So now we know the identity of Copenhagen shooter Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, whose crime has mirrored the recent terrorist attacks in Paris but with a smaller death total and a single perpetrator. More details will no doubt emerge, but already it seems fairly clear what’s going on here: a continuation of the assault on the West’s freedom of speech, perpetrated by a fundamentalist Muslim terrorist (or one in sympathy with fundamentalist Muslim terrorists).

The idea is to silence what they see as blasphemy against Islam, as well as to exert a chilling effect on anyone who would sympathize with or support such freedom of speech. In addition, it is an attack on Jews and those who would protect them. The goal? Non-Muslims should not be free to criticize Islam in ways that the group deems blasphemous; Jews would not be free to practice Judaism; and the penalty for both crimes would be death.

The moment when the West should have become aware of the growing seriousness of the threat to Western free speech was the 1989 fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. Perhaps some people were able to minimize it at the time by reminding themselves that Rushdie had been born a Muslim in India, which made him an apostate when he renounced the religion. But he was definitely a Westerner, having lived in Britain since the age of fourteen, and his books were written in English and aimed at a Western audience. To refresh your memory:

Many Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy or unbelief [for his novel The Satanic Verses] and in 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Numerous killings, attempted killings, and bombings resulted from Muslim anger over the novel.

The Iranian government backed the fatwa against Rushdie until 1998, when the succeeding government of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said it no longer supported the killing of Rushdie. However, the fatwa remains in place.

The issue was said to have divided “Muslim from Westerners along the fault line of culture,” and to have pitted a core Western value of freedom of expression—that no one “should be killed, or face a serious threat of being killed, for what they say or write”—against the view of many Muslims—that no one should be free to “insult and malign Muslims” by disparaging the “honour of the Prophet” Muhammad. English writer Hanif Kureishi called the fatwa “one of the most significant events in postwar literary history.”

Not just literary history, either.

Several things about the Rushdie fatwa were (and still are) of note: it was not issued by rogue terrorists, it was issued by the religious and de facto head of Iran and backed by its government. The date was actually February 14, 1989 (same date as the Copenhagen killings at the free speech conference; it’s possible the date was chosen by the Copenhagen killer as a sort of tribute, or perhaps it’s just a coincidence). And it was very extreme, even by the traditional standards of Islam on such matters [emphasis mine]:

In early 1989, Khomeini issued a fatwā calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie, an India-born British author. Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, was alleged to commit blasphemy against Islam and Khomeini’s juristic ruling (fatwā) prescribed Rushdie’s assassination by any Muslim. The fatwā required not only Rushdie’s execution, but also the execution of “all those involved in the publication” of the book….

The fatwā has also been attacked for violating the rules of fiqh by not allowing the accused an opportunity to defend himself, and because “even the most rigorous and extreme of the classical jurist only require a Muslim to kill anyone who insults the Prophet in his hearing and in his presence.”

Though Rushdie publicly regretted “the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam”, the fatwa was not revoked. Khomeini explained,

“Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell.”

Rushdie himself was not killed but Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the book The Satanic Verses, was murdered and two other translators of the book survived murder attempts.

The British reaction to the fatwa was to break off diplomatic relations with Iran. There was widespread outrage in the West against the fatwa, but many in the Muslim world appeared to favor it, even those who already lived in the West:

In Britain, the Union of Islamic Students’ Associations in Europe issued a statement offering its services to Khomeini. Despite incitement to murder being illegal in the United Kingdom, one London property developer told reporters, “If I see him, I will kill him straight away. Take my name and address. One day I will kill him”.

Other leaders, while supporting the fatwa, claimed that British Muslims were not allowed to carry out the fatwa themselves. Prominent amongst these were the Muslim Parliament and its leader Kalim Siddiqui, and after his death in 1996, his successor, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui. His support for the fatwa continued, even after the Iranian leadership said it would not pursue the fatwa, and re-iterated his support in 2000.

Leading scholars seemed to think it was well within the traditions of Islam:

Meanwhile in America, the director of the Near East Studies Center at UCLA, George Sabbagh, told an interviewer that Khomeini was “completely within his rights” to call for Rushdie’s death.

It’s not at all difficult to see the roots of now in what happened then. It’s not that Westerners weren’t already alarmed back then, though; they were. They just didn’t see the depth and breadth of what this phenomenon represented, and they didn’t quite know what to do. Nor do they now. And although political correctness was much weaker back then it already very much existed, and probably helped to hamper recognition of the dangers of this strain of Islam to the West itself. Those dangers are still not fully recognized by the governments of the West, in part for the very same reason.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]