This article appeared in the edition of the newspaper The world dated August 17.
On February 14, 1989, on the eve of the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan, Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued the fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie to death, on the grounds that his novel The Satanic Verses [1988, Viking] would have blasphemed the Prophet. The date chosen by the Shiite leader was intended to obsess in the eyes of the Muslim world the expected victory of his Sunni rivals, supported by the CIA and financed by Saudi Arabia and the petro-monarchies, who were going to kick out of the land of Afghan Islam the forces of communist atheism that had invaded it a decade earlier.
In the immediate term, the global scandal triggered by the fatwa – an Iranian ayatollah sentencing a British citizen to death on the very soil of the United Kingdom, unheard of at the time – had the desired effect: Khomeini had drawn the lurking under the feet of Sunni Islamism, which hoped to take advantage of the Soviet defeat to appear as the herald and hero of the “humiliated and offended” Muslims across the planet. Not many people immediately noticed the Soviet defeat, which would have decisive geopolitical consequences – leading, on November 9, 1989, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the death of communism.
The ayatollah had won the media war, and it was to regain control in the face of this rivalry in hegemony over revolutionary Islamism that Ayman Al-Zawahiri (who was killed at the end of July by an American missile in Kabul, where the Taliban made a comeback after the US withdrew, this time a year ago) theorized, in its 1996 manifesto, Riders under the banner of the Prophetthe need to strike the great blow of Sunni jihadism that would be “the blessed double raid” of September 11, 2001. Which would allow Al-Qaeda to monopolize the news to the detriment of Tehran’s rivals by sowing death in the West, in Washington and New York.
However, the fatwa continued its devastating effects after the death of Khomeini, which occurred in June 1989: it would even be taken up and extended by his Sunni rivals, with their death sentence on Danish cartoonists who published drawings deemed blasphemous of the Prophet in a daily newspaper, in September 2005, later taken over by Charlie Hebdowhich would culminate in the January 7, 2015 massacre perpetrated by the Kouachi brothers, the cornerstone of Daesh [acronyme arabe de l’organisation Etat islamique] in Europe and the beginning of the departure movement of thousands of young French Muslims for Cham – the Islamic name of the Levant.
This shows the extreme sensitivity of this issue of the “defense of the honor of the Prophet” for all the Islamist movements which try, thanks to this, to mobilize their co-religionists in a universal jihad against the Judeo-Christian West – or “Crusader-Zionist” (sahiou-salibi) in their idiom.
We experienced the most recent upheavals in September 2020, when the republication of the cartoons by the editorial staff of the weekly at the opening of the January 2015 killings trial resulted in three new murderous actions: the first [le 25 septembre] when the Pakistani Zaheer Hassan Mahmood, in view of gigantic demonstrations in his native country demanding the beheading of the “blasphemers”, acquired a butcher’s sheet and beat two people in front of the former headquarters of Charlie; the second [le 16 octobre] with the beheading by the Chechen Anzorov of Professor Samuel Paty in front of his college in Yvelines following the posting of hate messages targeting him; and the third [le 29 octobre] when a Tunisian illegal immigrant stabbed three Catholic worshipers in the Notre-Dame basilica in Nice on the Prophet’s birthday.
On this occasion, the author of these lines offered an analysis of these ultimate actions in terms of “atmospheric jihadism”: “angry entrepreneurs” (to use the expression of Professor Bernard Rougier) denounce targets on the social, without even the need for any organization or network giving orders to executors, contrary to what Al-Qaeda and then Daesh had implemented. Nourished by these digital stimuli, socialized in circles sharing a culture of Islamist separatism with Western societies, whose values are execrated in the name of an extremist reading of the Koran, the sunna and their exegeses, individuals move on to criminal action, convinced of being the vectors of the redemption of the community of believers (oumma), of promoting the Islamization of the universe and of ensuring for themselves and their families a place of choice in paradise.
This “atmospheric jihadism” – for which the extermination of the supposed blasphemers constitutes the trigger par excellence determining the passage to the act – is all the more easy to implement in Sunnism, because this majority confession of Contemporary Islam (about 85%) has no hierarchical or sacramental clergy endowed with infallibility. It is thus particularly porous on the Web and on social networks, where clusters of individuals are formed who convince themselves of the veracity of their beliefs, however phantasmagorical they may be.
“A bullet that will find its target”
Shiism, on the contrary, has strictly hierarchical ecclesial structures marked by obedience to the great ayatollahs referring (marja’al-taqlid). Not everyone agrees with each other. Khomeini’s magisterium and that of his successor, the Iranian Leader Khamenei, also inspire the dominant Hezbollah in Lebanese Shiism, the community from which the suspect in the stabbing attack on Rushdie, Hadi Matar, who was born in California to immigrant parents, hails. In Iraq, on the other hand, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is strongly opposed to this political instrumentalization of belief.
Nevertheless, the ability of Iran’s current leaders to regiment their followers, and to mobilize their state apparatus for this purpose, remains very strong. The reformist presidents who served briefly in Tehran, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), made it known in various forms that the fatwa of February 14, 1989 was no longer valid. But they themselves have disappeared from the political scene, replaced by the former prosecutor Ebrahim Raïssi, who sent many opponents to death. The real power remains in the hands of the Guide, Ali Khamenei, for whom the said fatwa “is like a bullet that will inevitably find its target”. The comments of the Tehran press closest to his line applauded the “heroic” act of Rushdie’s attacker, and condemned him, a Muslim by birth, called an apostate from Islam and therefore liable to execution.
However, the attempted murder of the British writer of Indian origin – as he was about to give a lecture on freedom of expression and America as a land of refuge par excellence for exiled artists – seems paradoxical in relation to the interests of the Iranian regime, eager to obtain the conclusion of the nuclear agreement concerning it at the UN General Assembly in September, at which Mr. Raisi had announced his presence. It is hard to imagine that such a criminal act, with immense symbolic repercussions, could favor the outcome of the negotiation and the reintegration of Iran into the international community.
Even if voices in the Muslim world claim that the execution of a “blasphemer” is much more legal than that of Al-Zawahiri in Kabul or of the Iranian general Ghassem Soleimani, head of the external force of the Revolutionary Guards ( pasdarans), liquidated by the American army on January 3, 2020 at Baghdad airport, such an argument is not admissible either in the United States or in Europe, and certainly not by an American president facing a delicate electoral deadline in November.
Just as Sunni jihadism, financed during the war in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, by the petromonarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, equipped and instrumentalized by the CIA, had escaped those who had warmed it within their midst when it triggered bloody attacks in Saudi Arabia and then the massacres of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, has Shiite jihadism gone beyond the state logic of its Iranian designers?
The first elements of the investigation revealed that the suspect’s Facebook page, accessible until the hours following the attack on Rushdie, praised the Revolutionary Guards, General Soleimani and Hezbollah in general. This 24-year-old man, born in the United States nine years after the fatwa, was he bathed in an “atmospheric jihadism” of radical Shiism where social networks, the sociability group, contaminated by similar phenomena producing in a Sunni environment, prevailed over strict obedience to the instructions of the masters of Tehran?
Judicial proceedings will in due course provide answers, but we are immediately confronted with the ubiquity and resilience of a multifaceted jihadist phenomenon on the very soil of the democratic countries of the West. This recurring threat pleads for increased vigilance in the face of separatist logics which strive to split our societies by tearing their fabric along confessional and exclusive dividing lines, the culmination of which has resulted in a long series of violence and crimes. , of which the fatwa of February 14, 1989 constitutes the starting point and the emblem. Coming from the most radical political Shiism, it mutated into the most extreme Sunni combatant movements, like Al-Qaeda then Daesh, and is now back, after the military and political exhaustion of these, to its place of origin.
Gilles Kepel is a professor at the University of Paris Sciences and Letters. He directs the Middle East – Mediterranean Chair at the École Normale Supérieure. He posted ” The Prophet and the Pandemic. From the Middle East to atmospheric jihadism » (Gallimard, 2021)