President Clinton suddenly finds himself accused in much of the Islamic world of insensitivity or worse, the result of his brief but pointed meeting last week with the novelist Salman Rushdie. It isn’t anything Clinton said that has provoked anger but simply the fact that he agreed to receive the author of a book condemned by Muslim authorities as heretical. “The Satanic Verses,” published in 1989, earned Rushdie not just notoriety but a death sentence pronounced by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and burnished by a promised bounty of millions of dollars for whoever kills him. Rushdie has been in hiding and under guard ever since.
Clinton’s purpose in seeing the Indian-born writer was of course not to insult Muslims or to endorse anything Rushdie has written. His purpose was to underline this country’s belief in and support for the ideas of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. Americans, along with most of the Western World, accept that free speech can sometimes be unpopular, can sometimes contain untruths and affronts. That is the price that has to be paid to preserve the fundamental secular principle that the state must neither dictate beliefs nor punish heterodox views. That principle is a foundation stone of Western liberal democracy.
Muslim hostility toward Rushdie can be understood. What can’t be accepted under our system of values is the idea that an author may be persecuted, even murdered for what he has written. By seeing Rushdie, the President rightly emphasized this under an international spotlight.