The stabbing attack on Salman Rushdie in the US last week has ignited a heated debate in Lebanon, with the author’s work The Satanic Verses once again the centre of a fraught discussion over free speech.
Politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens from across the country are weighing in on what has become a battle over where the line between the sanctity of religion and the freedom of artistic expression lies.
“Everyone has their own opinion,” tweeted Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of Culture Mohammad Mortada on Monday. “But The Satanic Verses are inferiors that are used by [Satan] to use defamation and slander in attacking those who are superior to them — and those who accompany Satan become his agents.”
He went on to say: “With regard to free speech, it should be polite. Those who [disrespect] adults with insults and rancour have nothing to do with morality or ‘honesty’, neither by lineage nor fame.”
It was an apparent response to a tweet by journalist and TV presenter Dima Sadek — whose last name in Arabic means “honest”.
Last week, Sadek tweeted an image of former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the late commander Qassem Suleimani with the caption, “The Satanic Verses”.
The tweet caused a backlash among supporters of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement, and led to a series of death threats against her.
In addition to holding a position in Lebanon’s caretaker Cabinet, Mr Mortada is a judge who has twice served as a member of the Supreme Judicial Council — a 10-member administrative body that approves the appointment of judges.
The debate over freedom of expression in Lebanon is particularly noteworthy, given that Rushdie’s attacker, Hadi Matar, himself has Lebanese roots.
The attack brought attention to the small Lebanese village of Yaroun, which has a link to Mr Matar, the 24-year-old man charged with attempting to murder the author at the weekend in the US.
Although the family emigrated to the US before Mr Matar was born, his father returned to Lebanon several years ago and is believed to be working as a shepherd.
Yaroun’s mayor said that the father is refusing to talk to anyone and normally keeps to himself.
“His father is in the country now but he has locked himself in and is not accepting to give any kind of statement to anyone,” Ali Tehfe told Reuters. “We tried with him, we sent people, we went and knocked on the door but he is not agreeing to speak to anyone.”
Iran’s Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death in 1989, a year after the release of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which some Muslims felt offered a blasphemous interpretation of the Prophet Mohammed’s life.
Tehran has “categorically” denied involvement in the attack, although Mr Matar has reportedly had contact with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The south of Lebanon is a power base for Hezbollah, the Iran-backed political party and armed group that has often fought with Israel.
Hezbollah has not officially commented on the attack on Rushdie but an anonymous official from the group told Reuters that “we don’t know anything about this subject so we will not comment”.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, has previously said the fatwa against Rushdie should be carried out.
Mr Tehfe said he had “no information at all” on the political views of Mr Matar or his parents when asked if the attacker was sympathetic towards Hezbollah.
Mr Matar’s mother, Silvana Fardos, who lives in the US, said her son had “changed” during a four-week trip to Lebanon in 2018.
“I was expecting him to come back motivated, to complete school, to get his degree and a job. But instead, he locked himself in the basement. He had changed a lot, he didn’t say anything to me or his sisters for months,” she told the Daily Mail.
“I couldn’t tell you much about his life after that because he has isolated me since 2018. If I approach him, sometimes he says ‘hi’, sometimes he just ignores me and walks away.”
Mr Matar pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault in court on Sunday.
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