: “Salman Rushdie near death?”
The conservative newspaper Khorasan carried a large picture of Rushdie on a stretcher, with the headline reading ‘Satan on his way to Hell’.
But the 15th Khordad Foundation – which put the over $3 million bounty on Rushdie’s bounty – remained quiet at the start of the workweek. Officials there declined to comment immediately to the AP, referring questions to an officer who was not in the office.
The foundation, whose name refers to the 1963 protests by Khomeini supporters against the former Shah of Iran, typically focuses on providing assistance to the disabled and other war-affected. But, like other foundations known in Iran as “bonyads,” which are funded in part by confiscated Shah-era assets, it often serves the political interests of the country’s hardliners.
Reformists in Iran, who want to slowly liberalize the country’s Shia theocracy from within and have better relations with the West, have sought to distance the country’s government from the edict. In particular, reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s foreign minister said in 1998 that “the government distances itself from and does not support any reward that has been offered in this regard”.
Rushdie slowly began to reappear in public life around this time. But some in Iran have never forgotten the fatwa against him.
On Saturday, Mohammad Mahdi Movaghar, a 34-year-old Tehran resident, described feeling “good” after seeing Rushdie being attacked.
“This is gratifying and shows that those who offend the holy things of us Muslims will also be punished by human hands in this world in addition to punishment in the hereafter,” he said.
However, others feared that the attack – regardless of why it was carried out – could harm Iran as it seeks to negotiate with world powers over its nuclear deal.
Since then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the deal in 2018, Tehran has seen its rial currency plummet and seen its economic crater. Meanwhile, Tehran is now enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels amid a series of attacks in the Middle East.
“It will further isolate Iran,” warned former Iranian diplomat Mashallah Sefatzadeh.
While fatwas can be revised or revoked, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took power after Khomeini, never did.
“The decision about Salman Rushdie still stands,” Khamenei said in 1989. “As I said before, this is a bullet that has a target. It was shot. It will hit the target sooner or later one day.”
As late as February 2017, Khamenei answered this question succinctly: “Is the fatwa on defecting from the cursed liar Salman Rushdie still in force? What is the duty of a Muslim in this regard?”
Khamenei replied, “The decree is as issued by Imam Khomeini.”
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press journalist Mehdi Fattahi in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.