On a freezing February afternoon in 2005, Christopher Hitchens and I took the Tehran metro to the end of the line: Behesht-e Zahra, one of the world’s most populated cemeteries. Looking out at the seemingly endless rows of tombstones, and unsure of where to begin, we hired the lone taxi we found to drive us around the sprawling grounds.
The driver, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, guided us through some of the high-profile burial areas reserved for martyrs to the cause of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution.
Then he stopped at a grave and read the inscription. The man buried there was “martyred” in a demonstration against author Salman Rushdie, whose 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” sparked outrage in parts of the world for what some readers considered a blasphemous depiction of Islam. The man had apparently died in a stampede of enraged protesters who supported Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against the writer.
Hitchens listened and asked a couple questions, which I translated. Then he drew in a very deep breath into his stuffed, smoky sinuses and spat empathically on the tombstone.
I’d never seen anyone do that before. In the moment it felt extreme, but few people, if anyone, understood better than Hitchens how Khomeini’s edict — a full-frontal assault on the notion of free expression — had upended his friend’s life.
Our guide was taken aback, but it didn’t stop him from continuing the tour.
The following day, Hitchens called Rushdie from Tehran on what happened to be the 16th anniversary of the fatwa. “Or Valentine’s Day, as most people know it,” Rushdie told me when I recounted this story to him, the one time we met.
I have thought about that episode in the cemetery a lot since hearing of the attack on Rushdie by a U.S. citizen who was born almost a decade after Iranian authorities unleashed a torment of violence on a man — and anyone associated with him — over a work of fiction.
Since the fatwa, there have been attempts to blow up bookstores. The Japanese translator of “The Satanic Verses,” Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in 1991 at the university outside Tokyo where he taught Islamic Studies.
No matter one’s views on faith and religion, there’s no question the attack on Rushdie was an attack on the very idea of a free and open society. Sadly, worryingly, the fact that that must be emphasized is a sign of how far we have strayed from those ideals.
“Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect,” Rushdie said after the 2015 terrorist attack on the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Although levels of tolerance have eroded in the United States, we can’t ignore the role the intolerant ideology of the Islamic republic and its mouthpieces may have played in the attack, directly or indirectly.
On Monday, Iran denied any link to the stabbing but was quick to blame Rushdie and his supporters for the attack that left him with serious wounds.
“We do not blame, or recognize worthy of condemnation, anyone except himself and his supporters,” a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Nasser Kanaani, said in a televised news conference.
Arguments by pro-engagement officials and observers claiming that the death mark on Rushdie ceased to be official Iranian policy are irrelevant. More so now after Iran’s statement. I know what it means to be a target of this brutal propaganda machine, and there is nothing subtle about its intent to do harm.
Some reports, citing unnamed intelligence officials, claim the suspect, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, had contact with members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force. But even if Iranian officials were not directly involved in planning the attack, as they claim, the Islamic republic was the inspiration, and it bears some of the responsibility for what happened.
Put bluntly, the attack was an act of state-promoted terrorism.
The attempt on Rushdie’s life, and Tehran’s disgusting response to it, are important reminders of Iran’s inability to adhere to international laws and norms. It considers critics, dissidents and anyone who questions its worldview to be subhuman, unworthy of basic protections, a target to be eliminated.
The essential fact is that a great champion of free expression was violently attacked and severely wounded for daring to continue to express himself. No amount of whitewashing or politicizing will change that truth.