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Old jihadi causes never die…nor do they fade away

The recent attack on UK author Salman Rushdie is a potent reminder that calls for religious violence can last decades.

If you are a normal individual there is a good chance that your interests and passions will change over time. You may not abandon your initial loves completely but you may not be as gung-ho as you once were. You no longer pursue some things so ardently: maybe that is part and parcel of growing older (and wiser!).

Tell that to the jihadis!

Yes, yes, there are claims that some Islamist terrorists eventually see the light and decide to no longer dedicate themselves to blowing shit up (or blowing themselves up in the process: mind you, you do that only once!). And I suppose that indeed some do mend their ways (but the Fishmongers Hall case in London is a very real wake-up call!). But how do we know?

Exhibit A – the recent assassination attempt of UK author Salman Rushdie at an event in western New York state.

Details on the suspect – who has been arrested – and motive are still outstanding (and the recent killings in New Mexico were a great reminder of why we should wait for the facts to come in before passing judgment), but we can certainly speculate on a few things.

  1. There is some reporting that the man believed to have stabbed Rushdie, 24-year old Hadi Matar, who was born in the US to Lebanese parents, held sympathies for Hezbollah and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC);
  2. The suspect had recently become ‘more religious’, despite a secular upbringing, and ‘appeared to change’ after taking a month-long trip to Lebanon to stay with his father in 2018 (his parents divorced in 2004 and the father moved back to Lebanon); and
  3. Yaroun, where his parents emigrated to the US from, is said to be a stronghold of the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, and portraits of Hezbollah and Iranian leaders are displayed throughout the village.

A lot of this is very speculative and we need to find out a lot more before we can weigh in on the actual motive behind this attack. Who knows, Matar may have ‘mental issues’. Still, there are signs pointing to the possibility of a religious motive as well as terrorism.

Crucially, we need to remind ourselves that the fatwa (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Khomeini – remember him? – way back in 1988 calling for the death of Rushdie for having insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses is still out there, despite the fact that the Iranian government issued a statement more than a decade later saying it would neither “support nor hinder” Rushdie’s assassination (note that it did NOT call off the original fatwa). Laughingly, the current Iranian regime announced that Rushdie himself and his supporters were responsible for the attack (“Regarding the attack on Salman Rushdie, we do not consider anyone other than [Rushdie] and his supporters worth of blame and even condemnation.”). Matar (NB ‘matar’ means ‘to kill’ in Spanish – coincidence??) was not born when the fatwa was decreed but he may have been aware of it and sought to fulfill its demand (I hope this all comes out in his trial).

In other words, in the view of extremists Rushdie’s ‘crime’ needs to be punished – i.e. he has to be killed – and there is no statute of limitations on this. The author will be on a hit list until someone finishes him off, as Matar very nearly did, or he dies himself. Religious extremists will accept nothing short of his demise, hopefully at the hands of a ‘defender of the faith’ who will be honoured by many for his deed.

The baying for blood does not end at Rushdie. Those on the periphery of the book have also been attacked: Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese scholar and translator of Rushdie’s novel, was stabbed to death in 1991, the Italian translator of the novel, Ettore Capriolo, was injured in a stabbing in Milan in 1991 and the Norwegian publisher of the book, William Nygaard, survived an assassination attempt when he was shot three times in Oslo in 1993.

This case of terrorism, for that is exactly what the attack was (pace mental issues), is interesting in that it is not the usual Sunni variety we have come to see so often (Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Al Shabaab, etc.) but rather Shia in nature. Iran is a theocratic Shia state and has been since 1979 and has initiated its own terrorist acts over the decades (although Shia Muslims are also targeted regularly by Sunni jihadis, who see them as apostates). It is best to remember that Iran is very much a fan of Shia-driven religious violence.

The bottom line here is that religious intolerance and hatred can last a very long time. Whatever one thinks of Salman Rushdie and his works (I tried to read The Satanic Verses and got a few pages in before abandoning it so don’t count me as a fan!) he does not deserve assassination regardless of what he wrote about Islam. Alas, religious terrorists don’t see it that way and Rushdie will have to watch is back in perpetuity, for old jihadis, unlike old soldiers, never really fade away…

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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