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How Salman Rushdie's novel sparked controversy in the Muslim world for over 30 years

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The novelist Salman Rushdie is now 75. But for the last 33 of those years, he's lived with a fatwa that called for his death, issued by the supreme leader of Iran at the time. Today, he is off a ventilator and slowly recovering but still in critical condition. He was repeatedly stabbed during an onstage discussion last Friday in upstate New York. Iran has denied involvement, but a spokesman for its foreign ministry says it doesn't blame anyone for the attack except Rushdie himself and his supporters.

So what exactly did Salman Rushdie write that would provoke an attempt on his life more than three decades after he wrote it? Let's bring in Robin Wright. She's covered Iran for decades, and she wrote about this case for The New Yorker. Robin, thank you for being here.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you.

SUMMERS: The book was called "The Satanic Verses." And here's Rushdie speaking to NPR in 2012 about the controversial parts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SALMAN RUSHDIE: My purpose was not to write only about Islam; it was to talk about the nature of revelation and also to suggest that when a big, new idea comes into the world, it must answer two challenges. One is the challenge of how do you behave when you're weak? And the other, how do you behave when you're strong?

SUMMERS: Robin Wright, help us understand, why was this book considered offensive back in the late 1980s?

WRIGHT: The book was considered offensive because it portrayed the human weaknesses of the Prophet Muhammad and in some ways, in the eyes of some Muslims, questioned his credibility as the messenger of God.

SUMMERS: The first sentence and the headline of your New Yorker piece, they both note that the leader of Iran at the time never even read this book. So why, then, did Iran issue this edict and put a bounty on Rushdie's head?

WRIGHT: The Rushdie fatwa was, in many ways, an historic coincidence. The publication of his book intersected with a severe crisis to the Iranian - the very fragile Iranian revolutionary system. And Ayatollah Khomeini, who was the leader of the revolution, recognized that this was an important juncture, and he exploited the protests in the wider Islamic world about the Rushdie book. Remember, Iran did nothing for the first six months after it was published, and it was only after there were protests in neighboring Pakistan when several Muslims were killed in violent clashes with security forces that Khomeini intervened and decreed that not only Rushdie but anyone who translated or published his book in any language was condemned to death. So it was ultimately a political action, and it has played out ever since then in the kind of internal - feisty, internal debate within Iran between reformers who want to convert the state back to a kind of normal country and not make it a pariah anymore and hard-liners who are devoted to the original militant ideology of the regime.

SUMMERS: How did this all affect Salman Rushdie's life?

WRIGHT: Well, for the first decade, he was under around-the-clock protection from Scotland Yard. He wrote about how many times he had to move around in different hiding places, and it had a widespread effect on others. The Japanese translator of his book was stabbed to death. The Norwegian publisher was attacked and so was the Italian publisher. So this was a - you know, this had a kind of widespread rippling effect across the literary world.

SUMMERS: We've got about a minute left here. I'm curious, what do you make of the response inside Iran to this attack and Iran's official remarks about the matter?

WRIGHT: Iran denied any involvement, but the reality is, just five days before the attack, a hard-line Iranian publication republished that original fatwa from 33 years ago. And the reaction to the attack among the hard-line press has been almost jubilant, calling Rushdie Satan and said he was on a path to hell. And so this is a reflection of the ongoing impact of that original fatwa, even though Ayatollah Khomeini is long dead.

SUMMERS: OK. That is Robin Wright. She has written several books about Iran and the Middle East, and she contributes to The New Yorker. Robin Wright, thank you very much for your time.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.