Twenty years ago this week, the Ayatollah Khomeini called for the death of author Salman Rushdie for insulting Islam in his book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie's lawyer Geoffrey Robertson gave Rushdie a place to hide out in those days and defended Rushdie against the crime of blasphemy. Robertson reflects back on that time.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On February 14th, 1989, Iran’s leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a funny Valentine – a death sentence in the form of a religious edict called a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. The alleged crime was blasphemy against Islam in Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. Protests erupted in England and around the world.
[PEOPLE SHOUTING IN BACKGROUND]
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: The official aim of this march is to extend the law of blasphemy, get The Satanic Verses banned and have its author also put on trial. But many of the demonstrators demand instant and final retribution.
PEOPLE CHANTING: Ban Rushdie, ban! Ban Rushdie, ban!
BOB GARFIELD: In the days just following the issuing of the fatwa, Rushdie turned to his lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, for legal and physical protection, hiding out, among other places, in Robertson’s home. When the fatwa first came down, Robertson says they had no idea how seriously to take it, but soon they realized just how grave the situation was.
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: What made it deeply serious, I think, was when the government-backed so-called charity put a price on Salman’s head, actually, announced a bounty of about three million dollars for killing him. That really was quite worrying.
BOB GARFIELD: The police rather liked your home as a safe house. Tell me why.
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: It was in Islington in North London, and it overlooked a church and church grounds and a park, so they could see pretty clearly any would-be assassin advancing on it. And it was blocked at the back, so it was a good place to hide out.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this case took a rather bizarre twist when your client was sued in British court for the crime of blasphemy, which until recently, was, you know, on the books in the U.K.
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: It was a crime. It has a dreadful history. A lot of Tom Paine’s works were condemned for blasphemy, and booksellers who sold them in the early 19th century were sent to the most brutal prisons. It was revived in the 1970s because there was a paper called Gay News that published a poem that envisoned Christ as gay, and that was far too much for these Anglican obsessives. They reinvented the crime of blasphemy to punish the editor of Gay News. And so, some Muslim lawyers decided that they would flush Salman out of hiding [LAUGHS] by issuing a summons for a criminal offense. But they had to get a magistrate to issue a summons, and the magistrate refused. So they had to go to the high court to argue that the summons should be issued.
BOB GARFIELD: But the judge turned down the summons because, at least under the British law, blasphemy was considered only in terms of the Church of England, correct?
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: Correct. It wasn't a crime to blaspheme against Islam, and so they appealed on that basis, but a bad basis. If we'd had a Bill of Rights in those days, as you do, [LAUGHS] we would either have sensibly struck down the whole law or at least extended it to protect every religion. But they failed, partly because, of course, they had to work out what it was about the book, about The Satanic Verses, that actually blasphemed, and, of course, they couldn't.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to come back to the British blasphemy law, since repealed. What finally forced that to happen was the case in Sudan where a British subject was accused of blasphemy for naming her teddy bear in a way deemed disrespectful to Islam, which put the world in high dudgeon until it was pointed out that the West has blasphemy laws, too. Correct?
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: It was pretty obvious that the blasphemy laws, particularly one that protected only the Anglican religion, were indefensible. It was very uncomfortable for the British government to be told, well, you have your blasphemy laws, we have ours. So I think finally the message got home to the government, and eventually last year they abolished the blasphemy law.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so that’s been repealed. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie has not been repealed. Can you explain why that is?
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: Well, I'm no Islamic legal scholar. I'm told that because the Ayatollah is no longer with us, it can't [LAUGHS] be posthumously withdrawn. But others say that it can. The State of Iran disclaims the bounty that was there, so we could hope that it’s just become a dead letter.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoff, thank you very much.
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoffrey Robertson is a human rights lawyer and author of the books Tyrannicide Frief and Crimes Against Humanity.