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The Book Burners

Within the space of a few nighttime hours this week, firebombs damaged two bookstores in Berkeley and the office of a small newspaper in New York. The bookstores had sold--and sold out of--Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.” The weekly Riverdale Press in Upper Manhattan had defended Rushdie’s right to publish. Conceivably, of course, the three attacks were unrelated to the controversy over the novel. But that seems highly improbable in view of the explicit threats made by Islamic extremists against Rushdie, his publishers and stores that sell his book. Henry David Thoreau, who in his own time knew controversy, once observed that “some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” The links between the furor over Rushdie and the firebombings may be circumstantial, but they still are very strong.

The progression in this remarkable affair thus grows more ominous. First, Muslims in a number of countries publicly burned copies of the “The Satanic Verses” because they regard it as blasphemous. Now, the matter has apparently moved from burning books, with its evocation of an earlier reactionary and hate-filled time, to burning bookstores. That these latest acts also may be intended to demonstrate piety, righteous anger and offended faith do not make them any more acceptable in a free society.

Pluralism, with its implied tolerance and respect for diversity, is an idea that is neither well understood nor encouraged in most of those countries where protests against “The Satanic Verses” have been strongest. But it is one thing for the rulers of states that are officially Islamic or that have large Muslim minorities to prevent sales of the book on the grounds that it is profane; it is another matter altogether when threats are made or violence is used to try to deny other peoples in other lands the right to read what they choose.

When that is done--as it is being done now--it becomes the concern of everyone for whom unrestricted freedom of the mind remains the paramount freedom, not to be abandoned under coercion or suspended under pressure or compromised to suit the fashion of the day.

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Salman Rushdie, with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death sentence hanging over his head, has been forced to go into hiding. A free people, though, cannot send its books or its bookstores or its libraries into hiding when they come under threat. What it can and must do is use the full resources of its laws and the full strength of its commitment to liberty to defend them and what they stand for against all voices, religious or secular, who would use intimidation or violence to limit what people should be allowed to read, or to dictate what they must be required to believe.


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