It was a sunny Tuesday in London, Valentine’s Day 1989. The phone rang in the novelist’s home. It was a BBC reporter. At first he was irritated: She didn’t even bother to tell him how she’d gotten his private number. “How does it feel,” she asked, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini ?”
“It doesn’t feel good,” Salman Rushdie, said. I am a dead man, he thought.
In a daze he walked around closing shutters, locking the front door. Witnessing his own fear he decided to keep a commitment to do a television interview. When he left the house he didn’t know it would be three years before he entered it again.
Walking into the studio he was handed a printout of the edict just released by the supreme leader of Iran: “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.”
“I wish I’d written a more critical book,” he said. He was ever after proud he said that, though in future years he occasionally wobbled under the pressure, as one would.
And so began his roughly 10 years in hiding, with heavy police protection, under an assumed name “Joseph Anton,” which is what he called his 2012 memoir, from which the above is taken.
Salman Rushdie had written a novel critical of Islam, and so he had to die. It was the first famous fatwa in the West.
I was a writer and producer at CBS News in New York, and I remember the general American reaction, which was bafflement: They’re threatening an artist for producing art? Who are these people? In the publishing world Mr. Rushdie’s became a celebrated cause, but to others he was not an entirely sympathetic figure—arrogant, a snooty lefty luvvie who wrote a rude book about the faith of his fathers and now they’re coming down on him like a ton of bricks. Remind me why I care?
Looking back, he was the canary in the coal mine. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker and writer, was shot to death on the street and almost decapitated in November 2004, after his short film on women and Islam was broadcast on television. His collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, got death threats and eventually fled to America. Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew Muhammad with a bomb hidden in his turban, was a target of two assassination attempts and had to go into hiding.
And now the atrocity in Paris. Extremist Muslim fanatics cut down 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. Their crime too was insulting Islam.
What do we know now that we did not know when Mr. Rushdie was targeted? That extreme, militant Islamists continue to clash with the liberal West. That the West must see to it that its values are not compromised by the fears the murderers seek to spread.
Charlie Hebdo magazine has struck me as aimed at the immature, or at least the not fully formed. Its cartoons and other humor are broad and vulgar, even primitive, not witty or sly. The magazine delights in crudely, grossly insulting all faiths, especially Islam. But as a Westerner would say, so what? It has been alleged by a few people that the staff of Charlie Hebdo brought the tragedy on themselves. That is exactly what was said of Salman Rushdie, that he shouldn’t have written such an offensive book.
Maybe it would be instructive to look at how we in the West handle what is rude and unpleasant and offensive.
First, our freedoms are not merely our “traditions,” our “ways,” “reflective of Enlightenment assumptions” or “very pleasant.” In America especially, they are everything to us. Here freedom of expression is called free speech, and it is protected in the first of the Constitution’s amendments because it is the most important of our rights.
In the way that courage is the first of the virtues because without it none of the others are possible, the First Amendment protects the freedom upon which all others depend. Without free speech no difference of opinion can be resolved, no progress made in the law or in politics, no truth found and held high, no scandal unearthed and stopped.
But free speech takes patience. It requires us to hold our temper and give each other plenty of room in which to operate.
This is how we deal with offensive speech:
In the late 1980s, Andres Serrano produced “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a small crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. That didn’t go over well with a lot of Christians. They wrote op-eds, protested peacefully, and criticized the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidizing the work with tax money. The arguments were vigorous. But the protests were peaceful, and no one even dreamed of harming the artist.
In the late 1990s it was Chris Ofili, whose painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” depicted Mary surrounded by pornographic images and smeared with elephant dung. When it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum it didn’t go over well with Catholics, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The museum received public money. There were protests and arguments, the mayor withheld funds, the museum sued him and won. No one ever dreamed of harming the artist.
We resolve these things peacefully in the West. And this is not only “tradition.” We know on some level that this is how civilization keeps itself together. I remember long conversations during these controversies in which people tried to view the provocative works charitably. Maybe the artist is trying, awkwardly and imperfectly, to say something big and even good? Maybe he’s trying to say: “You say you love Christ but you don’t honor him.” Maybe he’s trying to say, “You say you honor Mary, but in your own actions and lives you cover her not with glory but dung.” Or maybe the artists were just talentless hacks producing the only thing they were good at: publicity.
The point is people considered and debated. They didn’t pick up a gun.
A singular feature of extremist Islamists is that they are not at all interested in persuasion. They don’t care about winning you over, only about making you submit. They want to menace and threaten. They want to frighten. They enjoy posing with the severed head.
It is the West’s job not to be overcome by fear, not to give an inch.
Steady is the word.
Tracked down by a reporter for Deutsche Welle after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Kurt Westergaard offered his wisdom. He said the murderers were “fanatics.” He told the media “not to be afraid” and not to “surrender” free speech. And he said he hoped for “a reaction from the moderate majority of Muslims against this attack.”
That majority actually exists, and should step forward.