Attack on Rushdie shows divisions among Lebanese Shiites

By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The stabbing attack on author Salman Rushdie has exposed divisions within Lebanon’s Shia Muslim community, with some denouncing violence against staunch supporters of the Shia militant group Hezbollah backed by Iran who welcomed the attack. A Rushdie defender has received death threats.

The attack struck close to home among Lebanon’s Shiites. The attacker, Hadi Matar, 24, has dual Lebanese-American citizenship, and his father lives in a Hezbollah-dominated village in southern Lebanon. Matar’s mother said she believed her son’s visit to the village of Yaroun in 2018 turned him into a religious fanatic.

The religious edict, or fatwa, urging Muslims to kill Rushdie was issued in 1989 by then-Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who accused the author of blasphemy for his portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in the novel “The Satanic Verses”.

Iran, a close Hezbollah ally, welcomed Friday’s attack but denied any direct involvement. Hezbollah officials have been keeping a low profile since the attack on Rushdie, 75, as he prepared to give a talk in western New York. A Hezbollah official declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.

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Rushdie suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and in an eye, but was taken off a ventilator on Saturday and able to speak.

Most Lebanese Shiites back Hezbollah and the more secular Amal movement allied with parliament speaker Nabih, which won all 27 seats allocated to the sect in this year’s parliamentary elections. The seats of Parliament and Cabinet are divided in Lebanon according to religious affiliations.

Yet there is a vocal minority of critics of Hezbollah among Shiites. Several were attacked and one was shot last year.

As the controversy swirled, an old video of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah resurfaced on social media. In it, Nasrallah said that “no one would have dared to attack the Prophet of Islam Muhammad again” if Rushdie had been killed immediately after the fatwa.

Some Hezbollah critics have accused the group and its supporters of teaching their children to kill in the name of religion,

Matar’s mother, Silvana Fardos, told local Al-Jadeed television on Tuesday night that her son had lived his entire life in the United States until he visited Lebanon for the first and last time in 2018. This trip changed him forever, she said.

“After he came back from Lebanon, he was a different human being (…) I knew he was suffering from a long depression and I expected to wake up one day and find that he had committed suicide “, Fardos said, alleging that his son was abused by his father.

When asked if she wondered if she raised a terrorist or an extremist, the mother replied, “No. I raised an angel.

Journalists were barred from entering Yaroun and Matar’s father did not speak to the media.

Despite Hezbollah’s official silence, the group’s supporters on social media are praising the attack.

Some have issued threats against prominent journalist Dima Sadek after he posted on his Twitter account a photo of Khomeini and General Qassim Soleimani, a senior Iranian general killed in a US strike in 2020, describing the two as “verses Satanic”.

Since then, death threats on social media and through messages on his mobile phone have not stopped, with one man warning him: “I will rape you in public” and another saying that “his blood should be paid”. She received an SMS in which the sender told her where she lives.

Sadek said that despite public threats, she has not been contacted by authorities with offers of protection.

“It’s the first time I feel I’m in danger,” Sadek, a harsh critic of Hezbollah for years, told the AP. She alleged that the social media campaign against her was orchestrated by Nasrallah’s son, Jawad.

She said she was restricting her movements for the first time.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged Lebanese authorities to investigate and protect Sadek.

Shiite journalist Mohamad Barakat, editor of news site Asas Media, was also attacked after writing that in stabbing Rushdie, Matar “stabbed Shiites who live in Europe and America”.

On the other side, Lebanese journalist Radwan Akil of the famous local daily An-Nahar said in seemingly contradictory remarks that he tolerated the fatwa against Rushdie, but not the killing of anyone, including writers.

“I am of course in favor of political freedoms and freedom of expression… but I am not for criticizing the greatest man in history, the Prophet Muhammad, and I also reject the criticism of Jesus Christ” , Akil said in a TV interview with Lebanese. media.

An-Nahar released a statement, titled “Adopting a call for murder contradicts our policy.” He stated that Akil’s views were his own. Two journalists who had worked for the newspaper and were outspoken critics of Hezbollah and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, another Iranian ally, were killed in car bombings in 2005.

The debate could eventually die out as most Lebanese are concerned about the country’s economic collapse and lack of services. “They have a lot of other concerns,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

Lebanese political leaders have not commented on Rushdie’s attack.

However, Acting Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada denounced Rushdie’s portrayal of the prophet.

“Free speech should be polite,” tweeted Mortada, a Shiite minister close to Hezbollah allies. “Insults or black grudges have nothing to do with morality.”

Associated Press writer Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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