Iran and the Attack on Salman Rushdie/ Abbas’ Holocaust Controversy
Aug 19, 2022 | AIJAC staff
This Update deals with the stabbing attack on author Salman Rushdie last weekend in the US in service of a fatwa (religious ruling) demanding his death issued by the Iranian regime’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, and what it teaches us about the current and past ideology and behaviour of Iran.
It also contains a piece putting into context the controversy over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ claim that Palestinians had suffered “50 holocausts” at Israel’s hands, made at a media conference in Germany on August 16 in response to a question about the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.
We lead with top Washington analyst Jonathan Schanzer looking at why the ideology of Iran led to the fatwa against Rushdie. He reviews how that fatwa led to much mayhem and a number of deaths when it was issued, and argues there is no evidence that the regime has softened its extremism in the years since. He says, regardless of whether the Iranian regime ordered or merely inspired the attack on Rushdie, the last thing we should be doing is considering offering that regime billions in sanctions relief as part of a nuclear deal. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up is Mehdi Khalaji, Iran expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on the subject of Iranian fatwas generally, and the one against Rushdie in particular. Khalaji is a former religious scholar who studied at the Iranian Shi’ite seminaries of Qom, so he certainly has reason to know what he is talking about. He notes that the claim by the Iranian regime that the fatwa was not necessarily Iranian state policy is completely disingenuous. He also calls attention to the questionable nature of a supposed fatwa that the regime always trumpets, ostensibly forbidding it from building nuclear weapons. For all the insights of this true expert on both Shi’ite religious law and Iranian regime ideology, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Times of Israel Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz notes that Abbas’ Holocaust claims in Germany were not a one-off gaffe but part of a pattern of Holocaust minimisation and distortion that has spanned Abbas’ entire public career. This began with the thesis he authored in 1982 at a university in Russia, which not only cast doubt on the numbers killed in the Holocaust, but blamed “Zionists” for supposedly enabling that genocide. He notes that this distortion by Abbas is part of a larger pattern of lies and incitement by Palestinian leaders, including Abbas’ predecessor Yasser Arafat, which goes a long way toward explaining the failures to reach a two-state peace. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- While Abbas later distanced himself from his initial claims about the Holocaust – releasing a statement saying “the Holocaust is the most heinous crime in modern human history” but not apologising – other Palestinian officials are openly doubling down on his claims about one or more Palestinian “holocausts” with Israelis as the Nazis (see also here).
- Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) documents how similar holocaust claims are commonplace in Palestinian media and other public discourse.
- A different PMW report notes that it is not surprising that Abbas reacted negatively to a question about apologising for the Munich Olympics massacre because the perpetrators of that massacre are widely lionised in Palestinian official media and education.
- Other valuable comment on Abbas’ Holocaust claims and their context come from Israeli columnist Ben Dror-Yemini, American columnist Jonathan Tobin and veteran Israeli editor Liat Collins.
- More essential reading on the Iranian regime and the Rushdie stabbing from Michael Rubin, Iran experts Mark Dubowitz and Saeed Ghasseminejad, and Bloomberg Middle East analyst Bobby Ghosh,
- Plus, comment on the Rushdie attack from Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the Australian academic formerly held hostage in Iran for almost three years, as well as a fellow former Iranian hostage, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.
- Top counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt reviews the Iran regime’s long history of carrying out assassinations, murders and terrorist attacks targeting specific individuals in other countries.
- International law expert Amb. Alan Baker exposes some “False and Malicious Catchphrases and Buzzwords” being used in debates over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro summarises all the latest news and analysis from the Israeli election campaign, as the parties prepare their final candidate lists.
- Oved Lobel, in a piece published in the Daily Telegraph, explains how Israel’s war with Palestinian Islamic Jihad two weeks ago was a blow against Iranian plans to surround the Jewish state.
- Oved’s earlier blog explored what the recently exposed Iranian plot to kill former US officials John Bolton and Mike Pompeo says about Iran’s malign intentions – and limited terrorist capabilities in the US.
- A short AIJAC video marking the stunning achievements of the two years that have passed since the Abraham Accords were announced, normalising relations between Israel and four Arab neighbours.
- A statement co-signed by AIJAC and the other major Australian Jewish organisations condemning an extreme, pro-BDS motion from the University of Melbourne Student Union.
Rushdie attack reveals – again – true nature of Iranian regime
BY JONATHAN SCHANZER
The Hill, August 13, 2022
On Feb. 14, 1989, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, condemning author Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy. Rushdie had recently penned the book “The Satanic Verses,” which depicted Rushdie’s interpretation of the life of the prophet Mohammed, including an episode in which the prophet was unable to distinguish between revelation and the influence of Satan.
More than three decades later, on Aug. 12, 2022, Rushdie was stabbed in the neck by New Jersey resident Hadi Matar, who reportedly was “sympathetic to Shia extremism.” The attack came amidst a flurry of other thwarted plots by the Islamic Republic against former U.S. officials and Iranian dissidents. While some may have seen it as ancient history, the Khomeini fatwa clearly still reverberates today.
In 1989, Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death. On Tehran radio, the Supreme leader stated: “I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an, and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, where they find them.”
In essence, Khomeini pitted Islam against the West. The following day was a national day of mourning in Iran. Crowds poured into the streets, stoned the British Embassy, and chanted “Death to Britain” repeatedly. A $2.8 million bounty was put on Rushdie’s head.
Three days later, American booksellers B. Dalton, Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble decided not to stock Rushdie’s book, while the book’s publisher, Viking/Penguin, closed its offices amidst bomb threats to install a new security system.
On the fourth day, Rushdie made the following statement: “As author of The Satanic Verses, I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.”
Ignoring the apology, Khomeini repeated his death edict the next day. On Feb. 20, the International Rushdie Defense Committee was founded in London by writers, booksellers, journalists and human rights groups who decried Iranian “armed censorship.” The day after that, the European Community withdrew their heads of mission from Tehran. Iran responded in kind. The Iranian parliament soon voted to sever all relations with the UK, where law had recently been passed condemning Khomeini for incitement, and another calling for Rushdie’s safety.
Elsewhere around the world, hell broke loose. Violent demonstrations, bomb threats, and clashes were reported in India, Germany, Thailand, Pakistan, Turkey, Australia, France, and beyond. Here in the United States, firebombs caused damage in two California bookstores. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution condemning the threats against Rushdie and his publishers, affirming its commitment to “protect the right of any person to write, publish, sell, buy and read books without fear of intimidation or violence.”
Violence continued through the spring of 1989. Muslims in Belgium were gunned down after speaking out against the fatwa on television. London bookstores were firebombed for carrying The Satanic Verses, amidst a spate of other clashes and demonstrations. Norwegian bookstores were set afire after releasing a translation of Rushdie’s book. A bookshop in Sydney was also firebombed.
That August, an adherent to Khomeini’s ideology accidentally blew himself up in his London hotel room. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon deemed him “the first martyr… who died while preparing to attack the apostate, Salman Rushdie.”
While Khomeini died on June 3 that year, his fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding for many years to follow. In fact, the continuity of enforcement of Khomeini’s edict cast a bright light on the Islamic Republic’s violent and intolerant ideology. It was one thing for this repressive regime to clamp down on the free speech of its own citizens. It was quite another to try and curtail the free expression of intellectuals beyond its borders.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi: Contrary to the claims of regime apologists, if anything the regime’s radical ideology has only hardened over recent years. (Photo: Creative Commons, License details)
The Iranian regime’s radical ideology has not changed in the intervening years.
If anything, it has hardened.
Intermittent attempts by Western governments to probe for signs of moderation have failed. This is the case even today. The attack on Rushdie comes amidst desperate diplomatic efforts in Vienna to encourage the regime to curb its dangerous nuclear ambitions. The regime has responded not only with this attack, but also several other plots targeting former U.S. government officials, such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Iranian dissidents, such as journalist Masih Alinejad.
Doctors say that Rushdie will likely lose an eye. The nerves in his arm were severed. And his liver was damaged. Authorities are now working to determine whether the Islamic Republic ordered this attack, or whether it was merely inspired by the Khomeini edict.
In truth, this is a distinction without much difference. The illiberal and repressive regime in Iran unleashed chaos back in 1989. It continues to do so today. Whether ordered directly or inspired, these attacks on American soil must be met with resolve by our elected leaders.
This is not the time to yield billions of dollars in sanctions relief to the regime. This is the time for policies that isolate the Islamic Republic, along with warnings that violence against former officials, intellectuals and dissidents will not stand.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The Rushdie Attack and Iran’s Deceptive “Fatwas”
by Mehdi Khalaji
Aug. 15, 2022
Whether or not Tehran is proven to be involved, the incident holds significant implications for the regime’s international diplomacy and terrorist activity—not to mention its claims about the applicability of Khamenei’s “nuclear fatwa.”
The official Iranian newspaper Jam-e-Jam with a cover on the Rushdie stabbing declaring “The Satan’s Eye are Blinded.” While senior regime officials have remained largely silent about the Rushdie attack, the regime’s newspapers have been jubilant.
The August 12 assassination attempt against Salman Rushdie reveals a great deal about the Iranian regime’s current mindset, particularly when one takes a close look at Tehran’s initial response. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other senior officials have remained largely silent about the attack so far, while Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani denied any Iranian involvement during a press conference earlier today. At the same time, however, multiple regime-affiliated media outlets—and Kanaani himself to a certain extent—have explicitly praised the attack and expressed admiration for its perpetrator, Hadi Matar, portraying him as a true follower of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini.
On August 14, Kayhan newspaper—owned by Khamenei and run by his representative Hossein Shariatmadari—addressed the issue in an article headlined “Salman Rushdie Trapped in Divine Revenge: Trump and Pompeo Are Next Targets.” The story goes on to suggest that the attack on “the apostate author…who insulted the prophet of Islam” should be regarded as an Iranian response to the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. The article then offered the following threat: “We should not remain passive and commit miscalculation…The response to animosity cannot be wishful thinking, passiveness, and flexibility…The attack on Salman Rushdie proves that getting revenge against criminals on U.S. territory is not difficult, and from now on Trump and [his former secretary of state Mike] Pompeo will find themselves under more serious threat.”
Similarly, the official government newspaper Iran claimed that “the big message” of Matar’s attack is clear—Muslims still hold great “love in their hearts for the prophet of Islam,” and not even the passage of many years has diminished their anger at “insults and mockeries” from Europe and the wider West. According to the article, the perpetrator who “implemented” Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death was “a twenty-four years young Muslim,” representing “a new phenomenon that reveals how faith in divine orders is still alive and well in the heart of the modern world.” (The question of whether this edict was truly a fatwa is discussed at length in the next section.)
The same day, the headline “The Unseen Arrow” appeared in Javan, a newspaper affiliated with the IRGC (with “unseen” implying “divine” in this context). This story likewise praised Matar as “a young Muslim who was not born until after Rushdie published The Satanic Verses” but nevertheless sought revenge for Rushdie’s “crime.”
For its part, Jam-e Jam—the official newspaper of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), an increasingly influential agency under Khamenei’s direct supervision—published a front-page article titled “The Satan’s Eyes Are Blinded.” The story then proudly supported the attack, claiming, “In reality, the act of terror against Rushdie after thirty-three years proves that the power of the Truth to get revenge on Untruth transcends time and place.”
The Iranian regime regards the fatwa against Rushdie by regime founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a symbol of Teheran’s self-claimed leadership over the entire world community of Muslims (Photo: Lensw0rId, Shutterstock)
The late ayatollah’s infamous 1989 order to murder Rushdie and his publishers has long held essential ideological value for the regime, especially as a symbol of its self-claimed leadership over the Muslim umma (community) and the success of its pan-Islamic agenda. At the time it was issued, however, the government of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani desperately needed to establish economic relations with Europe in order to reconstruct its economy following the devastating war with Iraq. Thus, when Khomeini died just months after issuing the fatwa, the regime sought a deceptive formulation that would enable it to normalize relations with parts of the West without submitting to international demands for repealing the fatwa.
Upon succeeding Khomeini, Supreme Leader Khamenei and Rafsanjani agreed on how to resolve the dilemma: by claiming that there was a distinction between Khomeini as a marja (source of emulation) who issues fatwas for his religious followers, and Khomeini as head of the Iranian government. Using this formulation, Tehran could claim to Europe that the Rushdie fatwa was not necessarily the state’s official position, and that the government had no intention of implementing it—even though the state still refused to publicly reject the edict, government propaganda organs continued promoting it, and Khamenei kept reiterating it as the new de facto head of state (in fact, one of his affiliated foundations, Panzdahom-e Khordad, increased the bounty on Rushdie’s head to $3.3 million in 2011).
This disingenuous argument was largely effective—Rafsanjani succeeded in resuming relations with Europe, while Khamenei’s public remarks kept the fatwa alive in subsequent years. In one speech, for example, he declared, “It’s been a long time since [the fatwa was issued]. That ignorant [Rushdie] and his ignorant followers suppose that it is over! Not at all. There is no end for this issue.” In other speeches he made clear that the fatwa was “unchangeable.”
This supposed immutability—and, indeed, the origins of the fatwa itself—illustrate the regime’s deceitful use of Rushdie as an ideological pawn. The entire saga also casts a glaring light on Tehran’s willingness to exploit religious sentiment and law for political purposes, including in the nuclear realm.
For one thing, it is a matter of consensus among Muslim jurists (including Shia) that fatwas can be changed under specific conditions. Khamenei’s insistence that the Rushdie order has “no end” is therefore false even on basic religious terms.
Second, several factors indicate that Khomeini’s fatwa was not technically a fatwa:
- It is the only fatwa for which there is no proof that he wrote it down as a formal religious order; it was only announced by state radio.
- There is no religious or juridical basis for such a fatwa in the history of Islamic jurisprudence, as explained by prominent mujtahids (jurists) such as Mehdi Haeri Yazdi in his book Philosophy and Government (Hekmat va Hokoumat)
Khomeini was unable to read English, Rushdie’s book had not been translated into Persian at the time, and the Supreme Leader was never known to read novels of any kind regardless, so he could not have issued the “fatwa” as a carefully considered religious response to an offensive text; rather, it was simply a political decision he made in service of his ideological objectives, and Khamenei has perpetuated it for the same reasons.
Third, Shia jurists also agree that a Muslim cannot follow a dead mujtahid unless he was a follower before the jurist’s demise. Hadi Matar is obviously far too young to have followed Khomeini during his time, so he should not be religiously authorized to implement a fatwa issued by the late leader.
These points reverberate far beyond Rushdie’s personal safety, especially when one recalls that the regime has spent years trumpeting another key fatwa: Khamenei’s edict prohibiting the production or use of nuclear weapons. Iran’s past and present nuclear negotiators have often insisted that the regime is a religious republic ruled by the Supreme Leader as the chief Shia jurist, so his fatwas are therefore the main basis for Iranian decisionmaking on major policy issues. Yet by demanding that the international community regard Khamenei’s fatwa as a reliable guarantee of Tehran’s supposed uninterest in militarizing its nuclear program, the regime completely contradicts its insistence that the Rushdie fatwa is not state policy.
Terrorism and Totalitarianism
Years’ worth of statements by the Supreme Leader and other Iranian officials show how they take pride in portraying the regime as a totalitarian government with a pan-Islamic agenda. Khamenei is almost never mentioned in state media without the sobriquet “the leader of the Muslim world.” And according to the Islamic Republic’s official rhetoric, the power that enables this all-encompassing leadership is the “power to terrorize and destroy.” For instance, the regime’s “regional power” is often expressed in terms of Iran’s supposed power to annihilate Israel. Likewise, “Victory by Terror” is the explicit leading strategy that Khamenei has repeatedly spelled out.
Tehran’s latest rhetoric about Rushdie reflects the same mindset, insisting to listeners that the regime is fully capable of threatening its American, Muslim, or Iranian opponents even on U.S. territory. Khamenei still perceives America as his enemy par excellence, so he is keen on convincing Americans that their personal security is at risk—one of many ways in which he seeks to counter and soften U.S. policies aimed at curtailing Iran’s destabilizing regional strategy. In his view, globalizing such terror (increasingly with the help of foreign operatives) is necessary in order to prove that his regime is the real “superpower” in the fight against the West.
Policymakers should be careful not to forget the apocalyptic mindset that undergirds much of this rhetoric, whether one is talking about assassination attempts against lone activists, provocative regional military strikes, or, most important of all, nuclear brinkmanship.
Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute.
Mahmoud Abbas’s lifelong falsification of Jewish history
First came Yasser Arafat, who repeatedly and clear-headedly chose to forgo the opportunity of winning statehood for the Palestinian people on much of the territory they sought — notably during the Clinton administration, in negotiations with prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Ultimately, he could not bring himself to abandon terrorism against the Jewish state, to transition from terror chief to national leader.
And then came Mahmoud Abbas, who did not so much as respond to departing prime minister Ehud Olmert’s hurriedly scribbled offer of a state that met almost all of the Palestinians’ ostensible demands, including control of much of East Jerusalem and shared sovereignty in the Old City. While not directly orchestrating the killings of Israelis, Arafat-style, Abbas evidently shared and continued to promulgate Arafat’s murderously incendiary narrative that the Jewish people have no legitimacy in their ancient homeland.
Abbas’s remarks in Berlin on Tuesday, accusing Israel of carrying out “50 holocausts” against the Palestinians, are the pernicious, logical culmination of the false narrative he set out in his 1982 People’s Friendship University of Russia doctoral thesis, which in turn shaped his failed leadership.
As published in book form in 1984, he sought to minimize the scale of the Holocaust, writing, according to a translation by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, “It is possible that the number of Jewish victims reached six million, but at the same time it is possible that the figure is much smaller – below one million.” And he blamed the Zionists for such murders as did take place, claiming that Zionist leaders gave “permission to every racist in the world, led by Hitler and the Nazis, to treat Jews as they wish, so long as it guarantees immigration to Palestine… More victims meant greater rights and stronger privilege [for Zionist leaders] to join the negotiation table for dividing the spoils of war once it was over.”
Four years ago, in a speech in Ramallah, Abbas amended and expanded his inflammatory falsification of history, to allege that the Holocaust was caused by the Jews’ “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters.” As for Zionists, Israelis and Israel itself, the Palestinian leader pronounced, “Their narrative about coming to this country because of their longing for Zion, or whatever — we’re tired of hearing this. The truth is that this is a colonialist enterprise, aimed at planting a foreign body in this region.”
“It’s classic antisemitism,” and “classic blame the victim,” Deborah Lipstadt, the scholar who in 2000 had triumphed in a libel suit brought against her by British Holocaust denier David Irving, told The Times of Israel after that May 2018 Abbas speech. “This brings one back directly to his dissertation, to his distortion of history.”
Added Lipstadt, “Here’s a man who started his career denying the Holocaust and now, at the latter stages of his career, seems to be engaging in rewriting the history of the Holocaust.”
Four years later, Abbas is unrepentant, and Lipstadt, now the US special envoy to combat antisemitism, is again calling him out for his unacceptable antisemitism.
Four years later, too, the “latter stages of his career” linger on, and the man who inherited Arafat’s narrative demonizing and delegitimizing Israel continues his foul revisionism, seeking to stir up hostility, and by extension violence, against the Jews and their state, and thus continuing to stave off the process of interaction and negotiation he claims to seek to enable Palestinian independence.
In his very same nauseating Berlin appearance, Abbas ludicrously professed himself committed to building trust and achieving a peaceful solution to the conflict with Israel. “Please come to peace,” he implored. “Please come to security, let’s build trust between us and you.”
But like Arafat before him, the current Palestinian leader is the biggest obstacle to a better future for his people. “Let’s build trust,” he urged. But trust is a function of confidence. It requires mutual good faith. And it is founded on truth.
In our perilous reality, trust simply will not, cannot be built with a man who has failed our people and his own because of his manifest lifelong incapacity, his refusal, to acknowledge and come to terms with Jewish history — ancient and modern, in Israel and in exile.