Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sir Salman

The Queen has knighted Salman Rushdie. The Indo-British author notoriously was sentenced to death for blasphemy by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for his book The Satanic Verses.

Somewhere in the back reaches of my bookshelf I have a copy of that book. I read very little nonfiction, and remember buying it in graduate school more as a gesture of solidarity with the principle of free expression and to see what all the fuss was about. I enjoyed the book, though I thought that Mr. Rushdie had really behaved quite badly in taking a cheap shot at a religion. Yet I was chilled by how all too much of the world reacted to the anger the book demonstrated.

The reaction of much of British society in particular to the original fatwa does not do the nation proud. Angry Muslim demonstrators in the UK called for his death and for the book to be banned, and the usual multicultural suspects emphasized the offense he had undeniably given more than the principle that there is no right not to be offended, and that when an author is threatened with death the author is not at the moment the primary problem. The biggest exception to this cravenness was Margaret Thatcher, who pronounced the reaction unacceptable and immediately placed him under police protection. Mr. Rushdie himself later acknowledged the irony that a politician he despised stood by him more than many in the literary establishment of which he was a part.

The wages of the Rushdie affair have been heavy, not least for those most closely involved - translators of the novel were murdered, and the novelist was in hiding for years. But the rest of us too are still laboring under these burdens. In the recent controversy over the gross Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad, the government itself was ultimately impelled to apologize after embassies (of it and Norway) were torched. The cult of non-offense has become enshrined in American universities and in much of European society generally. (A Swedish politician, Dahn Pettersson, was this week incredibly criminally convicted and fined for defaming and ethnic group for something that he said, in excessively general terms, about Albanians in that country.) There are some proposals in international circles to adopt conventions making defamation of religion different from other kinds of speech, in other words speech that is not free.

In this BBC interview Mr. Rushdie refers to the demonstrators as a “medieval lynch mob,” which is suggestive. “Medieval” suggests that we’ve progressed beyond all that, but in fact civilization is a force constantly under siege, something Margaret Thatcher always knew, and one suspects that he pretty much took it, and the progress it enables, for granted until then. The knighthood is a poor substitute for a more vigorous stand in favor of freedom taken in 1989, but better a day late and a dollar short than never.


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