The Rushdie affair and the outsourcing of murder

Salman Rushdie, left, and 'The Satanic Verses'
Salman Rushdie, left, and 'The Satanic Verses'

The recent attacks in Brussels, for which ISIS took credit, reminded the West that no country is immune from Islamist terrorism. All democratic nations must match action to rhetoric in decisively defeating the sadistic group.

Yet Iran, which has the advantages of a nation-state alongside the revolutionary zeal of a terrorist organization, continues to pose a more serious threat to global security. Long before ISIS and Al Qaeda butchered their way onto the international scene and utilized social media to attract recruits, Iran had pioneered the outsourcing of terrorism to the global extremist community.


In 1988, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, a novel that garnered literary praise but that many Muslims perceived as blasphemous.

As controversy spread with riots and book burnings, the book was banned in several countries. The Rushdie affair peaked in 1989, when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, broadcast this edict on radio: “I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam and the Qur’an, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death. 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.”

Islamists lined up to volunteer. Rushdie went into hiding for several years, and has managed to stay alive. Others involved with the book were not as fortunate. In 1991, the Japanese translator was stabbed to death, and the Italian translator survived a stabbing. In 1993, the Norwegian publisher was shot three times, and the Turkish translator survived an arson attack in which 37 were killed.

Just last month, as further proof of the fatwa’s ongoing authority, 40 state-run media outlets in Iran contributed an additional $600,000 to the bounty offered for Rushdie’s assassination. The total amount now on offer is in the millions of dollars.

The edict’s recent and gratuitous revival, despite Tehran’s ostensible rehabilitation under the international nuclear agreement, is symptomatic of a well-established and deliberate Iranian policy to demonstrate dominance over an enemy it despises – the West. It is meant to communicate that no deal will mitigate the Islamic revolutionary ideals upon which the Iranian theocracy was founded. 

The free speech organization PEN has rightly urged democratic governments to insist that Iran nullify the fatwa once and for all. A letter signed by over 100 writers and academics calls on the West to “unequivocally condemn the regime’s fatwa and bounty, demand their immediate cancellation, prioritize human rights and free expression, and side with freethinkers rather than appeasing a theocratic regime.”

As a champion of the United Nations and our national charter, both of which enshrine the right to freedom of expression, the Canadian government is well suited to lead on this issue.

Canada should immediately deny accreditation to any Iranian media outlets that contributed to the bounty, and even consider designating them as terrorist groups. Consider the relevant portions of the Criminal Code definition of terrorist activity: committing an act for a political, religious or ideological purpose, with the intention of intimidating the public or compelling a person, a government or an organization to do or to refrain from doing any act that intentionally endangers a person’s life.


Canada recently joined the United States, European nations and Japan in speaking out against Chinese human rights abuses and regional aggression. If the West can publicly condemn such an economic powerhouse, surely it can apply pressure on Tehran, which needs western business.

The return of the Rushdie edict presents the West with an opportunity to stand up for its own democratic principles and against a regime that has met every open hand extended to it with a clenched fist. 

Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.