It would be an understatement to say that the West and Islam have had a complicated relationship. After Muhammad, the founder of Islam, died in 632 CE, the religion underwent a rapid and often violent expansion into Christian territories. Muslim forces conquered parts of the Christian Byzantine Empire and even conquered Spain and threatened France before being driven south in 732 CE.

Christian Europe then went on the offensive in the 11th century beginning with the Crusades and the “Reconquista” of Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries, before the Islamic Ottoman Empire conquered the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and took large parts of southeastern Europe in the process.

The nations of the West were ascendant in much of the modern period, with Britain, France, and (to some extent) Spain colonizing much of the Islamic world.

After World War II, things were quiet until Israel became a nation in 1948, then the idea of the West versus the Islamic world was renewed with some new players on the chessboard.

When Islamic fundamentalists took over Iran in 1979, they immediately raised tensions between the West and Islam up 100 levels, adding new political and religious dimensions to the conflict.

Although Iranians are ethnically Persian and not Arabs, and Iran is Shiite Islamic country, with the Shiites being the minority sect in Islam, it is a fundamentalist country that strictly follows Islamic or Sharia Law. Many devout Muslims respected the Iranians’ adherence to Islamic law as well as how they stuck it to the West when radical students took over the American embassy in Tehran.

Iran instituted a new constitution in 1979 and rebranded itself as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The head of this new theocracy was a man named Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini, although, to most of the world, he was just known as the Ayatollah (leader) Khomeini.

Khomeini was certainly unique for a modern dictator when he took the reins of power in 1979. Unlike other modern Islamic dictators who wore Western attire and often made connections with either the Western or Communist blocs, Khomeini wore traditional Persian garb and was as anti-Soviet as he was anti-American.

The Americans may have been imperialist Christians, but the Soviets were equally bad as godless atheists.

During his 20 years in power, Khomeini said and did a lot of crazy things.

By angering both West and East with his rhetoric and calls for jihad, he isolated Iran, which played a major role in its loss of up to 700,000 people in the Iran-Iraq War. Although Iran was larger and had more people than Iraq, the Iraqis were better supplied through their connections with both the East and West.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Khomeini threw human waves of suicide squads at the Iraqis, many of them child soldiers. This only served to isolate Iran further.

And of course, Khomeini was just as repressive as any of the other dictators on this list, imprisoning, torturing, and killing his opponents. As bad as those things all are, they’re to be expected with most dictators. No, the craziest thing Khomeini did was when, in 1988, he ordered a fatwa or death sentence on Salman Rushdie for writing the book The Satanic Verses.

The death sentence was never carried out, but it had the effect of further isolating Iran from the rest of the world until Khomeini died in 1989. Khomeini’s fatwa also proved to be very polarizing, pitting the Islamic world against the West like never before. In fact, many point toward the controversy as the origin of the current West-Islamic conflict.

From One Dictator to Another

Iran, also known as Persia, has a long and illustrious history. When Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 331 BCE, it had already been around for more than 200 years. Before that, the Elamites called Persia their home and after the Achaemenids, the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties ruled Iran/Persia.

After the Arab Muslims conquered the Sassanids in the 7th century CE, Persia became a Shiite Islamic land, but its culture was still great. Some of the greatest poets, scientists, and other scholars in the medieval Islamic world came from Persia.

Persia remained more or less independent in the modern era, occupying a tenuous position between East and West. Many of the inhabitants of Iran’s largest cities were Western in outlook, while the country folk tended to be more pious Muslims.

The Pahlavi Dynasty ruled Iran for most of the 20th century and when Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became Shah (king) in 1941, he assumed the throne as a true dictator. He promoted a Western-style culture in Iran with repressive political policies. By the 1960s, the Shah had enemies everywhere: leftwing urban intellectuals hated him for his repressive tactics and fundamentalist Muslims hate him for failing to properly observe Islamic law.

It was only a matter of time before the Shah was brought down.

Khomeini spent most of his adult life working as a teacher and Islamic scholar, acquiring quite a reputation in those fields but never really being interested in politics. After all, the Shah never impinged on the field of Islamic scholarship and gave at least token recognition and respect to Shia Islam, so it was never a concern.

But then the Shah instituted a series of reforms beginning in 1963 known as the “White Revolution.” Most of the White Revolution was benign as far as Khomeini and other fundamentalists were concerned, but reforms that gave women the right to vote and allowed non-Muslims to hold elected office made the Shah an enemy of the fundamentalists.

And Khomeini became the leader of the religious opposition.

Khomeini’s leadership landed him in prison, and then exile, in 1964, making him a man without a nation for more than 15 years. He lived in Iraq for several years, before he came to the attention of the dictator ‘Saddam Hussein’, who wanted him gone due to his leadership of the Shia community.

As the Shah’s repression in Iran grew, though, his control over the country slipped. He was overthrown in October 1979, which allowed Khomeini to return home and usher in a new era.

A Wonderful Valentine!

There is plenty of irony in the Khomeini’s crazy decision to issue a fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s life. Although Rushdie was raised in a Muslim family in India, he was a true citizen of the world, spending most of his time in Britain. He was not a practicing Muslim. Rushdie was a committed member of the Western leftwing intelligentsia class and as such was deeply opposed to the Shah of Iran.

Rushdie, like the leftwing in Iran at the time, even supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Khomeini initially. The writer and others like him thought, or hoped, that the new government would be authentically Persian, free of Western influence.

Well, they got their wish, but it didn’t end up being the Utopia they wanted.

Yes, Iran was free of American influence and was authentically Persian, but it was also a theocracy that actually reversed most of the Shah’s more liberal policies. Then Khomeini decided to imprison or kill the enemies of his new state, which included all the “godless communists” on the leftwing.

By 1988, Iran was already pretty much the biggest rogue state in the world, but when Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published, it became even more so.

And really, the book isn’t that big of a deal. The Satanic Verses is a fictional story about Indian ex-pats living in modern England. In case you’re wondering, it really doesn’t have anything to do with Satan, but gets its name from a story that claimed the devil tricked Muhammad into adding three verses to the Quran before the prophet realized what had happened and eliminated them.

There were other elements of the book that were offensive to fundamentalist Muslims as well, such as many of the names of the characters and some of their seemingly immoral activities.

The negative reaction to the book was immediate. The Satanic Verses was banned in several Muslim countries and book stores in the United Kingdom and the United States. Some other countries that carried it were threatened and even firebombed. The stores that did carry it often kept it stowed away behind the counter.

Then Khomeini issued his famous fatwa on February 14, 1989. The Iranian leader probably didn’t intend for the fatwa issuing date of Valentine’s Day to have any sort of significance, but it was certainly taken that way. Not only did Khomeini call for any and all Muslims of the world, Shia and Sunni, to kill Rushdie for his blasphemy, but it also came with a $6 million bounty!

The fatwa had immediate repercussions throughout the world.

A new round of kidnapping of Western journalists in Lebanon by Shia militants took place, and for a time, Sunnis also seemed to rally around Khomeini.

The fatwa may have made Khomeini the most recognizable leader in the Islamic world, but its long-term effects for Iran were for the most part negative. Britain ended its official relations with Iran after the incident, which further isolated Iran. Even after Khomeini died in June 1989 and the Iranian government made attempts to appear more moderate, the crazy decision to issue a fatwa over The Satanic Verses continued to hover like a black cloud over Iran’s foreign policy.

The fatwa on Rushdie’s life is still in effect.

Did You Know?

  • Although Islamic law would’ve permitted Khomeini to have up to four wives, he was only married to one woman, Khadija. They had four children; their two daughters, Zahara and Farideh, were actually accomplished scholars.
  • Khomeini was a follower of the “Twelver” branch of Shia Islam. Twelvers believe that there are 12 imams, the twelfth of which lives in hiding and will only reveal himself in the end times.
  • Rushdie survived an assassination attempt in London on August 3, 1989, when a Lebanese bomber blew himself up while making a bomb intended for the author.
  • A Sunni Muslim terrorist group, ‘al-Qaeda’ added Rushdie to their long hit list in 2010.
  • Khomeini and Saddam Hussein may have been bitter enemies, but they both shared hatred of the Kurds. Khomeini believed that their desire for autonomy divided Iran, so he sent troops to occupy their region and had their leaders arrested and killed.