Khomeini v. Rushdie

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 3: Freethought II: Freedom of Expression

Khomeini v. Rushdie

On February 19, 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini watched the evening news on Iranian television. He saw an angry Muslim crowd in Pakistan, protesting against the publication of a blasphemous book: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. What could he do to help? Khomeini was touched – according to sources around the Iranian politician – by this spontaneous religious upsurge.

To put things into a historical perspective we have to remind ourselves that Khomeini may also have learned, two years before, how easy it was to intimidate Western governments. On April 23, 1987 the Dutch Broadcasting Corporation VARA was about to air a scene taken over from German television in which Ayatollah Khomeini was mocked.[14] The Dutch minister Hans van den Broek (1934– ) called the anchorman of the program, Paul Witteman (1946– ), and encouraged him not to broadcast that specific scene. During the program in a live telephone call the minister made a case for what might be called self-censorship, and the Broadcasting Corporation yielded to the advice of the minister, because otherwise the safety of Dutch citizens in Iran might not be guaranteed.

Two years later Ayatollah Khomeini made an even more intimidating move: threatening a British writer in Great Britain.

He called for a secretary and pronounced the following verdict (fatwa)[15] on Rushdie, his publisher, and his book:

In the name of Him, the Highest. There is only one God, to whom we shall return. I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses – which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an – and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.

In addition, anyone who has access to the author of this book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should report him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May peace and the mercy of God and His blessings be with you.[16]

Beneath the fatwa we find a name and a year. The name is: Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini. The year is: 1367. What strikes the modern reader in this encouragement of a “bribed assassination scheme” (Hitchens)[17] is that in the year 1989 CE such an action by an official religious and political leader was still possible.[18] I say “still possible,” because it is reminiscent of similar declarations in the European context long ago. In 1570 Pope Pius V (1504–1572) issued the Bull Regnans in excelsis declaring the English queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) illegitimate and her reign ripe for a takeover by Catholic insurgents.[19]

This papal bull is based on the idea of the superiority of papal over secular authority or of the Church over the State. The theoretical foundation of this approach is to be found in another bull issued by Boniface VIII (1235–1303): Unam Sanctam (1302).[20] Unam Sanctam lays down the following principles.

In the power of the Roman Church there are two swords, the temporal and the spiritual. The spiritual is to be wielded by the Church, the temporal for the Church. The former is in the hand of the priest, the latter is in the hand of kings and soldiers. The temporal power must be subject to the spiritual. So the spiritual power has to institute the secular power and to judge its “holiness.” “Therefore,” so the historian J.B. Bury (1861–1927) writes in his important work History of the Papacy in the 19th Century (1930), “if the secular power strays from the right way it will be judged by the spiritual power, whence if the highest spiritual power deviates from the right way it will be judged by God alone.”[21]

The implication of this doctrine is clear. It implied that the secular power was entrusted to princes simply as servants of the Church. So when Elizabeth I deviated from the path of Rome, the Pope considered himself perfectly justified in inciting her subjects to throw off their queen. Needless to say, this doctrine can cause a lot of trouble if taken seriously. Much later the British philosopher T.D. Weldon (1896–1958) wrote: “One of the many troubles about Hitler was that he claimed to control Germans outside Germany, in other words he extended the definition of the German Community to cover people of German origin anywhere in the world and acted on this hypothesis.”[22] That is true. But what is equally true is that this pretension also slumbers within the great religious traditions in various stages of their development. The pope in the sixteenth century had the same ambitions: he wanted to legislate for all Catholics all over the world, superseding local political leaders.[23]

Richard Dawkins has said he is in favour of offending people’s religion and it should be offended at every opportunity.

From the perspective of a modern nation-state these pretensions by the pope, Ayatollah Khomeini, or any other religious leader, would be considered an outright violation of national sovereignty.[24] But the Catholic Church operated on a completely different worldview (at least before 1570).[25] Even in modern times this pretension has still not died out. T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) wrote in his The Idea of a Christian Society (1939): “There would always remain a dual allegiance, to the State and to the Church, to one’s countrymen and to one’s fellow-Christians everywhere, and the latter would always have the primacy. There would always be a tension; and this tension is essential to the idea of a Christian society, and is a distinguishing mark between a Christian and a pagan society.”[26]

The Church acts on the basis of what it sees as universal jurisdiction. The result was that for centuries Roman Catholics were subject to disabilities in England. “They were not permitted, for instance, to sit in Parliament. In the seventeenth century they were regarded as a fifth column in the service of England’s enemies, Spain and France. James II, a Catholic king, was deposed. Nor did opinion change after the Napoleonic Wars. England remained solidly Protestant.”[27]

Actually, it is a worldview that is remarkably similar to the one that we meet in Khomeini’s declaration that a British author who violated holy Islamic law by mocking the Prophet should be killed. This worldview completely overturns the modern system of international relations based on the sovereignty of the nation-state as we have known it since the Peace of Westphalia (1648).[28] As a perceptive commentator remarked about Khomeini’s claim:

His concept of the Islamic world order basically rejects the validity of the very notion of the territorial state which is the principal subject of the modern law of nations.[29]

Khomeini’s fatwa also reminds us of another conflict between the spiritual authority of the Church and secular authority. In 1633 the Catholic Inquisition issued a condemnation of the astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), sentencing him not to the stake, fortunately, but to house arrest and the abjuration of his “errors” and “heresies.”[30]

Khomeini’s edict on Rushdie was broadcast on the evening news, and to encourage the murder of the writer of the Satanic Verses an Iranian organization offered a one million dollar reward for his head.[31]

These outrageous acts occurred in the year 1367 of the Islamic Era, but, as the examples of Galileo (1633) and the Bulls Regnans in excelsis (1570) and Unam Sanctam (1302) make clear, they were also not uncommon in the history of Christianity between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The “Phinehastic” device of simply killing people who do not subscribe to your own religious ideas (or letting them be killed, see Chapter 2, Biblical Terrorism) was much more common than in times when the state was based on exclusively secular law.

Another famous example is the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno (born in 1548) in 1600 at the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.[32] Actually the Bull Unam Sanctam, introducing the dogma of the superiority of the spiritual to the temporal power dated from 1302 CE, which is quite close to 1367 (Islamic Era).

That brings us to the question: is there a “natural timetable” for religions to be purified of their more violent tendencies? Do they necessarily require hundreds of years to distance themselves from ideas and types of behavior such as those described above?

Sometimes this suggestion is ventilated by those who advocate “modesty” with regard to criticizing Islam or the Muslim world. Can we expect Muslims to skip some phases in the historical process, they ask us? Why hurry them if it took ages for the Western world to eradicate ecclesiastical intolerance? The Index librorum prohibitorum was only abolished in 1966.[33] The Inquisition in 1820.[34] Should we not give the Khomeinis of this world a little time to come to their senses?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Although the fact is not widely recognized, this point of view is heavily indebted to a metaphysical outlook. The name for this point of view is “historicism”: the idea that we cannot pass over phases in history. This kind of “folk-Hegelianism” was made popular by the American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama (1952– ) who in 1989 proclaimed “the End of History,” a proclamation that is now generally considered to have been premature.[35] But premature or not, many people are still under the spell of this historicism when they tell us that for the Arabic world is it “too early” to expect liberal democracy.[36]

The consequences of this prima facie innocent “folk-Hegelianism” might also be hard to swallow. It would imply that we have to wait for a long time for freedom of speech to flourish in the Middle East, for instance. In the year 622 CE the “Hegira” or “flight” of Mohammed took place. Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina as a result of the persecutions to which he was subjected. The Muslims date their time reckoning from that year. If it took the Catholic world 1,966 years to get rid of their fear of books, and 1,820 years to see that the Inquisition was not such a good idea after all,[37] and we allow Islamism or political Islam the same amount of time (and why should we not, would anything else not be a violation of the principle of equality?), then there would be violent suppression of heretics until the year 2442 (1820 + 622) and a list of forbidden books until the year 2788 (1966 + 622) in the Muslim world. Depressing as this idea may be, it seems to be the more or less inevitable conclusion that a once so optimistic-sounding writer like Fukuyama must come to.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[14] “Aufgewärmte Slips” [Heated Panties], Der Spiegel, no. 44, 27 October, 2007, p. 144.

[15] See on fatwas: Mozaffari, Mehdi, Fatwa: Violence and Discourtesy, Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 1998.

[16] Quoted in: Pipes, Daniel, The Rushdie Affair. The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West, second edition, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick 2003, p. 27. For the British context see: Ruthven, Malise, A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam, Chatto & Windus, London 1990, pp. 1–10.

[17] Hitchens, Christopher, god is not Great, p. 28.

[18] Baubérot, Jean, “Cultural Transfer and National Identity in French Laicity,” in: Diogenes, 55 2008, pp. 17–25, p. 22: 1989 seems to be an important year: “The stakes generally changed in the 1980s, and especially in 1989, the year of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and, in France, the first ‘headscarf affair.’”

[19] See on this: Petriburg, M., “The Excommunication of Queen Elizabeth,” The English Historical Review, 7, no. 25 1892, pp. 81–88; Shires, Henry M., “The Conflict between Queen Elizabeth and Roman Catholicism,” Church History, 16, no. 4 1947, pp. 221–233.

[20] Preceded by the decree Sicut universitatis conditor (1198) by Innocent III in which he set out the principle of the subordination of the State to the Church. See on this: McGrath, Alister E., Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution. A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, SPCK, London 2007, p. 18.

[21] Bury, J.B., History of the Papacy in the 19th Century, McMillan and Co. Ltd, London 1930, p. 139. At least this was the Church’s interpretation. See also: Blackham, H.J., Religion in a Modern Society, Constable, London 1966, p. 33: “The question was whether, as in the theory of the emperor Henry IV, there were ‘two swords,’ one in the hands of the king who should be obeyed for God’s sake, and this should be taught by the Church, the other in the hands of the Church which the king should protect from external enemies of Christ and compel his subjects to obey; or whether, as sealed and celebrated in the famous bull of Boniface VIII Unam Sanctam (1302), both swords had been given by God to the Church, which left the exercise of temporal power to princes but kept the right of control over it. This famous declaration at the height of Papal triumph was followed by a contest with the King of France and the exemption of the Gallican Church from Unam Sanctam.”

[22] Weldon, T.D., States and Morals: A Study in Political Conflicts, John Murray, London 1946, p. 29.

[23] See on this: d’Holbach, Paul Henri Dietrich, Baron, Le Christianisme Dévoilé ou Examen des Principes et des Effets de la Religion Chrétienne [Christianity Unveiled or an Examination of the Principles and Effects of the Christian Religion], 1761, in: D’Holbach, Premieres Oeuvres [Early Works], Préface et notes Paulette Charbonnel, Éditions Sociales, Paris 1971, pp. 94–138, p. 105. D’Holbach writes that everywhere where religion (read: Christianity) gets a firm hold over the minds of the people and its rulers there arises the problem of the two powers: civil and religious. That same argument was also used by some of the founding fathers in America. See: Glenn, Gary D., and Stack, John, “Is American Democracy Safe for Catholicism?” The Review of Politics, 62, no. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 5–29, p. 5.

[24] See: Charter of the United Nations, article 2.4: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

[25] See for contemporary perspectives: Murphy, Francis X., “Vatican Politics: Structure and Function,” World Politics, 26, no. 4 1974, pp. 542–559 and for Islam: Tibi, Bassam, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: Democratic Peace and Euro-Islam versus Global Jihad, Routledge, London 2008.

[26] Eliot, T.S., The Idea of a Christian Society, Faber and Faber, London 1939, p. 55.

[27] Annan, Noel, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses, HarperCollins, London 2000 (1999), p. 45.

[28] See on this: Philpott, Daniel, “The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations,” World Politics, 55 2002, pp. 66–95; Philpott, Daniel, “The Religious Roots of Modern International Relations,” World Politics, 52 2000, pp. 206–245.

[29] Ramazani, R.K., Revolutionary Islam: Challenge and Response in the Middle East, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1988, pp. 24 and 25.

[30] See Russell, Bertrand, The Scientific Outlook, Routledge, London 2001 (1931), p. 18.

[31] Pipes, The Rushdie Affair, p. 28.

[32] Kirchhoff, Jochen, Giordano Bruno, Rowohlt, Hamburg 2003 (1980); Rowland, Ingrid D., Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2008.

[33] See: Putnam, George Haven, The Censorship of the Church of Rome and its Influence upon the Production and Distribution of Literature: A Study of the History of the prohibitory and expurgatory indexes, together with some consideration of the Effects of Protestant Censorship and of censorship by the State, 2 Vols., New York 1906–1907.

[34] See the introduction to: Tollebeek, Jo, Writing the Inquisition in Europe and America: The Correspondence between Henry Charles Lea and Paul Fredericq (1888–1908), Koninklijke Academie van België, Brussel 2004.

[35] Fukuyama, Francis, “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16, Summer 1989, pp. 3–18, elaborated in: Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man, The Free Press/Macmillan, New York 1992.

[36] See also: Zakaria, Fareed, “The Islamic Exception,” in: Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2003, pp. 119–159.

[37] It may be a bit simplistic to start the Catholic tradition of suppressing free speech with the beginning of our common era. Perhaps we should consider other data that mark the beginning of the Church’s preoccupation with suppressing free speech, but I leave that to historians.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

Salman Rushdie on Bill Maher discussing “9/11 liberals”

Hitchens Don’t bow to Islam

Flemming Rose and Dave Rubin: Muhammad Cartoons, Islamism in Europe, Charlie Hebdo

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here