The fatwa

A frail old man, wearing a black turban and ankle-length robes, stepped out of an Air France 747 into a chill February morning. His back hunched, he clutched the arm of a steward as he took faltering steps down a portable ramp to touch Iranian soil. After 15 years in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini had come ...

GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP/Getty Images
GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP/Getty Images
GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP/Getty Images

A frail old man, wearing a black turban and ankle-length robes, stepped out of an Air France 747 into a chill February morning. His back hunched, he clutched the arm of a steward as he took faltering steps down a portable ramp to touch Iranian soil. After 15 years in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini had come home, the 78-year-old spiritual leader of a popular revolution that had toppled the shah of Iran and humbled SAVAK, his American-backed secret police force. Several million people from all across the country thronged into the capital to welcome the ayatollah, lining the 20-mile route out to Behesht-Zahra cemetery, where many of the martyrs of the revolution were buried. "The holy one has come!" they shouted triumphantly. "He is the light of our lives!" At the cemetery Khomeini prayed and delivered a 30-minute funeral oration for the dead. Then a boys' chorus sang, "May every drop of their blood turn to tulips and grow forever. Arise! Arise! Arise!"

In the decade between Khomeini's return to Tehran and the imposition of his fatwa on Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses -- and it was almost 10 years to the day that the one followed the other -- Islamism mutated from being a minor irritant to nationalist regimes in Muslim countries into a major threat to the West. The Rushdie affair, and the fatwa in particular, seemed like a warning that the seeds of the Iranian revolution were being successfully scattered across the globe, not least into the heart of the secular West.

Read more.

A frail old man, wearing a black turban and ankle-length robes, stepped out of an Air France 747 into a chill February morning. His back hunched, he clutched the arm of a steward as he took faltering steps down a portable ramp to touch Iranian soil. After 15 years in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini had come home, the 78-year-old spiritual leader of a popular revolution that had toppled the shah of Iran and humbled SAVAK, his American-backed secret police force. Several million people from all across the country thronged into the capital to welcome the ayatollah, lining the 20-mile route out to Behesht-Zahra cemetery, where many of the martyrs of the revolution were buried. "The holy one has come!" they shouted triumphantly. "He is the light of our lives!" At the cemetery Khomeini prayed and delivered a 30-minute funeral oration for the dead. Then a boys’ chorus sang, "May every drop of their blood turn to tulips and grow forever. Arise! Arise! Arise!"

In the decade between Khomeini’s return to Tehran and the imposition of his fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses — and it was almost 10 years to the day that the one followed the other — Islamism mutated from being a minor irritant to nationalist regimes in Muslim countries into a major threat to the West. The Rushdie affair, and the fatwa in particular, seemed like a warning that the seeds of the Iranian revolution were being successfully scattered across the globe, not least into the heart of the secular West.

Read more.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and senior visiting fellow at the Department of Political, International, and Policy Studies at the University of Surrey. His books include Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate and From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, from which this essay is adapted.

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