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What Motivated Last Week’s Attack on Author Salman Rushdie?

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Last Friday morning, famous British-Indian author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in a violent attack during a literary event in upstate New York. Rushdie was stabbed in the neck, chest, hand and one eye, and he was taken by helicopter to a hospital where he underwent surgery.

Currently, Rushdie is recovering from his wounds. He is now off his ventilator and able to speak.

Salman Rushdie and the Khomeini Fatwa

Rushdie has lived under the threat of death for many years since he published a book in 1988 on the founder of Islam, considered blasphemous by some Muslims. His novel, “The Satanic Verses,” fictionalized parts of the life of Islamic prophet Muhammad. The book included depictions of Muhammad and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that many Muslims found offensive.

Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran at the time, issued a fatwa (decree) on February 14, 1989. The fatwa ordered faithful Muslims to kill Rushdie, and the government of Iran even went as far as putting a price of several million dollars on Rushdie’s head.

Middle East Countries Angered by Rushdie’s Knighthood in 2007

Rushdie received a knighthood from Great Britain for services to literature in 2007. Many countries with Muslim majorities denounced the award, and their parliaments were also critical. Iran and Pakistan summoned their British envoys to make a public and formal protest.

According to the Tehran Times, the Iranian regime’s mouthpiece, “Some non-Muslims were disappointed by Rushdie’s knighthood, stating that the writer did not deserve the honor and that there were other writers who deserved it more than Rushdie.”

The Tehran Times also noted that “Norman Tebbit, the former chairman of the Conservative Party from 1985 to 1987, described Rushdie as a ‘outstanding villain’ whose ‘public life has been a record of terrible deeds of betrayal of his childhood, faith, adoptive home, and nationality.’”

Where Did the Attack on Rushdie Take Place?

The attack was carried out at the beginning of an event organized by the Chautauqua Institution. Since its founding in 1874, the Chautauqua Institution has organized intellectual events focusing on pluralism and free speech. Ironically, it has now become the location of a vicious attack on one of the most notable writers in the 20th century.

Rushdie’s attacker was 24-year-old Hadi Matar, a resident of Fairview, New Jersey. After the attack, Matar was arrested by a state trooper who was assigned to be present at the event.

According to news outlets, Matar was born in the U.S. to parents who emigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon. His social media posts reveal support of Iran and Hezbollah.

In a fascinating interview with British news outlet Daily Mail, Matar’s mother, Silvana Fardos, described how her son became radicalized, even though he grew up in a secular Muslim family in Cudahy, California, and the shock that the family feels.

She says, “I just cannot believe he was capable of doing something like this. He was very quiet, everyone loved him. As I said to the FBI, I’m not going to bother talking to him again. He’s responsible for his actions. I have another two minors that I need to take care of. They are upset, they’re shocked. All we can do is try to move on from this, without him.”

Related link: Islamic Extremists Kill Nigerian Pastor, Attack His Hometown

Fardos suggests that her son’s radicalization was a result of a long process that started with her divorce to his father, Hassan Matar, in 2004. Hassan Matar returned to Lebanon after the divorce.

In 2018, Hadi Matar traveled to Lebanon to visit his father. His mother noted that Matar became more religious and introverted after that trip: “I was expecting him to come back motivated, to complete school, to get his degree and a job. But instead, he locked himself in the basement. He had changed a lot; he didn’t say anything to me or his sisters for months.

“I couldn’t tell you much about his life after that because he has isolated me since 2018. If I approach him sometimes, he says hi, sometimes he just ignores me and walks away.

“He sleeps during the day and wakes and eats during the night. He lives in the basement. He cooks his own food.”

The scenario described by Fardos of increased isolation and religious fanaticism is not unique; it is a common model of the radicalization of Muslim youth in the West. Scholars have discussed this phenomenon ever since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

These young, radicalized men are often inspired by online sources. They have carried out a growing number of lone wolf attacks.

Iran’s Response to the Rushdie Attack

While the Iranian government did not comment directly on the attack on Rushdie, some people were willing to comment to Western media. According to Al-Jazeera, 27-year-old deliveryman Reza Amiri told the Associated Press: “I don’t know Salman Rushdie but I am happy to hear that he was attacked since he insulted Islam.”

Similarly, the Tehran Times observed, “This is the fate for anybody who insults sanctities.” The Tehran Times added, “In 1990, he issued a statement claiming he had renewed his Muslim faith, repudiated the attacks on Islam made by characters in his novel, and was committed to working for better understanding of the religion around the world in the ‘hope that it would reduce the threat of Muslims acting on the fatwa to kill him.’ Rushdie later admitted that he was ‘pretending.’”  

The Reactions from the Left and Right

Both right wing and left-wing pundits used the attack on Rushdie to attack their political rivals. Leftist columnist Jill Filipovic, writing for The Guardian, observed that the attack on free speech is similar to the attempts by right-wing conservatives to stop free speech. Right-wing writer Stanley Kurtz of The National Review compared Rushdie’s attack to cancel culture and attempts on American college campuses to stop the speech people find offensive.

Wherever you fall on the issue of free speech, there is no doubt the attack on Salman Rushdie is at the very core of free speech and the foundations of the U.S. Constitution. People on both sides of the political map should take pause and reflect on the value of freedom of speech in our society and history.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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