Rushdie’s chilling reminder to protect free speech

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is the pen truly mightier than the sword?

For a time, when novelist Salman Rushdie lived under a death sentence, it was not. The pen of a solitary novelist came under dire threat by the sword of radical Islam, as grippingly recounted in Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton (Random House, 2012).

The threat was a fatwa, a death sentence, declared by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 after publication of Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses.

The story of the novel includes a Prophet Muhammad-like character who is never called Muhammad but into whose prophecies “satanic verses” insinuate themselves. The novel critiques aspects of Islam but falls far short of the all-out attack that many Muslims, not having read it, supposed it to be.

“I wish I’d written a more critical book,” Rushdie told an interviewer after the uproar had begun. For in essence this novel, as he says, is “about angelic and satanic metamorphoses,” not an attempt to demonize Islam.

The turmoil and terror endured by Rushdie, his family, others close to him, and many of those involved in publishing his books is thoroughly recounted – the hiding, the British police protection, the assumed name of Joseph Anton (from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov), the moving from place to place in fear of blown cover.

A Japanese translator was slain, an Italian translator attacked, a Norwegian publisher nearly fatally wounded. Bookstores were firebombed. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed after expressing support for Rushdie; Mahfouz then changed his mind. Other Muslims rallied to Rushdie’s defense and some paid dearly: A Belgian mullah and his deputy were killed for supporting free expression.

A gravely disheartening aspect of the memoir is its chronicling of how the supposedly free-speech-loving West and writers from other regions proved divided in their response to the threat against Rushdie.

Publishers backed out of paperback publication and other book deals. Speaking invitations were withdrawn. Airlines refused to fly Rushdie. The British press frequently attacked him as a crybaby who was costing the state millions and who had gotten what he deserved for insulting Islam. Western politicians were divided, some wanting “to appease their Muslim constituents.” Liberals contended with liberals, conservatives with conservatives over whether Rushdie deserved “the blame.”

There was a lot of “shifting the blame from the men of violence to the target of their attack,” Rushdie writes.

Worse, writers and artists who should know better, including the spy novelist John Le Carré, said Rushdie should not have expected to write such a novel “with impunity.” The Archbishop of Canterbury declared, “We must be more tolerant of Muslim anger.” Even more revolting was pop-singer-turned-Muslim Cat Stevens’ insistence that Rushdie, who was born a Muslim, should indeed be killed.

All this, mind you, over a collection of sentences, a work of art, a novel. The memoir makes the case that murderous anger, not art, is what shouldn’t be tolerated, and that much of the “respect” for Islam is actually fear. Although Rushdie acknowledges scattered support for him within Islam, he is very clear in saying that “Islam itself, Actually Existing Islam, could not be exonerated from the crimes done in its name.”

“Islam moved a long way from its origins while claiming to be returning to its roots,” Rushdie says. “A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot,” when in fact “[i]t was Islam that had changed … that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas.”

Though Britain provided armed protection for Rushdie, it was with extremely ill grace. The British appeared to be afraid to stand up to Iran. Margaret Thatcher was of little help, despite her iron-willed reputation. Jimmy Carter criticized Rushdie. Tony Blair likewise until much later.

It was on one of the novelist’s trips to the United States that the tide of Western political opinion began to turn, though not without setbacks.

“America had made it impossible for Britain to walk away from his defense,” Rushdie writes after relating a series of meetings with American senators and a speech at the Freedom Forum, parent foundation of the First Amendment Center. I attended that speech in Arlington, Va. For security reasons Mike Wallace of CBS News was the advertised lecturer. Rushdie had to be sneaked up in a freight elevator. When he was introduced, the stunned audience of 300 gasped, rose and applauded. It was a proud moment for the foundation and its commitment to freedom of expression.

Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams made efforts on Rushdie’s behalf. The Washington Post and New York Times (sort of) came on board. So did Bill Clinton, who told Rushdie, “First Amendment-style rights should grow all around the world,” though he later seemed to wobble.

Eventually, under mounting world pressure, Iran lifted the fatwa in 1998. But threats against Rushdie still surface. Just this past September the price on his head was increased by a jihadist foundation.

Joseph Anton is a chilling reminder that assaults against the free expression of even one lone writer is an assault on free expression by all of us.

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