May 17, 2020
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No Freedom From Fatwa?

The Iranian government may have distanced itself from the fatwa against Rushdie, but fundamentalists haven't

No Freedom From Fatwa?

IT will be a while before Salman Rushdie can walk up and down London's Oxford Street. Days after Iranian president Syed Mohammad Khatami announced to the world that "we should consider the Salman Rushdie issue as completely finished," hardliners only firmed their resolve to carry out the fatwa, decreed by the father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989.

Rushdie visited the Frankfurt book fair recently—but escorts were all around him. They do not look like they will ever leave him, not after a conservative Persian daily, Jomhuri Islami, announced that the 15th Khordad Foundation had increased the $2.5 million bounty on Rushdie's head by $300,000. To top that, on October 8, a hardline student group offered one billion Iranian rials ($333,000) to anyone willing to kill Rushdie.

Khatami's lawmakers also raised their voice in protest. Of the 270-member Majlis, 150 signed a petition last week, describing the fatwa as a 'divine order' which cannot be revoked. "The fatwa against Rushdie is death... (he has to) burn in hell for eternity," the petition declared. Even Iran's foreign ministry released a statement that the fatwa was "irrevocable".

To make matters worse for Rushdie, various religious groups in Pakistan are echoing the same thoughts. "Committing blasphemy against the Holy Prophet is such a grave crime that all the schools of thought in Islam have the same view on it. Rushdie cannot and should not be pardoned," said Allama Kokab Okharwi, head of the Sawad-e-Azam Ahle Sunnat. While the pro-Iran Shia organi-sation Tehrik-e-Jafaria says that if Iran withdraws the fatwa, it would endanger the government's survival, the extremist right-wing party, Lash-kar-e-Toiba, which is deeply involved in the Kashmir militancy, wants Rushdie to be "stoned to death".

Some experts feel that Rushdie and the Western media are responsible for heightening emotions in Iran. Says one commentator, Tahera Sultan: "They made noises about his freedom. Both Rushdie and the British Foreign Office simply ignored the fact that even in Britain there are some who still are a potential threat to Rushdie."

After Khatami's assurance to the United Nations last month regarding Rushdie, the West—and the writer—reacted with joy. "It looks like it's over... it means freedom...," Rushdie said. But Iranians clamped down on Khatami for making such conciliatory noises. Even a moderate newspaper like The Tehran Times took it upon itself to explain Khatami's statement in another light: "The president simply wanted to say that Iran would not send agents to kill Rushdie and did not mean that the fatwa was changed or withdrawn."

 What added to the confusion was the talks between Iran's foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi and British foreign secretary Robin Cook last month in New York during the UN general assembly meet. At a press conference, Kharrazi reiterated Iran's formal assurance that it would not seek to kill the fugitive novelist: "The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has no intention, nor is it going to take any action whatsoever to threaten the life of the author of The Satanic Verses or anybody associated with his work, nor will it encourage or assist anybody to do so. Accordingly, the government disassociates itself from any reward which has been offered in this regard and does not support it."

Reacting to Kharrazi's statement, Iran and Britain declared they would upgrade diplomatic ties and exchange ambassadors. But hopes that Rushdie could return to normal life after 10 years in hiding received a severe blow when the Khordad Foundation—and most of Iran—made its intentions clear.

The 15th Khordad is a rich foundation which helps poor families with funds from its commercial activities. The foundation has stakes in big industries and commercial institutions which were confiscated from the Shah regime. Khordad-15—June 5 in the Iranian calendar—is named in memory of the June 5, 1963, massacre of seminaries in the holy city of Qom by the police of the pro-West Shah, who was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Says journalist Abbas Salimi: "All this confusion is due to the fact that the West does not understand Islam. In principle, a fatwa can neither be withdrawn nor changed." He explains that a fatwa can only be rescinded by the authority who decreed it and, since Khomeini is no more, the death order stands forever.

Experts say the government of Iran is publicly dissociating itself from the fatwa so that it can "open the way for closer cooperation between Iran and the European Union, particularly Britain". Explains another journalist D. Sajjadi: "Kharrazi tried to say that Khomeini issued a religious decree and the government is not obliged to translate it into action. But there is no guarantee that someone from Iran or any other country will not kill Rushdie if he gets a chance to do so."

Conservatives in Iran oppose Khatami's open-door policy for the West. He is locked in a power struggle with the conservatives who still control key power bases such as the judiciary and parliament. Nearly 70 per cent of voters, especially women and youth, put him in power with the hope that he would usher in changes and bring some relief from the harsher realities of the revolution. A Tehran-based Western diplomat says the president remains popular, although some of his initiatives to promote his vision of a civil society within the rule of law have been frustrated by conservatives who feel Khatami's policy would dilute the principles of Islam.

THE latest scenario is that the fatwa is alive and so is the threat to Rushdie's life. The only difference is that the government will have "no role in the execution of the fatwa". So, the government may not send commandos to kill Rushdie, but what is significant is that it has refused to give written assurances sought by the British government. Britain also wants an unequivocal statement by the government of Iran dissociating itself from the reward on Rushdie's head.

The British Foreign Office predictably says the impasse with Iran is over. For Britain it had better. Iran is opening up its oil industry to invite $8 billion of investment. Britain, which lost no time exchanging ambassadors, is now pushing strongly for bidding in this business by British companies. The deal between Iran and Britain makes the threat to Rushdie unofficial now, but not unreal.

Khatami's intentions may be sincere, but there is no guarantee that the 15th Khordad Foundation or others will follow them. Some Pakistani and Iranian intellectuals, while condemning Rushdie for what he has written in The Satanic Verses, say that punishing a writer in this manner is not justified. But not one of them is willing to go on record. While religious groups gear up to "fire the bullet which will one day pierce this Satan's throat and stop his pen making further insults," Rushdie continues to welcome his release from hiding, in hiding.

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