30 Years Ago, A Fatwa Against Salman Rushdie Shook The World — And Inspired Larry David
In 2007, on the occasion of his first day teaching literature at Emory University, Salman Rushdie told reporters he receives a “sort of Valentine’s Day card” from the Iranian government each year reminding him the country hasn’t forgotten the bounty it placed on his head in 1989.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of Iranian cleric and leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa, a Muslim religious edict, calling for Rushdie’s death. The fatwa has never been lifted. But after nearly 10 years living under police protection and 20 years passed more-or-less unmolested while living in the United Kingdom and United States, Rushdie appears to be out of harm’s way.
Rushdie’s trouble with Iran began shortly after the British publication of his novel “The Satanic Verses” in September of 1988. Following its debut, the book, controversial for its often bawdy retelling of the life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, was banned from being imported to Rushdie’s native India, where it was also met with protests. Book burnings ensued in the United Kingdom in December; their participants cited offense over Rushdie’s naming of characters, including prostitutes, after sacred Muslim figures, and the book’s title, which references a legend about the devil dictating verses in the Quran.
In November and December of 1988 South Africa, Sri Lanka and the largely Islamic nations of Bangladesh and Sudan followed India’s lead and banned the book. In the United States, bookstores received bomb threats even before the novel hit shelves in February of 1989, and on the 12th of that month, a massive protest against the book in Islamabad, Pakistan ended with five dead. A day later, another died and 100 were injured in similar demonstrations in Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. On the 14th of February, a statement from Khomeini was broadcast by Tehran radio:
“I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses book which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.”
With the announcement of the edict, the 15 Khordad Foundation, a religious organization connected to the Iranian regime, offered a reward of $2.7 million to the individual who succeeded in dispatching Rushdie and his publishers. On February 18, on the advice of Iranian President Ali Khameini, Rushdie apologized in a public statement for “the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam,” but Khomeini did not accept the gesture.
The threat persisted and Rushdie spent the better part of the 1990s living in hiding with friends and literary colleagues across England, sometimes having to flee immediately when his Scotland Yard keepers sounded the alarm.
Iran officially stepped away from their involvement in the fatwa as part of a diplomatic deal with the United Kingdom in 1998. In 2012, Rushdie published “Joseph Anton,” a memoir of his time in hiding named for the pseudonym he lived under between 1989 and 1998.
In that time Rushdie’s ordeal had became a fascination of popular culture.
In the memoir, Rushdie recalls running into Jerry Seinfeld at a cocktail party in the 1990s. Seinfeld, he relates, tensed up at the sight of him, not because of the target on his back, but because of the comedic one that Seinfeld’s titular show had placed there. But Rushdie eased the sitcom star’s mind, admitting he found the 1993 ”Seinfeld” episode “The Implant,” in which he was the subject of a steam-room case of mistaken identity, “very funny.”
The episode was just a sample of things to come. No one has gotten more comedic mileage from the fatwa than “Seinfeld” show runner Larry David, who has mined the Rushdie affair for laughs for 26 years.
In “The Implant,” written by Peter Mehlman, Kramer believes a man named “Sal Bass,” whom he meets while sitting in a schvitz at a health club, is the notorious novelist. (“You got five millions Muslims after you, you wanna stay in pretty good shape,” Jerry opines.) We never learn if Sal Bass is the real Rushdie, though the actor they cast to play him isn’t exactly a believable double. But this B-Plot barely ranks on the reference scale when measured against the entirety of the 2016 season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
In the ninth season of “Curb,” the fictional Larry David — played by the actual Larry David — is hard at work on “Fatwa: The Musical,” a showtune-packed treatment of Rushdie’s nine years as Joseph Anton.
In trademark David-style, large stakes become small. “Fatwa: The Musical” features the number “Salman, Get Out” in which a ballet of slamming doors leave Rushdie, played by actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, out in the cold after he refuses to clean dishes while holing up in a friend’s home. (David believes Rushdie’s survival hinges entirely on his being a good house guest). Things take a meta turn when David, promoting the show on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” mocks the Ayatollah. To no one’s surprise — save his own — he ends up with his own fatwa.
If this seems insensitive to the threat that continues to hang, albeit with some degree of remoteness, over Rushdie’s head, the season’s third episode might quell objections. Who should appear in that episode but Rushdie himself, who gamely tells David the upsides of being on the Ayatollah’s Most Wanted List?
“It can be scary, it can be bewildering, etcetera, but there are things that you gain” Rushdie says to David over tea. “There are a lot of women that are attracted to you in this condition. You are a dangerous man.”
In a caricature that feels very much in character, Rushdie preaches the glory of “Fatwa sex” and demonstrates to Larry’s amazement how he shirks social commitments on the grounds of his current threat level. Of the danger, he says “it’s out there, but f*ck it.”
It turns out that Rushdie’s perspective is a great match for Jewish sensibilities. David, like Rushdie, is a satirist; in the fatwa scenario they find common cause in turning a story of exile and danger into a social situation good for a few solid gags. This approach doesn’t excuse the moral questions at hand, but it doesn’t negate their comedic potential either.
The current Ayatollah may not be laughing, with a 2006 announcement from the Iranian state-run Fars News Agency reporting that the fatwa was still in play and the reward goosed to nearly $4 million, but it’s good to see that Rushdie is — even in the face of death.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected]