A Self-Defeating Crusade Against Salman Rushdie

Twenty-seven years after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s most notorious work and its legacy still engender controversy. On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that Iran is threatening to boycott the Frankfurt Book Fair because Rushdie is to make the festival’s opening keynote address.

“This has been organized by the Frankfurt Book Fair and crosses one of our political system’s red lines,” said Seyed Abbas Salehi, Iran’s deputy minister for culture and Islamic guidance. “We consider this move as anti-cultural.”

The Satanic Verses infamously prompted Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei to issue a fatwa against Rushdie, a British citizen, in 1989. The religious edict technically still stands, but is no longer part of the Islamic Republic’s state policy. Iran renounced the death threat to restore ties with the United Kingdom in 1998. During those years, Rushdie’s travel abroad was limited and he was frequently accompanied by security wherever he went.

In his recent statement, Salehi defended the edict, saying “Imam Khomeini’s fatwa on this issue is reflective of our religion and it will never fade away.”

But at what cost? The Frankfurt Book Fair is one of the world’s largest festivals of its kind, and those who would suffer the most from an Iranian boycott would be Iranian authors themselves. The Guardian notes that nearly 300 Iranian publishers attended last year’s festival, representing some 1,200 books.

“The publication of polemic literature and its consequences affect not just authors but the entire publishing industry,” writes the festival’s website in promoting Rushdie’s speech. “That’s why freedom of expression and boundaries are key topics at this year’s book fair.”