Salman Rushdie was recently awarded a knighthood by Britain, an act which caused more than one anti-Western rant from the medieval ayotollahs of Iran and Pakistan. The usual threats of violence from the usual dark quarter of the world. This honor by Britain reminded these hateful clerics that Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses, a novel considered blasphemous (by some) to Islam.
Rushdie has been under a sentence of death since 1989, when the book was first published and the clerics of Iran took offense. Only recently has he felt safe enough to emerge from hiding.
What’s been forgotten over the years is that the hostage-taking Ayotollah Khomeini wasn’t the only one outraged by The Satanic Verses. This excellent article in the International Herald Tribune reminds us that the book was published to great controversy. Like the recent cartoon conflagration in Denmark, not everyone stood behind the right of free speech in an open society.
In a March 1989 Op-Ed article in The New York Times titled “Rushdie’s Book Is an Insult,” Jimmy Carter argued that “The Satanic Verses” was guilty of “vilifying” Muhammad and “defaming” the Koran. “The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world,” Carter wrote. While condemning the death sentence and affirming Rushdie’s right to free speech, the former president argued that “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.”
It’s just a novel, words printed on the page, a novel that billions of people will never see or even bother reading. A novel cannot violate a religion. A basic tenet of Western civilization is the right to offend people – we must not go backwards on this.
I had heard of Rushdie in 1989, after reading his book Shame in a modern literature class. The fatwa by Khomeini made The Satanic Verses a bestseller. I remember racing through book stores in DC, looking for a copy. I wanted to buy it to show my support of free speech, to show the Ayatollah that we wouldn’t be intimidated. Your religion doesn’t dictate what I can read.
I couldn’t find one anywhere – it was the iPhone of its day 😉 After I got a copy from a friend who worked in the publishing industry, I started the book and found it incomprehensible, a wild magic realism narrative that I couldn’t understand. All this trouble for a book?
Since then, I’ve gone on to enjoy other Rushdie novels, especially the brilliant Shalimar the Clown.
Looking back, it’s tempting to believe that America and Europe supported the absolute right of free speech. However, when faced with the very real threat of violence, people don’t always live up to their ideals and seek to justify censorship.
What will we do when the next of these conflicts arise? Will we stand firm or compromise our values?