FOR a writer, Salman Rushdie has had a rather turbulent career.
Even by his standards, however, this has been quite a week for the Indian-born, British-educated Booker Prize-winning novelist, now a resident of New York:
Queen Elizabeth II knighted him for services to literature, he turned 60, and, across the Muslim world, a variety of jihad-minded fanatics and their essentially mindless apologists renewed their demand that Rushdie be murdered as soon as possible.
The Islamicists’ antipathy toward Rushdie goes back 19 years, to when his fanciful novel “The Satanic Verses” was deemed by some of them to blaspheme Muhammad. There was a great deal of rioting and fulminating at the time, culminating in the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s pronouncement of a fatwa against Rushdie. As the Iranian revolution’s spiritual leader said on Tehran radio, “The author of ‘The Satanic Verses,’ which is against Islam, the Prophet, the Koran and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.”
Rushdie survived by spending the better part of the next decade in what amounted to an “author’s protection program” maintained by the British government. Several of his translators, however, were killed or wounded.
When news of knighthood spread last weekend, the flames of fanaticism rekindled. An Iranian group offered $150,000 to anyone who would murder the novelist. Effigies of the queen and the writer were burned in riots across Pakistan. That country’s religious affairs minister initially said that conferring such an honor on Rushdie justified sending suicide bombers to Britain, then -- under pressure -- he modified his statement to say it would cause suicide bombers to travel there. Pakistan’s national assembly unanimously condemned Rushdie’s knighthood and said it reflected “contempt” for Islam and Muhammad. Various high-ranking Iranian clerics called for the writers’ death and renewed their insistence that Khomeini’s fatwa still is in force. Riots spread to India’s Muslim communities.
Friday, the Voice of America reported that Pakistani “lawmakers passed a second resolution calling on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to apologize ‘to the Muslim world’ ” and that, “on Thursday, a hard-line Pakistani cleric awarded terrorist leader Osama bin Laden the religious title and honorific ‘saifulla,’ or sword of Islam, to protest Britain’s decision.”
If you’re wondering why you haven’t been able to follow all the columns and editorials in the American press denouncing all this homicidal nonsense, it’s because there haven’t been any. And, in that great silence, is a great scandal.
Is there something beyond the solidarity of the decent that ought to have impelled every commentator and editorial page in the U.S. to express unequivocal support for Sir Salman this week?
IT’S no coincidence that one analyst who saw that clearly was Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the guy who, not long ago, commissioned those cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that convulsed so much of the Muslim world in obscurantist apoplexy. You may recall that most of the American news media essentially abandoned Rose and the Danes to the fanatics’ wrath, receding into cowardly silence, as mullah after mullah called for the cartoonists’ death, mobs attacked diplomatic and cultural offices and one Muslim country after another boycotted Danish goods.
In a column posted on the L.A.-based Pajamas Media website late this week, Rose began by reminding readers of legal scholar Ronald Dworkin’s admonition that “the only right you don’t have in a democracy is the right not to be offended,” then went on to decry the pernicious consequences of a “misplaced respect for insulted religious feelings,” now all too common in the West, including the United States. “This respect is being used by tyrants and fanatics around the world to justify suicide attacks and to silence criticism and to crush dissenting points of view,” he wrote.
Rose also pointed to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which less than three months ago “passed a scandalous resolution condoning state punishment of speech that governments deem as insulting to religion.” The council’s decision went all but unmentioned in the American press, but Rose correctly argues that passage of such a resolution “means that the U.N. is encouraging every dictatorship to pass laws that make criticism of Islam a crime. The U.N. Human Rights Council legitimizes the criminal persecution of Sir Salman Rushdie for having insulted people’s religious sensibilities.... The fact of the matter is that by adopting the resolution against ‘defamation of religion,’ the U.N. has tacitly endorsed the killing of Rushdie’s colleagues in parts of the world where no one can protect them.”
Hyperbole for the sake of argument?
Thursday, in an online piece titled “Dead Reporters and the Information Gap,” the Los Angeles Times’ Sonni Efron wrote that “The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 108 journalists and 39 media assistants have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Reporters Without Borders puts the death toll at more than 180. Either way it’s more than double the number of journalists killed during the Vietnam War (71 between 1962 and 1975, according to the Associated Press Saigon bureau).”
Why so little attention to this toll?
“Four out of five journalists killed in Iraq have been Iraqi,” Efron wrote. “The chilling effect of death is impossible to measure, but surely every Iraqi journalist’s death inhibits those who remain from holding the powerful accountable. Whether they are writing about government officials, the clergy or the death squads, or whether they are simply women who dare to speak in public, they know their own lives may soon be at risk. What is the societal cost of terror?”
Equally to the point, what is the societal cost of silence among those who have not simply the moral obligation but also the ability to speak -- like American commentators and editorial writers?
What masquerades as tolerance and cultural sensitivity among many U.S. journalists is really a kind of soft bigotry, an unspoken assumption that Muslim societies will naturally repress great writers and murder honest journalists, and that to insist otherwise is somehow intolerant or insensitive.
Lost in the self-righteous haze that masks this expedient sentiment is a critical point once made by the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, who was fond of pointing out that “some ideas, like some people, are just no damn good” and that no amount of faux tolerance or misplaced fellow feeling excuses the rest of us from our obligation to oppose such ideas and such people.
If Western and, particularly American, commentators refuse to speak up when their obligations are so clear, the fanatics will win and the terrible silence they so fervently desire will descend over vast stretches of our world -- a silence in which the only permissible sounds are the prayers of the killers and the cries of their victims.