The novel provoked great controversy in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were blasphemous references. They accused him of misusing freedom of speech. Pakistan banned the book in November 1988. On 12 February 1989, a 10,000-strong protest against Rushdie and the book took place in Islamabad, Pakistan. Six protesters were killed in an attack on the American Cultural Center, and an American Express office was ransacked. As the controversy spread, the importing of the book was banned in India and it was burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, the Commission for Racial Equality and a liberal think tank, the Policy Studies Institute, held seminars on the Rushdie affair. They did not invite the author Fay Weldon, who spoke out against burning books, but did invite Shabbir Akhtar, a Cambridge philosophy graduate who called for "a negotiated compromise" which "would protect Muslim sensibilities against gratuitous provocation". The journalist and author Andy McSmith wrote at the time "We are witnessing, I fear, the birth of a new and dangerously illiberal "liberal" orthodoxy designed to accommodate Dr Akhtar and his fundamentalist friends."
In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi'a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers, and called for Muslims to point him out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves. Although the British Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher gave Rushdie round-the-clock police protection, many politicians on both sides were hostile to the author. British Labour MP Keith Vaz led a march through Leicester shortly after he was elected in 1989 calling for the book to be banned, while the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, the party's former chairman, called Rushdie an "outstanding villain" whose "public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality".
Journalist Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Rushdie and urged critics to condemn the violence of the fatwa instead of blaming the novel or the author. Hitchens understood the fatwa to be the opening shot in a cultural war on freedom.
Despite a conciliatory statement by Iran in 1998, and Rushdie's declaration that he would stop living in hiding, the Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.
Violence, assassinations and attempts to harm
With police protection, Rushdie escaped direct physical harm, but others associated with his book have suffered violent attacks. Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991. Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing in Milan on 3 July 1991. William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, was shot three times in an attempted assassination in Oslo in October 1993, but survived. Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, was possibly the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre on 2 July 1993 in Sivas, Turkey, which resulted in 37 deaths.
In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of "fear and nervousness".
In March 2016, PEN America reported that the bounty for the Rushdie fatwa was raised by $600,000 (£430,000). Top Iranian media contributed this sum, adding to the existing $2.8m already offered. In response, the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel prize for literature, denounced the death sentence and called it "a serious violation of free speech". This was the first time they had commented on the issue since publication.