Human Rights

Nobel Committee Condemns Iranian Fatwa on Salman Rushdie—27 Years Later

The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature, has condemned the 1989 fatwa issued by Iran calling for the killing of author Salman Rushdie.

The academy did not condemn the fatwa, which was issued in reaction to the alleged blasphemy in Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, when it was first announced. Instead, wanting to avoid getting involved in political controversy, the academy made a general call for freedom of expression without directly supporting Rushdie. Two members of the academy resigned in protest of its silence.

Thursday’s condemnation called the fatwa and the promise of reward money for the killing of Rushdie “flagrant breaches of international law.”

Tomas Riad, acting secretary of the committee, told the Associated Press that the condemnation was prompted by both the news of last month’s increase in the bounty offered to kill Rushdie and by the beginning of normalization between Iran and the West in the wake of last year’s nuclear deal.

The academy expanded on its reasoning in a statement:

Recently, only weeks after the beginning of a normalisation process between Iran and the Western world, the tone again escalated. Forty state-run media outlets grouped together to increase the bounty by an additional USD 600,000. The death sentence and the reward money are flagrant breaches of international law and rules of civilised interaction within the world community and therefore can in no way be compatible with normalisation.

The fact that the death sentence has been passed as punishment for a work of literature also implies a serious violation of free speech. The principle of the independence of literature from political control is of fundamental importance for civilisation and must be defended against attacks by avengers and the adherents of censorship.

The Swedish Academy decries the retention of the death sentence for Salman Rushdie and that state-controlled media are permitted to encourage violence directed at a writer.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of Iran, placed a fatwa and a $3 million bounty on Rushdie after his 1989 book The Satanic Verses was deemed blasphemous. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered in 1991, and translators in Italy, Norway, and Turkey were targeted for assassination. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in 2005 that the fatwa was still in effect.

Current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, widely regarded as a moderate, defended the fatwa saying in 1993, saying (.pdf) that “the West should tolerate the edict [fatwa] as an act of freedom of expression, just as it shelters Rushdie for the sake of the so-called freedom of expression.”

[Photo: Edna Wintl / Flickr]