I had many disagreements with my old colleague Christopher Hitchens, but how I wish he were here today. As you surely know, more than 30 years after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie for supposedly blaspheming Muhammad in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie is in intensive care after being stabbed repeatedly by a 24-year-old native of New Jersey. How Christopher would lay into anyone today who hints that the novelist made his bed by offending Muslim religious strictures. In 1989 and after, there were plenty of these, among them John Le Carré, John Berger, Liberal Democrats doyenne Shirley Williams, Roald Dahl, and Germaine Greer.
On Twitter the talk (of course) is all of Islamophobia—Rushdie is an Islamophobe, Christopher was an Islamophobe, and so were the 12 staffers of Charlie Hebdo slain in 2015 by a pair of jihadis who took offense at their magazine’s cartoons. Two hundred and forty two writers, some of them friends of mine, took issue with PEN when it gave Charlie a Courage Award. But the root of “phobia” means fear—so aren’t the real Islamophobes those who caution that exercising one’s free speech even in a novel will set off the ayatollahs and the book burners and the assassins?
If anything, Rushdie was the one respectful of Muslims: After nine years in hiding, he’s led an increasingly normal public life because he didn’t think even one of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims would try to kill him. The real Islamophobes are the people like Jimmy Carter, who was seen bothsidesing it in The New York Times just after the fatwa was announced: “It is our duty to condemn the threat of murder, to protect the author’s life and to honor Western rights of publication and distribution. At the same time, we should be sensitive to the concern and anger that prevails even among the more moderate Moslems.” So in other words, we should have rights but not use them. It would hurt feelings even among the “more moderate Moslems.” And as that “more” suggests, they may not be so moderate after all, so don’t push them. #BeKind!
The attack on Rushdie is not about rage at anti-Muslim prejudice, and it’s not about racism either—indeed, Muslims can be of any race. It’s about religious fanaticism organized by a theocratic state, Iran, and rewarded by it too. (The current bounty on Rushdie’s head, offered by an Iranian government–connected foundation, is $3.3 million.) As Rushdie himself wrote when six writers pulled out of hosting the PEN gala rather than honor Charlie Hebdo: “This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence.”
The problem is not Islamophobia; it’s the idea of “blasphemy” itself. The ayatollahs and their followers think it’s a capital crime to “insult” Islam—never mind that probably almost none of the people protesting The Satanic Verses have read it, including, according to Robin Wright in the The New Yorker, Ayatollah Khomeini himself.
The idea that religion should be protected from disagreement—that’s the problem. Why should the holdings of any faith be beyond critique, satire, even mockery? Religion is not a hereditary trait. It’s a set of ideas and behaviors and social practices. Those can be changed, and have been repeatedly throughout history. Blasphemy is part of that process, because it encourages questioning and independence of spirit and resistance to obscurantism and unjust authority. We progressives are supposed to take a side. Galileo or the Inquisition? Rushdie or the ayatollahs?
We don’t blink twice when a Catholic supports abortion rights and women priests, as many do. We applaud when a Jew says the Bible doesn’t justify the occupation of the West Bank. We’re horrified by the crumbling wall of separation of church and state in the US. We support art that appalls the devout—remember Chris Ofili’s dung-decorated Madonna and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ? Even 40 years later, we still laugh at Life of Brian.
We expect religious Christians and Jews to put up with being offended as the price of free speech and life in a multicultural society, and we take them to task when they don’t. Rudy Giuliani was roundly mocked when, as mayor of New York City, he tried to close the Brooklyn Museum over Ofili’s painting. We didn’t say, Let’s be more sensitive to the feelings of New York’s millions of Catholics. When a Christian fanatic burns down an abortion clinic, we don’t say, Well, that clinic should have known there would be trouble.
Why should we regard Islamist tyrants and the fanatics among their followers any differently?