Rushdie's Future: `Passions rise as Iran seeks new talks on death sentence

With the return of European Union ambassadors to Tehran, the Iranian government hopes to re-start negotiations over the fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie. But as Our Correspondent in Tehran hears from the new Iranian minister of Islamic Guidance, Seyyed Ataollah Mohajerani, the Rushdie affair has no simple solutions.

Everyone in Tehran understands the equation. And both the Iranians and the European Union ambassadors are very polite at their talks about Salman Rushdie - because both appreciate the problems of the other. Western diplomats in Tehran want a letter from the Iranians which effectively overturns the late Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against the author. The Iranians are prepared to put their names to a letter which says that they are not going to kill Rushdie - but they will not officially overturn a religious edict. To do so could topple the new government of President Mohammad Khatami. Not to do so, in the eyes of the EU, is a re-affirmation of the death sentence. One day, Rushdie should write a novel about it.

"It was announced officially that Iran will not execute anyone regarding this fatwa," Seyyed Ataollah Mohajerani told me in his new Islamic Guidance ministry. "But a fatwa from a religious authority is not something to be cancelled by a government - and the government of Iran cannot ignore it or cancel it ... the book [The Satanic Verses] is there and the people of the world have read it. Rushdie is still alive but Imam Khomeini has passed away - so it's not possible to cancel the fatwa."

Mr Mohajerani, it should be said at once, is no conservative. One of the most liberal figures in the new Khatami government, he is a former vice- president for legal and parliamentary affairs, with a PhD in history and a belief in civil freedoms that almost cost him parliament's approval for his new job. Indeed, his 48-minute speech to the Iranian majlis this summer - strangely ignored in the West - contained some memorable passages on freedom of speech.

During his appearance, he was taunted for being "linked to liberals" and for proposing a dialogue with the United States - something which President Khatami finally did last weekend. At one point, a majlis deputy demanded to know if Mr Mohajerani would personally kill Salman Rushdie if he came face-to-face with him. The future minister would not clarify his views on the matter. During the same hearing, however, he stated baldly that "everybody who has accepted the Islamic Republic and our country's constitution ... must be subject to tolerance ... I condemn the burning of bookshops, the beating of university lecturers and attacks on magazine offices."

In his conversation with me, Mr Mohajerani insisted that the fatwa was a religious decree. "Some religious leaders believe that if someone has humiliated the Prophet, if he repents, he could be forgiven - this is a religious point of view," he said. Was this some kind of message for the religious leadership? Would it not have been better for Iran, I asked, if the fatwa had never been issued? There was a sharp smile from Mr Mohajerani. "If the book had not been written, there would have been no fatwa issued," he said. "The negotiations with the European Union [over the fatwa against Rushdie] were stopped when the EU ambassadors left [after a German court had blamed Iran's religious leadership for planning the murder of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin]. Now we hope we can restart negotiations."

The Khatami government, of course, is well aware that the 15 Khordad Foundation, which on 12 February this year announced an increase in the reward money for Rushdie's murder - to pounds 1.5m - is an immensely powerful organisation with the support of the unelected Spiritual Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. The foundation's head, Ayatollah Shaikh Hassan Sanei, is a senior figure in the religious establishment and the personal representative of Khamanei. In an interview with the Jumhuri-ye Islami newspaper, Ayatollah Sanei announced that anyone - non-Muslim or even a bodyguard of Rushdie's - could claim the reward for killing the "apostate".

A day after the increase in the reward for Rushdie's killing, a Revolutionary Guard statement published in the same newspaper claimed that "Muslims of the world have always considered Salman Rushdie an apostate and shall not rest until Imam Khomeini's order has been implemented." The then President, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, tried to diminish the impact of these statements by talking about the 15 Khordad as "a non-governmental organisation" whose decisions "have nothing to do with the government's policies". Mr Rafsanjani even evinced ignorance of the Khordad's rationale. "I don't know what their motive was," he said, "but the government's policy towards [the Rushdie affair] is the same as before, and one which we have repeatedly announced." A request by The Independent to interview Ayatollah Sanei, was politely declined by the 15 Khordad organisation.

The truth is that the Rushdie affair is in danger of reigniting passions among the ultra-orthodox clergy who were defeated in last May's presidential elections. When President Khatami's supporters demand intellectual freedom, his political enemies now suggest that they wish to excuse The Satanic Verses and contradict the word of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Anyone who advocates intellectual freedom may now be linked to Rushdie. And, of course, the more Khatami's men condemn Rushdie's book, the less liberal they appear in the West.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Polly Borgen at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012
peopleThe Emmy award-winner starred in Cape Fear, the Sopranos and Desperate House Wives
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teaching Assistant required in ...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam