A Writer’s Murder Raises Fears of Death-by-Decree

On Saturday January 21, Salman Rushdie announced that because of new threats against his life he would not be attending the Jaipur Literature Festival, India’s premier showcase of Asian literature. Rushdie hid for 11 years after Khomeini’s 1989 public call for his death, only emerging in 2000. Now in 2012 he is threatened again. Unremarked upon in the recent hullabaloo concerning Rushdie was that only a few months ago a religious edict, or fatwa, was issued against another “blasphemous” Muslim author, Rafiq Tagi of Azerbaijan. And this decree, which declared his blood “permitted,” appears to have led to his assassination this past November.

That the case got so little attention in the U.S. (no mention in the New York Times, a brief article in the Washington Post) is striking, some would say disgraceful. In the U.K., the case got a bit more attention—see Nick Cohen’s impassioned article in The Observer: “The Deafening Silence of a Good Man’s Death.”

Rafiq Tagi, a physician and journalist, had been a persistent critic of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government and of the influence of Iranian clerics in Azeri politics and religious life. On November 19, Tagi was stabbed seven times by unknown assailants. Tagi survived the attack and while in the hospital gave an interview in which he speculated that he was targeted because of a recent article in which he wrote that President Ahmadinejad was “discrediting Islam through his actions.” Somewhat mysteriously, as he was recovering from his wounds, Tagi died the day after he gave that interview. He had lived under threat for five years.

Ayatollah Fazil Lankarani, the cleric who had called on believers to kill Kagi in 2006, has since died but his son, Mohammad Javad Lankarani, also a cleric, applauded Rafiq Tagi’s murder, praising the killers for “sending the reprobate who insulted the Prophet to hell.” And one of the official Iranian newspapers wrote approvingly that “Azerbaijan’s Salman Rushdie is dead.” As 70% of Azerbaijanis are Shia with allegiances to the Iranian clergy, it did not prove difficult to incite someone to murder Rafiq Tagi.

In December seven prominent intellectuals called on the European Union to investigate the circumstances of Tagi’s death. Among them were Taslima Nasrin, Richard Dawkins, and Salman Rushdie—and in mid-December the European Parliament condemned the murder.

But one of the most powerful condemnations of Tagi’s assassination, and of ‘death fatwas’ in general, has come from a prominent Iranian cleric now living in exile.

An Optimistic Dissident

Mohsen Kadivar, now teaching in the U.S., is a prominent Shia legal expert, philosopher, and theologian. He was educated at the seminary in Qom, the leading seminary in Shia Iran. An early internal critic of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Kadivar wrote an influential book which challenged the prevailing doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih. This doctrine, which grants Iran’s religious leaders supreme political powers, is according to Kadivar, not based on authoritative Shia sources, but, rather, on 19th-century texts. In Kadivar’s opinion, Shia jurisprudence might support a fully democratic system of government. This book, published in 1999, led to Kadivar’s imprisonment for “spreading false information about the Islamic Republic and helping the enemies of the Islamic Revolution.” Kadivar was sentenced to 18 months in prison and served his sentence in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

After his release Kadivar returned to teaching—but was barred from the university in which he had received his PhD. Eventually, after years of living under political restrictions he made his way to the United States. Despite his intense criticism of the Tehran regime, Kadivar is against the U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran and is concerned about the constant sabre-rattling coming out of Washington.

In a conversation held at Duke University on January 20, I spoke with Mohsen Kadivar about his concerns about the deterioration of U.S.-Iranian relations. “Sanctions,” says Kadivar, “are harmful to the Iranian people, more than to the government, and military action by the U.S. would be a great mistake.” “The West,” says Kadivar “does not really care about human rights in the Islamic world. Think about Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Despite the bad human rights situation in Iran, the conditions are better than in Saudi Arabia.” He points to the status of women in today’s Iran. More than 60% of university students are women. And, unlike in Saudi Arabia, women in Iran drive. Kadivar delights in telling me that in the holy city of Qom, there are women cab drivers who specialize in taking families on excursions.

But most of our conversation was about the murder of Rafiq Tagi. In an open letter to Ayatollah Lankarani, son of the author of the fatwa that “permitted” Rafiq Tagi’s blood,Kadivar wrote that:

In your statement dated November 26, 2011 posted in your website, you have expressed joy in the “terror of an evil man who would insult holy Islam and the respected Prophet” and “his excellency Grand Ayatollah Fazil Lankarani has issued a fatwa (religious decree) permitting the spilling of the blood of this infidel and heretic.” Your father’s fatwa dated November 25, 2006 in response to the question of some of his followers regarding their responsibility vis-à-vis the Azeri journalist Rafiq Taqi’s writings, is as follows: “such a person with the foresaid confessions, if he is a born Muslim, he is an apostate, and if he is an unbeliever, it is a case of insulter of the Prophet and in any event, assuming such confessions, killing him would be necessary for whoever has access to him, and the person in charge of the mentioned paper that knowingly publishes such thoughts and beliefs would be subject to the same punishment.” Your statement and your father’s fatwa follow the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa about the disparaging book The Satanic Verses, the difference being that the Western author (Salman Rushdie) is still alive under the protection of the British police while the Azerbaijani author in Baku was stabbed and died five days ago in hospital.

You are undoubtedly aware that these two individuals are not the only ones who have insulted the Prophet (Peace be upon him), Quran and Islam. There are some who on a daily basis and in different languages, in the print and Internet, insult religious beliefs in general, and propagate insult against Islam in particular. I doubt it that you and other respected jurists and mareje’h (sources of emulation) are aware of a fraction of these insults, even in Persian. One can now ask, based on the above-mentioned fatwa, if all of the producers and propagators of these insults and slanders are apostates and insulters of the Prophet? And whether in both cases the permitedness of killing them is obligatory to whoever could reach them? Thus, believers and your father’s followers and that of othermaraje’h’s who argue similarly, if they wish to perform their religious duties, would have to kill such persons—or in today’s language commit terror—or hire persons to perform this religious duty (according to the fatwa such as your father’s).

In critiquing such fatwas of terror and the permitedness of spilling blood, one could say [that]: The execution of the apostate and the insulter of the Prophet and permissibility of spilling their blood lack any Quranic proof. Rather, the spirit of Quran is contrary to such decrees.

Kadivar’s condemnation of all fatwas that call for the death of a “blasphemer” or “apostate” is in the spirit of his general approach to Islamic law. In his opinion as a legal scholar, an interpretation of Islam is fully compatible with the provisions of the UN declaration of Human Rights. When I asked him if he was optimistic about the possibility of reform in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a reform that would bring Islam into congruence with Human Rights ideas, he answered affirmatively and assertively. “Yes,” he said, “I am optimistic. That is why I am writing.”


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