Free Speech

Remembering Rushdie: 30 Years Ago, the Novelist Was Marked for Death by Ayatollah Khomeini

Jonathan Rauch says that the fatwa against The Satanic Verses author ushered in a new age of intolerance.

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Andrew Lih, CC, Wikipedia

Today marks the day, 30 years ago, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, whose novel, The Satanic Verses, mocked Mohammed. The Iranian leader offered millions of dollars to the true believer who would murder Rushdie. Forty-one years old at the time, Rushdie lived hidden and under guard for a decade before coming back above ground (it's not fully clear if the fatwa is in force anymore, but Rushdie now lives publicly and without protection).

"It feels like ancient history to me," he told an interviewer in 2018, while promoting his latest novel, The Golden House. He expresses satisfaction in finding that at long last, a generation on, The Satanic Verses can be read as a novel, rather than as a controversy, a symbol, a casus belli. "Now, after all this time, it's finally been able to have the ordinary life of a book," he said in March of 2018.

Writing in Spiked, Jonathan Rauch argues

At the time, many observers, myself included, believed the incident to be some kind of inflection point – a view which proved correct. But what sort of inflection point? Thirty years have brought additional clarity, and an ominous development. Today, mob demands for censorship and censure are so common they have acquired a new name: call-out culture. Contra Rushdie, the episode is not ancient history, not at all.

I'm not fully convinced by his argument that there is a straight line between the Rushdie affair and today's diminished defenses of free speech (indeed, Rauch himself hedges toward the end of his article). But his quick litany of high-profile instances where the principle of free-speech has been tossed out the window in the name of protecting the feelings of the aggrieved is sobering and depressing. And certainly this much is true:

The impulse to rally against blasphemy and to drive out impurity is a human impulse, not a radical or Islamist or specifically religious impulse; and that lots of sophisticated people in places like America and the UK are yielding to it; and the ultimate consequences are barbaric and oppressive, because of the victims they destroy and the conversations they squelch.

Read Rauch's full article here.

Read Reason works by and about Rauch here.

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31 responses to “Remembering Rushdie: 30 Years Ago, the Novelist Was Marked for Death by Ayatollah Khomeini

  1. Conservatives seize on this in a desperate attempt to portray Islam as “worse” than other major religions. Don’t believe it. In fact, Christianity is a far more dangerous and intolerant religion. Just look at all the Christian terrorists blowing up reproductive health clinics in this country.

    #LibertariansAgainstIslamophobia

    1. Peace Train – sounding louder.

    2. It’s not the religion it’s the culture. A particularly backwater group of tribes in Arabia took over the center of Islamic culture and took it back to the middle ages. Muslims who are steeped in the Western traditions of the enlightenment do not call for the murder of fiction authors.

      Much of the Islamic world was highly advanced a century ago. But a certain group of Arabs managed to get hold of cultural power when they discovered petroleum under their tents. Many of the things we in the West associate with Islam are not a part of the religion at all, but a part of a backwater desert culture that managed to get exported around the world. Stuff like burkahs and female circumcision and women not driving cars. Nothing in the Quran about that.

  2. I remember when his book came out, and back then, we had just enough defenders of free speech to condemn what happened to Rushdie.

    If this incident had happened today, Rushdie would have received a far different treatment in the Western Media.

    1. “we had just enough defenders of free speech to condemn what happened to Rushdie.”

      Nonsense. You don’t know what you are talking about. Rushdie had thousands of defenders including British and American security forces who were detailed to protect him. When the Japanese translator of the book was murdered by fanatical Muslims, the nation (including the normally reticent Eastern Media) stood up and denounced this heinous act.

      1. “Nonsense. You don’t know what you are talking about. Rushdie had thousands of defenders including British and American security forces who were detailed to protect him. When the Japanese translator of the book was murdered by fanatical Muslims, the nation (including the normally reticent Eastern Media) stood up and denounced this heinous act.”
        Cite(s) missing, asshole.

      2. Just enough defenders easily means thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, and the media that were almost unanimously condemning the fatwa.

        The important point is the contrast with today. Remember Charlie Hebdo? Who would reprint the ‘offensive’ cartoons or the follow-on cover of Hebdo – very very few. The Muslim hecklers’ veto is clearly in play. And its only getting worse.

        1. Also remember the huge outcry to STOP antagonizing Muslims. Yes, we were all Charlie Hebdo for one day. Then Europe went back to condemning people for not respecting a religion.

          “It was her fault for dressing like that!” has now become “It was his fault for writing cartoons like that!” in much of Europe. And that thinking it taking hold in the US as well.

    2. He would probably be doing shows with Milo

  3. I saw him in the sauna once. He was going by the name “Sol Bass.”

  4. It feels like ancient history to me…

    Us, too. Today you just get cyber-bullied into submission. Sometimes by the journalists themselves!

    1. To me it was like yesterday. I was selling the book straight out of the shipping cartons because they were being snatched up faster than we could put them on a shelf. Soon we just kept a sign up list of customers and just checked off names whenever a new box came in.

  5. Hey speaking of this, I just found out today that if the words “Fake News” appear in public, sans any context at all, it’s considered hate speech, or at least an “epithet” against journalists and a twitter storm will ensue.

  6. “Today, mob demands for censorship and censure are so common they have acquired a new name: call-out culture.”

    —-Rauch

    Exactly.

    If there’s an irony about censorship today, it’s that a fatwa from a religious fanatic isn’t necessary to scare a controversial viewpoint, that might hurt someone’s feelings, into silence anymore.

    30 years on, who needs religious fanatics when we have progressives and social justice right here in the USA–and a Democratic Party to egg them on?

    1. “If there’s an irony about censorship today, it’s that a fatwa from a religious fanatic isn’t necessary to scare a controversial viewpoint, that might hurt someone’s feelings, into silence anymore.”

      Who needs censorship? We have the internet today. The threat of your boss reading comments such as these is all we need to exercise self-censorship.

      1. “Who needs censorship? We have the internet today. The threat of your boss reading comments such as these is all we need to exercise self-censorship.”

        An idiot like you would find this horseshit ‘profound’. The rest of us find it laughable.

    2. “30 years on, who needs religious fanatics when we have progressives and social justice right here in the USA–and a Democratic Party to egg them on?”

      BINGO!!

      Are not progressives religious fanatics? They make dubious moralistic arguments and try to enforce them both by law and social pressure on the rest of the people. The prime example is the global warming nonsense – warping the term denier is a really sick and evil attempt to quash objective scientific inquiry. I weep for the world with progs in charge.

    3. I should note that the Iranian revolution was also caused by college aged kids running amok and shouting about their feelings.

  7. Molly Norris had to change her name and is still in hiding. FBI told her tough shit.

    1. As of 2013 she was still on the Inspire (official magazine of Al Qaeda) hit list. Charlie Hebdo happened in 2015, so if she was still in hiding as of 2015, it was probably wise. I don’t know if she’s still in hiding/hiding, but she definitely keeps a low profile.

  8. Oh, anybody who feels sorry for Rushdie should check out his list of girlfriends.

    Riya Sen in particular. Mercy!

    Before he was born, when we all got in line to pick our lives, he must have been up near the front of the line somewhere.

    1. Google translates her name as “rear to do” I kid you not.

  9. ‘Multiple sources’ saying that Jussie Smollett attack was staged because he was being written out of show

    BREAKING: Multiple soucres tell @ABC7Chicago Eyewitness News Jussie Smollet and the 2 men who are being questioned by police staged the attack – allegedly because his character was being written out of the show Empire.

    1. I’m shocked. This is my shocked face.

  10. A lot of attention paid to Satanic Verses, as though this was Rushdie’s crowning achievement. It isn’t. It’s a bore. Midnight’s Children is the one to read if you don’t know your Rushdie. It’s a great epic of the founding of modern India.

    1. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I don’t know my Rushdie.

  11. I found this delightful example of early ‘hate speech’ law. Nebuchadnezzar condemns these 3 Jewish men to burn in the furnace, but they escape:

    Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” – Daniel 3:28

    It’s funny because, why do we need new hate speech laws to protect us when we have G_d?

    1. That’s not the word of God, that’s the word of Nebuchadnezzar.

  12. Today a Muslim critical of Islam will just be labeled an “islamophobe” and ostracized.

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  14. My story: I used to work in a San Diego bookstore. We were one of the few bookstores brave enough to sell the book. “Brave” is not the right word. “Savvy” is more like it. We simply could not keep it in stock. Only a wndow copy was visible. A case would come in the back door, and we would start calling customers on the list.

    The corporate chain stores of B Dalton Books (no longer exists) and Waldenbooks (don’t think they do either) wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

    Anyway, at the time of the fatwa, Yusef Islam, otherwise known as Cat Stevens (of “Peace Train” fame), lived in San Diego. He affirmed the fatwa, which was not just against Rushdie but also the editors and publishers of the book. As the sellers of the book, a local peace activist affirming the call for the murder of people in our industry was disturbing.

    I will not listen to Cat Stevens music to this day.

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