Freedom of Speech, Round 5,425

Freedom of Speech, Round 5,425

Two decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini called for a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, not much has changed on either side of the cultural divide.


Happy Twentieth Anniversary, Salman Rushdie fatwa! Can it be two whole decades since February 14, 1989, the day the Ayatollah Khomeini called upon Muslims to murder the world-renowned novelist and anyone associated with the publication of his supposedly blasphemous novel, The Satanic Verses? Many book burnings, riots, firebombings and deaths later–his Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator was seriously wounded, thirty-seven Turkish intellectuals perished when their hotel was set on fire in an unsuccessful attempt to kill his Turkish translator–it would be nice to say that the world has learned what happens when freedom of speech and thought is subordinated to religious authority.

In fact, the lesson seems to be the opposite: careful, you might hurt the feelings of the faithful. Oh, and they might kill you. Rushdie’s been out of hiding since 1998 without incident, but he is far from alone. Taslima Nasreen, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are only the most famous targets of Islamist rage. We’ve had the Danish cartoon riots (more than 100 dead); the Berlin Opera Muhammad-head prop flap; Random House’s dropping of Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, a steamy potboiler about Aisha, Muhammad’s child bride (and the burning of the offices of the British publishers who brought it out). Most recently, Dutch MP Geert Wilders was refused entry to Britain, where he had been invited to show his admittedly extremist anti-Islam film Fitna to Parliament. Say what you like about Wilders, it’s pretty unusual to ban an elected politician from another country.

Here on the American left we tend to see these incidents as gratuitous provocations by insensitive Westerners, and there’s something to that. The Danish paper that published cartoons mocking Muhammad had previously rejected ones satirizing Jesus. The problem with that argument is that the same spirit of religious dogmatism backed by violence that shaped the protests against perceived Western insults operates, far more powerfully, in Islamic states–against their own citizens. In Iran and Pakistan, women have been imprisoned for protesting Sharia law. In 2008 Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, a student in Afghanistan, our client state, was sentenced to death for the crime of downloading a report about women’s rights. Even in relatively secular Egypt, blogger Reda Abdel-Rahman was jailed and tortured for calling for an Islam that does not include Sharia.

I was reminded of these last two examples by left-wing British journalist Johann Hari, who provoked the wrath of the believers when a column he wrote for the Independent, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?” was reprinted in the Indian newspaper the Statesman on February 5. Hari chronicled the decade-long campaign of Islamist theocrats (with the support of the Vatican and Christian fundamentalists) to insulate religion from criticism at the United Nations. This campaign has borne fruit: the UN Council on Human Rights has directed its rapporteur to busy himself not with attacks on freedom of speech but with “abuses of free expression,” including “defamation of religions and prophets.” Hari pulled no punches: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a ‘Prophet’ who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year-old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him.” Hari’s column caused–surprise!–violent riots; what is more shocking, and more unusual, is that Indian authorities arrested the editor and the publisher of the paper for “hurting the religious feelings” of Muslims.

When I write about religious extremism I try to spread the blame around. So, let’s not forget that just before Valentine’s Day male sectarian Hindus assaulted young women in Mangalore for drinking in a pub; the pope welcomed an ultraconservative Holocaust-denying schismatic bishop back into the church and tried to elevate an Austrian priest who held that Hurricane Katrina was God’s wrath against gays and abortion in New Orleans; in Israel, some ultra-Orthodox women are now wearing veils; and, of course, here at home we have our creationists and clinic bombers and gun nuts for Christ. It’s true that Islamic fundamentalists are the most active and violent attackers of free speech and the most tyrannical enforcers of religious conformity through the organs of the state. But that’s because other major religions have lost their control of the state (or never had it) and have had to adapt. In the seventeenth century, when Protestant and Catholic states were laying Europe waste while burning witches, heretics, Jews and the occasional sodomite, no one would have said Christianity was particularly broad-minded.

Appeals to the hurt feelings of religious people are just a dodge to protect the antidemocratic and retrograde policies of religious states and organizations. We’re all adults; we have to live with unwelcome expression every day. What’s so special about religion that it should be uniquely cocooned? After all, nobody at the UN is suggesting that atheists should be protected from offense–let alone women, gays, leftists or other targets popular with the faithful. What about our feelings? How can it be logical to say that women can’t point out sexism in the Bible or the Koran but clerics can use those texts to declare women inferior, unclean and in need of male control? And what about all the abuses religions heap on one another as an integral part of their “faith”?

The clerics fight so hard to control speech because they know they are losing minds and hearts. Twenty years after the Satanic Verses fatwa, it’s more than ever Rushdie’s world–globalized, fluid, culturally impure. The fanatics just live there.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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