The Satanic Verses and the $3 Million Bounty

The Satanic VersesOn this day in 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran offered a $3 million bounty for the death of Salman Rushdie. This followed ten days after the fatwa against him for writing The Satanic Verses. This was a stupid thing to do. And maybe if Khomeini, who I generally think of as having been a pretty smart guy, had been younger, he wouldn’t have done it. But he was almost 90 years old, and only months from death.

We accept that people are stupid. I see it all the time. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t tell me about some minor thing that they are outraged about. But leaders are supposed to be educated and thoughtful. Even if you are a fundamentalist, you need to pick your battles. At a time when Iran should have been trying to integrate itself with the rest of the world, the fatwa just made Iran seem like a thuggish state. The fatwa went along with a one million dollar bounty for Rushdie’s murder. And then Khomeini ups it to $3 million? It’s just pathetic.

The Satanic Verses Wouldn’t Have Been a Hit

At that point, Salman Rushdie was a celebrated writer. He had won the Booker Prize. But he was hardly JK Rowling. The fatwa made Rushdie’s career. And The Satanic Verses would have continued in that tradition. Most people today would not have ever heard of Salman Rushdie nor The Satanic Verses had it not been for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ridiculous assassination contract.

Obviously, I’m not talking about the immorality of calling for murder because someone writes a book you don’t like. I don’t think we need to discuss that. Everyone around here agrees on that point. And I seriously doubt that Khomeini read the book, anyway. And I doubt anyone important in the fatwa process had read the book. Yet Iran has now renewed the bounty for the outrage of The Satanic Verses. My understanding is that in modern Iran, everyone wants to grab onto the mantle of Khomeini and so that’s what this is all about. Perhaps the most stupid thing the man ever did in his life, when his mind feeble, and they are still chasing it as though he were God.

I feel sorry for Salman Rushdie. But I feel more sorry for the Iranian people, who have been so ineptly ruled both before and after Khomeini. And this business about publicly calling for the murder over The Satanic Verses is the best encapsulation of this that there is.

10 thoughts on “The Satanic Verses and the $3 Million Bounty

  1. I remember reading the book in high school and trying to figure out what the big deal was. It seemed kind of disjointed and dull to be honest. But then I was raised where criticizing the dominate religion was considered A OK. So maybe I just lacked the culture necessary to understand.

    Now I need to go be outraged that it took me ten minutes to cancel my internet.

  2. I read The Satanic Verses out of some misguided attempt to be “edgy” or “rebellious”; to my surprise, it sucked me in and wouldn’t let go, and I’ve been a huge Rushdie fan ever since. He plays the sorts of games with words that I love – even more fun when you throw Hindi words into the mix – and he was blisteringly critical of Thatcherism at a time when I was sick unto death of Reagan/Bushism. The jump cuts between different narratives and timelines took a bit of getting used to, but it was exhilarating once I got stuck in – and it left me wishing for just another hundred pages or so (which is no small feat, considering that the book is already a doorstop!)

    I found that I wasn’t terribly surprised that Khomeini wanted him dead, either – the depictions of the actual Satanic verses incident, the Khomeini-analogue Imam of the Untime, and the story of the young prophetess leading her village into the ocean on Haj all seemed calculated to offend someone determined to take offense. But Rushdie _always_ has a point; even in his light-hearted and delightful Haroun and the Sea of Stories he’s pointing out the ridiculousness of the Kashmir conflict.

    • I’ve certainly heard that he is a great writer and that he had intended to offend. Those are a good combination in a serious writer. But I doubt I will ever get around to writing it. But you make it sound very inviting.

      • I think it either grabs you or it doesn’t. The opening sequence – where two Indian actors (one an expat making his living in Britain, the other a superstar of Bollywood’s religious extravaganzas) are falling through the air, from a plane that’s just been blown up by terrorists, and on the way become tranfigured into the embodiment of Satan and the Angel Gabriel – is such a torrent of wordplay and magical realism that I think there’s no middle ground between loving it and hating it. The prose style settles down in later chapters – although it’s deeply idiosyncratic throughout – but if you didn’t love that first chapter, you’re not gonna like the book. It reminded me of Tom Wolfe in his pomp; I like Tom Wolfe a lot, but I realize that’s not universal.

        As I mentioned, it was my introduction to Rushdie and I retain a soft spot for it; I’m not sure it’s my favorite. Dang, could I even _pick_ a favorite? Midnight’s Children, possibly; maybe Haroun and the Sea of Stories (which is the only one I’d recommend reading to kids, by the way!)

  3. From depictions I saw at the time, Rushdie became for some a living symbol of Western imperialism. The haters seriously could not see a difference between him and George Bush, despite Rushdie’s famous left-wing criticism. Rushdie became Mossad and the CIA all wrapped into one guy.

    As I said before, we’re fucked.

    • Yeah, that’s a problem. I always think that when I leave the country: I could be killed because of things I supposedly represent that I’m totally against. In the US I would be killed the correct way: randomly.

  4. The fatwa has been a weapon for conservatives against reformers in their Inner-Iranian and maybe the Inner-Islamic struggles. In the year before, Khomeini had let many thousand political prisoners be executed, to draw a line between the strong conservatives and the weak reformers.
    . . . Even today, it can serve as a weapon: candidates to the Iranian parliament need the permission by the Guardian council to run, and a convenient question will be how the candidate want to enforce the Fatwa against Rushdie. Anything but a radical and unhinged answer might get the candidate prohibited from running for office.

    • That makes sense. So much of life and politics is theater. This $600,000 addition was apparently put together by a collective of newspapers. It sounds to me like desperate publishers trying to get publicity.

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