Masih Alinejad: Activist hunted by Iranian regime says attack on Salman Rushdie has made her more determined

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When Masih Alinejad first heard the news of the attack on author Salman Rushdie, she had more reason than most to be concerned.

“I was screaming in my safe house,” she tells The Independent. “Of course … I was traumatised. I was like, wow, that can happen to me.”

Alinejad, an Iranian-born journalist and women’s rights activist, knows what it is like to live under the threat of assassination. Like Rushdie, who was the target of a fatwa issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, she too has been hunted by the Iranian government.

Alinejad has been the target of two plots against her life in as many years. The first, which came to light in 2021, was an operation directed by the Iranian intelligence services to kidnap Alinejad and take her back to Iran and an uncertain fate. Then last month, police arrested a man who had spent two days outside Alinejad’s Brooklyn home, once trying to open her door, while in possession of a loaded AK47.

When she arrives for an interview with The Independent, Alinejad is flanked by two FBI protection officers, having come from a safe house where she now lives with her husband and stepchildren. She moves between those safe houses regularly and her appointments are made in coordination with federal agents.

“Of course, the kidnapping plot and then the assassination plot just turned my life upside down,” she says. “Every day I put a mask on my face to be strong, powerful, don’t show my frustration, my fear — but it is scary.”

“Just imagine if the guy with an AK-47 gun in front of my house had opened fire, who knows how many of my neighbors would’ve been killed? Who knows, my stepchildren?”

✕ Activist targeted by Iran says attack on Salman Rushdie left her ‘heartbroken’

Alinejad was born in a small village about 90 miles north of Tehran and became an activist at an early age. Her frustrations as a young girl living under the strict conservative rules of the Islamic Republic would foreshadow the work she now does later in life, at 45-years-old.

“I didn’t have any clue at the age of seven about feminism or activism or even discrimination, nothing. But I had a little brother who was able to sing, to dance, to jump in the river in my beautiful village, to go to a stadium, to ride a bicycle, to show his hair, my God, all the basic rights. But I was banned from doing all these activities just because I was a girl,” she says. Those early frustrations turned her into a “troublemaker,” she adds.

Alinejad went on to become a journalist, covering Iran’s parliament for a reformist newspaper in the capital Tehran. Her first major run-in with the government came when she uncovered a story about bonus payments being given to MPs. In 2009, she took a trip to the US in an effort to interview Barack Obama. While she was there, large-scale opposition protests roiled Iran and her newspaper was shut down. Fortuitously, she met her future husband at the same time and decided to stay in the US.

Today, she hosts a show on the US government-funded Voice of America’s Persian language service, but she is better known for her campaign against Iran’s compulsory hijab law, which she launched in 2014. Her campaign began with the White Wednesday movement, which encourages Iranian women to wear white headscarves or discard them entirely in protest of the law. More recently, she launched a social media campaign called #notohijab in which she shares videos of Iranian women protesting the compulsory hijab. It’s a full-time job.

“I wake up every morning with the news of Iran, checking the news of Iran. I go to bed by reading the news, by posting about Iranians on my social media,” she says. “So basically I don’t see myself in America. I am in Iran.”

Alinejad’s campaign against the compulsory hijab, and against Islamism more broadly, has drawn allegations of Islamophobia from some in the West — a charge she rejects.

In this July 13, 2005, file photo, outgoing reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami talks on the phone with the mother of female journalist Masih Alinejad, right, after meeting with journalists in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

“I don’t have any problem with those women who choose to wear hijab like my mom. But when I talk about compulsory hijab, when I talk about Islamic ideology, when I talk about gender apartheid, some of my fellow feminist activists in the West don’t want to even touch the issue,” she says.

“I’m happy to be here as a woman who lived under Sharia, who has experienced the violence, and now I can talk directly to the Western feminist, Western politicians and tell them that you should not keep silent.”

Her activism has also provoked fury among Iran’s hardline rulers, and she receives almost daily death threats because of it. The Iranian government has used her family against her, pressuring them to publicly denounce her from afar. As a result, she hasn’t been able to visit home in more than a decade.

“It’s not just arrest. On Iranian state television, you can actually hear that Masih Alinejad should be executed. You can see my picture in Friday prayers, everywhere being hanged. So basically, yes, I can go back, but definitely I’ll be executed,” she says.

“I’m a village girl and in the village we used to meet each other every weekend. We hug each other a lot in the village. So I miss home. Sometimes I even forget the face of my mother. I haven’t seen her for 11 years. For what? I’m not a criminal. I mean, just in 21st century, I’m being banned from hugging my mom, my brother, my family, just because of practicing my job as a journalist, as an activist,” she says.

Some of those threats she saw as a predictable consequence of her work, but the kidnap plot was something different. She remembers learning about it when the FBI turned up at her home.

“When they came to my house in Brooklyn, they told me that you’re not safe here. I didn’t take it seriously, because as an Iranian activist I’m used to getting death threats every day on social media. I’m used to receiving death threats from Iranian officials. But they said, Nope, this time is different,” she says.

“They even showed me how the Iranian regime hired someone to take photos of my movement, of my house, my stepchildren, my husband, my beautiful garden. I was like, wow, so they here they’re that close to me, they’re watching me. Then they moved me to the different safe houses.”

Four Iranian nationals were charged for the kidnapping plot. According to assistant director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, the Iranian government directed a number of state actors “to plot to kidnap a US-based journalist and American citizen, and to conduct surveillance on US soil — all with the intention to lure our citizen back to Iran as retaliation for their freedom of expression.” The Department of Justice said the intelligence network behind the plot has researched methods of transporting Alinejad by military-style speedboats from New York to Venezuela. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh called the charges “baseless and absurd” at the time.

Alinejad was put under protection following the plot, but continued her work. Not a year had passed when a man turned up at her door with an Ak-47. She shared a video from her doorbell camera of the man, Khalid Mehdiyev, trying to open her front door. She was then moved to a safe house, where she has lived ever since.

At the same time as Alinejad was receiving greater government protection here in the US, Rushdie was starting to live a normal life again after decades of living in hiding. Speaking to the German news magazine Stern just two weeks before the attack he said: “A fatwa is a serious thing. Luckily we didn’t have the internet back then. The Iranians had to send the fatwa to the mosques by fax. That’s all a long time ago. Nowadays my life is very normal again.”

Rushdie’s attacker, Hadi Matar, stabbed the 75-year-old author 10 times before he was restrained. Rushdie suffered serious injuries and is likely to lose an eye. Mater subsequently praised Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in a jailhouse interview with the New York Post, and said of Rushdie: “He’s someone who attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.”

Alinejad says she knew right away what, if not who, was behind the attack. As far as she sees it, she and Rushdie are fighting the same regime, and the same ideology.

“Salman Rushdie was going to give a talk about how America is like heaven for those who want to write and express themselves. It just broke my heart. I was shattered. I got goosebumps. But at the same time, I was like, I’m from the country that the leaders of my country issued the fatwa, so I feel more responsibility to speak up against Islamic ideology,” she says.

“It made me more determined,” she adds. “The Islamic Republic is scared of those who dare to speak up against Islamic ideology. The idea behind terror, behind the assassination plot, is clear: they want to create fear. They want to impose self-censorship on us. Of course, I’m not gonna let the terrorists win. Never.”