“Salman was the messenger.”
— Christopher Hitchens
Ayatollah Khomeini had not read The Satanic Verses at the time his fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie was proclaimed. After all on February 14, 1989, the novel had yet to be translated into Arabic, let alone Farsi. Rather, the Iranian leadership had witnessed on television the immolation of a copy of Rushdie’s book by a council of Muslims in Bradford, which triggered a succession of replicate demonstrations of ire and rage across parts of the Islamic world. Heine’s assertion, “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen,” was thus eerily appropriate – “Wherever they burn books, they also burn people in the end.”
“The Rushdie case,” as it was dismissively referred to at the time, has been pushed back into the public consciousness with the release of Rushdie’s memoirs, Joseph Anton, and his torture has come to be seen as a forewarning. The order of Rushdie’s execution by a theocratic dictator in Iran, the assassination of the novel’s translators, the bullying and intimidation of publishers, the destruction of bookstores, and the burning of books – all for the offense of writing a literary novel – was not an isolated incident. As recent events in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have demonstrated, vociferous reaction of this type is a phenomenon which affects the world still.
But as important as the physical consequences of the fatwa was the test it placed on our most fundamental, inalienable right, that of freedom of speech. For, at the time of publication and reaction, there were a good number of cultural and political commentators who deemed that Rushdie had made a rod for his own back by daring to write a novel which played with themes pertaining to the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad.
John Berger, the Marxist critic and novelist, suggested in The Guardian in February 1989 that Rushdie should self-censor and withdraw the book from circulation, “not because of the threat of his own life, but because of the threat to the lives of those who are innocent of either writing or reading the book,” in essence accusing him of starting “a unique 20th-century holy war, with its terrifying righteousness on both sides.” President Carter, concurring with Berger, entered the dispute via a New York Times op-ed in March of that year. Rushdie, Carter wrote, “must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world,” adding that Westerners “tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Muslims whose sacred beliefs have been violated.”
When faced with such hostility, this willingness to undermine essential Enlightenment values to avoid confrontation was then and remains now very dangerous indeed. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks William Roper if he would be satisfied to “cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” A particularly vigorous prosecutor, Roper answers, “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!” “Oh?” More replies, advancing on Roper. “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”
In other words, when the free speech of another is violated such as Rushdie’s wont to write and publish without prior restraint, the violators and those who aid and abet them make themselves hostage to their own reckless actions. The question has to be asked of individuals as diverse as Berger, Carter, and Charles Krauthammer who condemned Rushdie at the time: What would happen when the book burners and the Bible bashers turn up in your neighborhood, your rights to answer back having been suppressed, “the laws all being flat?”
If anything, the Rushdie affair remains an absolute affirmation of the essential character of the First Amendment to the Constitution, in defiance of the sort of cultural and moral relativism which would grant exceptions to the universal principle of freedom of speech on religious grounds. The fatwa confirms the correctness not only of the lack of law “abridging the freedom of speech,” but any edict “respecting an establishment of religion.” The most awful consequences of the latter are on display all around the world, nowhere more so than at this time than in Pakistan, where the Constitution mandates Islam as the official religion of state, and the application of their draconian and anti-pluralistic blasphemy law had authorities imprison a mentally deficient 14-year-old girl, accused of defiling the Qur’an.
Jefferson’s wall of separation and the principle as dictated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that no civil authority ought to “restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency” are not without their unfortunate consequences. But the right to free speech, including on matters of faith, means nothing unless it protects the right to dissent. “Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden,” Rosa Luxemburg once wrote – freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently.
So that the publication of Rushdie’s memoir should introduce this story to those yet to hear it, and remind those who have forgotten it, willfully or otherwise, is no bad thing at all, if it serves to reaffirm in the popular imagination the essential and unalterable nature of the freedom of speech and the Establishment Clause, and the importance of protecting those rights not just for ourselves but those who require the shelter such civil liberties afford us. “Mutato nomine et de te fabula narrator,” Christopher Hitchens concludes of Rushdie’s ordeal. “Change only the name and this story is about you.”