Christopher Hitchens Remembers Ayatollah Khomeini’s Fatwa Against His Friend Salman Rushdie, 2010

When his tele­phone rang on Feb­ru­ary 14, 1989, Christo­pher Hitchens was thun­der­struck. A news­pa­per reporter was on the line, ask­ing for his reac­tion to a radio speech from Tehran ear­li­er that day in which the theo­crat­ic ruler of Iran, Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Komei­ni, called on Mus­lims around the world to mur­der his friend the nov­el­ist Salman Rushdie because of some­thing Rushdie had writ­ten in his book The Satan­ic Vers­es. As Hitchens lat­er wrote in his mem­oir, Hitch-22:

I felt at once that here was some­thing that com­plete­ly com­mit­ted me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a mat­ter of every­thing I hat­ed ver­sus every­thing I loved. In the hate col­umn: dic­ta­tor­ship, reli­gion, stu­pid­i­ty, dem­a­gogy, cen­sor­ship, bul­ly­ing, and intim­i­da­tion. In the love col­umn: lit­er­a­ture, irony, humor, the indi­vid­ual, and the defense of free expres­sion. Plus, of course, friendship–though I like to think that my reac­tion would have been the same if I had­n’t known Salman at all. To re-state the premise of the argu­ment again: the theo­crat­ic head of a for­eign despo­tism offers mon­ey in his own name in order to sub­orn the mur­der of a civil­ian cit­i­zen of anoth­er coun­try, for the offense of writ­ing a work of fic­tion. No more root-and-branch chal­lenge to the val­ues of the Enlight­en­ment (on the bicen­ten­ni­al of the fall of the Bastille) or to the First Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion, could be imag­ined.

Rushdie went into hid­ing, but his Japan­ese trans­la­tor, Hitoshi Igarashi, was mur­dered, and attempts were made against the lives of sev­er­al oth­er trans­la­tors and a pub­lish­er. Book­stores in Eng­land and Cal­i­for­nia were fire­bombed, and many more received threats of vio­lence. The pub­lic reac­tion to all of this was a bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment to Hitchens. In his book, God is Not Great: How Reli­gion Poi­sons Every­thing, he wrote:

One might have thought that such arro­gant state-spon­sored homi­cide, direct­ed at a lone­ly and peace­ful indi­vid­ual who pur­sued a life devot­ed to lan­guage, would have called forth a gen­er­al con­dem­na­tion. But such was not the case. In con­sid­ered state­ments, the Vat­i­can, the arch­bish­op of Can­ter­bury, the chief sephardic rab­bi of Israel all took a stand in sym­pa­thy with–the aya­tol­lah. So did the car­di­nal arch­bish­op of New York and many oth­er less­er reli­gious fig­ures. While they usu­al­ly man­aged a few words in which to deplore the resort to vio­lence, all these men stat­ed that the main prob­lem raised by the pub­li­ca­tion of The Satan­ic Vers­es was not mur­der by mer­ce­nar­ies, but blas­phe­my. Some pub­lic fig­ures not in holy orders, such as the Marx­ist writer John Berg­er, the Tory his­to­ri­an Hugh Trevor-Rop­er, and the doyen of espi­onage authors John Le Car­ré, also pro­nounced that Rushdie was the author of his own trou­bles, and had brought them on him­self by “offend­ing” a great monothe­is­tic reli­gion. There seemed noth­ing fan­tas­tic, to these peo­ple, in the British police hav­ing to defend an Indi­an-born ex-Mus­lim cit­i­zen from a con­cert­ed cam­paign to take his life in the name of god.

This month Rushdie pub­lished Joseph Anton: A Mem­oir, describ­ing his nine-years of life in hid­ing under the Ayotol­lah’s death order. The new book’s rel­e­vance could not be more obvi­ous, giv­en the Anti-Amer­i­can riot­ing that broke out in much of the Mus­lim world this month in reac­tion to a YouTube video called Inno­cence of Mus­lims. Hitchens died last Decem­ber, and his voice in the mat­ter is sore­ly missed. But it isn’t hard to imag­ine what he might have said. In a 2009 Van­i­ty Fair essay, “Assas­sins of the Mind,” Hitchens wrote: “For our time and gen­er­a­tion, the great con­flict between the iron­ic mind and the lit­er­al mind, the exper­i­men­tal and the dog­mat­ic, the tol­er­ant and the fanat­i­cal, is the argu­ment that was kin­dled by The Satan­ic Vers­es.”

For a recent dis­cus­sion with Rushdie, lis­ten to his Sep­tem­ber 21 inter­view with Studio360:

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