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Khomeini’s invention of theoterrorism Photo: Matthew Carson

Khomeini’s invention of theoterrorism

On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence on Salman Rushdie because, in Khomeini’s opinion, Rushdie had criticised Islam’s sacred icons. Khomeini introduced a new terrorist tactic, “theoterrorism".

On April 1, 1979, the toppling of the monarchy in Iran took place, which led to the establishment of an Islamic republic. So this year the regime celebrates its 40th anniversary. One of its most notorious and atrocious deeds took place ten years later, on February 14, 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence on Salman Rushdie because, in Khomeini’s opinion, Rushdie had criticised Islam’s sacred icons. In the solemn prose of the fatwa: “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 Koran – and all those involved in the publication who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death.”

Rushdie is still alive, but if we leave that aside for a moment, it is hard to deny that Khomeini’s fatwa was a massive success from the perspective of a new “theoterrorist” tactic. Because that is what Khomeini did. He introduced a new terrorist tactic, “theoterrorism".

What terrorism is, is clear. A terrorist uses violence to intimidate the state or citizens into complying with his demands. “Theoterrorism” is terrorism in the name of God. The terrorist pretends he speaks with divine authority; he executes God’s agenda, and as long as he has followers who believe him and are ready to carry out his commands, he can be devastatingly effective.

Khomeini proved effective. After the Rushdie fatwa came the Danish cartoons (2005). After the Danish cartoons came the French cartoons (2015). And every time, the confrontation between liberal democratic nation-states and international theoterrorism ended in a resounding victory for the latter. The Danish cartoonists are silent. Their French colleagues are dead.

International appeasement politics started with the Dutch. What no one in Great Britain realises, what is missing in all British biographies on Rushdie, and what is probably unknown to Rushdie himself, is that the Khomeini fatwa of February 14, 1989 had a precedent in a Dutch affair in which Khomeini intimidated the Dutch government.

On February 23, 1987, Dutch television was about to broadcast a spoof of Khomeini by the Dutch comic Rudi Carrell (1934-2006). This spoof, broadcast on German television eight days earlier, had already provoked a diplomatic crisis between Bonn and Teheran. Before the programme could be aired on Dutch TV, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hans van den Broek (b. 1936), personally called the Dutch broadcaster. During his telephone call on 23 February, a few seconds before the network was to broadcast the programme containing the contested item, the minister tried to convince the host, Paul Witteman (b. 1946), not to air the issue discussed. The reporter, understandably surprised to have the Foreign Minister on the phone, took an unusual approach in this dilemma: he invited the minister to call again a few minutes later, i.e. live, and explain his reasons for asking the programme to censor itself. To the surprise of many, perhaps, the minister agreed. And as a result, all the considerations about giving in to pressure from Iran (or not) were aired openly on Dutch television. Delicate discussions on what to do when faced with such tricky dilemmas, usually held behind closed doors, were now laid out for all to see.

As a consequence, when Dutch television decided not to air the Khomeini spoof, everyone knew the reason why: fear of terrorism, fear of violence. From that moment onwards, a new terrorist tactic had proved its value. And the Rushdie affair was a direct consequence of the Rudi Carrell affair. After 30 years of struggling with this dilemma, the world still has not resolved it.

Paul Cliteur is a professor of jurisprudence Leiden University (the Netherlands) and author of Theoterrorism v. Freedom of Speech.

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