On this day in 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s murder to avenge the alleged insult to the prophet Muhammad in Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. In The Nation of March 13, 1989, John Leonard reviewed The Satanic Verses, lamenting “that so much attention’s been paid to less than a third of the novel and so little to the rest of it, which has brilliant things to say about the hatred of women in history; the triumph of the machinery of images—in movies, television and advertising—over ancient myth, classical literature and political science; the displacement and deracination of the modern intelligence in a world of permanent migration and mindless hybridizing; the loss of self and death of love in a time without decency or roots; wog-bashing in the racist theocracy of the Mad Thatcher.” The same issue of The Nation contained a column by Christopher Hitchens, who would later trace his post-9/11 support for wars in Iraq and on terror to his disgust at what he considered left-wing squeamishness during the Rushdie affair.
In my lost youth I read several accounts of the McCarthy period and, having been lucky enough to miss any direct experience of it, was always left with one unanswered question. How was it that so many respectable people were so frightened of such an obvious (to borrow a description from Reinhold Niebuhr) “political bum”? I now have a clearer idea. In the past weeks I have seen important figures in the liberal culture employing the excuses of tolerance and pluralism in order to euphemize the intolerant and whitewash the enemies of pluralism. The response to the persecution of Salman Rushdie, and the use of gangster “contract” methods against him by the pious, has been a moment of education to fix in the mind.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.