The Jewish Humanist, March 1989
A brilliant and creative writer, by the name of Salman Rushdie, has been condemned to death for writing a book that his accusers have not even read.
Ayatollah Khomeini has re-entered the political spotlight by ordering the execution of a secular intellectual of Muslim origin. Rushdie, an award-winning novelist of international fame, has been declared guilty of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death in fundamentalist circles. His book, Satanic Verses, innocently plays with Muslim myths, including the stories of Mohammed and his wives, in order to demonstrate the ambiguity of good and evil. To the secular reader the presentation is subtle, creative and brilliant. To the pious Muslim reader it is nothing short of an assault on God.
In the post-Enlightenment secularized world of the West such a book has a right to exist, even though it causes pain and discomfort to pious believers. Free speech is a fundamental liberty which even traditional religious people have come to accept. After all, it simply evens the score. For countless centuries religious leaders have had complete freedom to speak and write scurrilously about atheism and secularism, defaming its teachers and philosophers in the most outrageous way. “Blasphemy” can go both ways.
But in the Muslim world, which never experienced a true Enlightenment and where religion has never had the opportunity to adapt to a secular democratic world, free speech is difficult to comprehend. Insulting God, by denying the infallibility of his prophets and scripture, endangers not only the individuals who are guilty of blasphemy but also the society that tolerates it without adequate punishment. If the guilty are not removed all will suffer the wrath of Allah.
The crafty Khomeini is using the opportunity of this scandal to re-assert his pre-eminence in the Muslim world, especially after the debacle with Iraq. However it is a diversionary tactic, which runs counter to the recent attempts of some of his lieutenants to cozy up to the Western powers in the hope that Western financial help will now be available to rebuild the economy of Iran. Khomeini cannot have it both ways. He cannot threaten the West and seduce them into assisting him at the same time. Right now, being the angry voice of a militant Islam is more appealing.
Interestingly, his new terrorism is working. Booksellers, like Waldenbooks and Dalton, are refusing to sell Rushdie’s book. Governments, like Canada, are forbidding its import. Religious leaders with a few exceptions are choosing silence. The author has offered an abject apology (which has humiliatingly been rejected). Even the American president, who is hardly a favorite in Teheran where he enjoys the status of a condemned Satan, has chosen to speak softly. Only the European community has responded with some courage, although it still continues to import Persian oil.
At stake in this encounter is the future of free speech as well as the future of art and science. If intellectual and literary figures, whose creativity deviates from the norm of religious prosperity, can be placed on death lists by fundamentalist governments and the Western public – then free speech will be an ultimate victim of international terrorism.
The attitude that assumes that Khomeini is a passing crazy and does not deserve our courageous defiance is dangerous. When Khomeini dies, others equally crazy and fanatic, will follow. But once the posture of surrender is begun, once the defiance is mild rather than bold, the battle will be lost. It will just be easier to comply then resist. Dignity will seem less important than physical security.
It is, therefore, very important that we, as secularists and humanists, who will suffer most from fundamentalist intimidation, should not yield to these threats. It is important that we encourage publishers and booksellers not to yield and that we denounce and embarrass those who do. It is also important that we encourage the American government to speak out boldly against this intimidation and to institute sanctions. America’s caution will neither protect American hostages nor encourage pro-Western elements in the Iranian government.
Whether you approve or disapprove of Salman Rushdie is not the issue. Free speech is. And now is the time to defend it.