This Day in International Law: March 7th

By Julia Jacovides

On this day in 1989, Iran broke off diplomatic relations with Britain for its refusal to denounce Salman Rushdie and his novel, The Satanic Verses. On February 14, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death and, though Britain admitted the book was insulting, it did not support the fatwa.

The Satanic Verses follows the lives of two Indian expatriates, both Muslim, living in England and struggling to connect with their faith. Critics accused Rushdie of “blaspheming Islam.

From the Archbishop of Canterbury to the foreign secretary, the British establishment similarly denounced the book. Even Jimmy Carter referred to it as an “insult to the sacred beliefs of” Islam.

Rushdie’s supporters maintained that Rushdie’s freedom of expression allowed him to pen any type of novel, including this one. “A novel is an essentially playful undertaking,” one said, “and this is an exceedingly playful novel.

With the help of a small circle of literary friends, Rushdie went into hiding. He has lived under police supervision since then.

Bookstores across the United States and the United Kingdom, where Rushdie lived at the time of publication, continued to sell the book despite periodic attacks and occasional bomb scares. Riots took place in Islamabad, Kashmir, and New Delhi; there were deaths at each. Two bookstores in Berkeley, California were firebombed; each carried The Satanic Verses.

Britain had only reopened its embassy in Tehran a year earlier, nearly ten years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It took another ten years for the two countries to formally reestablish full diplomatic relations. In 1998, the Iranian government abandoned its support of the fatwa as part of an effort to normalize relations with the United Kingdom.

In February 2016, Iranian news outlets raised $600,000 “to add to the fatwa” on Rushdie.