Novelist Rushdie Gravely Injured by Likely Non-Reading Zealot Seeking Salvation and Bounty

Salman Rushdie having a discussion with Emory University students. CC BY-SA 2.5

Author Salman Rushdie, 75,  one of Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, was gravely wounded at he Chautauqua Insitute in upstate New York last Friday in a brutal onstage stabbing by an American-born Islamic zealot who, likely motivated by the fatwah issued against Rushdie in 1989 by Muslim Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then leader of the theocratic Islamic state of Iran stabbed the author multiple time before he could be restrained.

The attacker, Hadi Matar, 24, arrested at the scene, is a California-born child of Lebanese immigrant parents whose address is Fairview New Jersey. He has been charged with attempted murder and assault and, after pleading not guilty, is being held without bail in Chautauqua County, New York according to the local district attorney.

The Khomeini fatwah, which offered a reward for the killing, for blasphemy, of Rushdie on account of his book The Satanic Verses. was later disavowed by the Iranian government as it sought more acceptance in the international arena, but many experts on Islamic law noted that a fatwah can normally only be lifted by the one who issues it, and Khomeini, for better or worse, at that point was dead and gone. (A $3.8-million reward is still being offered for his death by a private Iranian organization.)

For years after the issuance of the fatwa, Rushdie was provided round-the-clock protection in the UK by Britain’s Municipal Police Special Branch “A Unit.” He divorced his then-wife, American novelist Marianne Wiggins, in part I suspect to protect her from being collateral damage in any attack on him. Their young son was regularly brought to whatever safe-house he currently occupied by British police every month or so, where Rushdie told the boy the next installment of a wonderful and darkly humorous sci-fi fantasy which later was published as Haroun and the Sea of Stories, about a storyteller who’d lost the “gift of gab,” just as Rushdie himself must have felt himself during his period of hiding.

He eventually eased cautiously back into the public sphere and seemed to have left the fatwah behind him, though there continued to be occasional threats made against him or those who dared to publish his work.

This attack by a man in a mask rushing the stage at the Chautauqua Institute in Western New York just as Rushdie was being introduced, was a surprise, though there was a State Police Trooper standing nearby for security, who was able to immediately arrest the assailant.

I hope that Rushdie, who was rushed by helicopter ambulance to a hospital after being treated at the scene by a doctor in his audience, is okay. A neck wound, particularly by knife, can be deadly if it severs a carotid artery, and is in an area of the body where it would be difficult to stanch the bleeding, suggesting that this was no amateur who attacked him, but someone knowledgeable in the deadly art of murder by knife.

View PostBut besides reporting on the little that is known at this early point, even as to the condition and recovery prospects of the stabbed author, I want to say something about the work that resulted in Rushdie’s becoming a hunted man sought out by pathological Islamic zealots greedy for a guarantee of money and/or salvation in return for killing an apostate writer. Like, I assume, the man who attacked him, whose Social Media posts reportedly show him to be a supporter of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Sharia Law.

Satanic Verses is, in my view, hands down one of the great novels of the 20th century, right up there with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Rushdie’s earlier Midnight’s Children and Nikoa Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ, (which earned that author his own share of death threats by crazed fanatic Christians for its depiction of Christ as a man driven by voices telling him he’s the messiah so he makes and sells execution crosses to the Romans to prevent any possibility of that happening to him).

Funny and deep at the same time, Rushdie in Satanic Verses presents a very humorous and by turns rather wacky Mohammad, living in his cave and writing his Koran. It is the depiction of the Prophet as very human that was the ostensible reason for Khomeini’s fatwah, but those who read the whole book would have realized as I did that the truly psychotic old imam character in the novel living in a London flat and mailing taped rants of hate and rebellion to his followers in Iran — a character clearly modeled on Khomeini himself — that was the real reason for his fatwah.

That is, the fatwah condemning Rushdie to death was issued not to defend the Prophet Mohammed, but as revenge for his mocking of Khomeini as a charlatan and a dangerous psychopath.

What made the old man with the stern visage and big white beard even angrier, I’m sure, was Rushdie’s rapier-like wit, particularly in that novel. It’s one thing to be insulted, but it’s far worse to be ridiculed.

There were artists and writers, notably Roald Dahl and the singer Cat Stevens (a brilliant and sensitive musician who adopted Islam and for a time renounced singing), who either, like Dahl, blamed Rushdie for bringing the fatwah on himself, or like Stevens, said he deserved to die for blasphemy (a position he later said he disavowed and regretted).

At a time when here in the US, books are being banned by benighted right-wing school boards, denounced in Congress by charlatan ignoramuses like Harvard (supposedly) educated Ted Cruz (R-TX), censored by state education departments, and in some cases burned, when right-wing and religio-fascists acting on their own steal or check out and never return books from libraries that they don’t think other people ought to read, we shouldn’t be too surprised to have an assassination attempt here on a fiction writer.

The problem is that the ignorant and stupid who cannot debate their way out of a paper bag, instead turn to violence and killing when they cannot figure out how to verbally criticize someone they disagree with. Hopefully, the ignorant zealot who stabbed Salman Rushdie in the neck, shoulder and abdomen, failed in his effort to silence a courageous and talented writer and will spend some of his time in jail learning how to do literary criticism as an alternative to using a shiv to make a point.

My hope is for Rushdie to recover from this vicious attack and give us another great novel. Maybe] when he’s feeling up to it, he could take on the whack-job, AR-toting yahoos here in his adopted country who are parading around like brownshirts of yore calling for a new American Civil War. As a group they’re perfect targets for his brutal wit.


CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will be released in theaters this coming summer. Lindorff has finished a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published this Fall by Prometheus Press.