By Jeremy Walton
On February 14th, 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sent what surely must have been one of the blackest Valentine’s greetings of all time to novelist Salman Rushdie. Invoking somewhat dubious legal and theological authority—as a Twelver Shi’a, Khomeini could hardly claim to speak for all of the world’s Muslims—he called for Rushdie’s death on the charge of blasphemy, based on certain passages of the novel The Satanic Verses. The politics of Khomeini’s so-called fatwa are intricate, and deserve to be understood beyond the typically Islamophobic responses voiced by many Western defenders of Rushdie. This question of politics aside, however, Khomenei’s Valentine to Rushdie provokes me to ask: Which one of us has not felt a certain chill, the risk of annihilation in our beloved, upon receiving or giving a Valentine? Freud, for one, would appreciate Khomenei’s gesture—perhaps the most authentically libidinal expression of love is the desire to expunge, and to be expunged in, the object of one’s affection. In any event, I call to mind Khomenei’s Valentine each year even as I scrawl greetings on mass produced cards and distribute chalky sugar hearts proclaiming, somewhat sadistically, “Be Mine.” Perhaps we would be wise to meditate on the relationship between “Be Mine” and “Be Dead” a bit more cogently, even as we rush to purchase chocolates and red roses (with thorns!) for our sweethearts today.
Jeremy F. Walton is an assistant professor/ faculty fellow in New York University’s Religious Studies Program.