As protests continue against “Innocence of Muslims” (which I wrote about in an earlier post, “On Blasphemy”), it’s worthwhile to remember an earlier Muslim attempt to stifle free speech through the threat of violence. Open Culture recently wrote about (and linked to) a 2010 BBC radio interview with Christopher Hitchens in which he talks about the 1989 Iranian fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie, who offended the delicate sensibilities of Muslims with his novel The Satanic Verses. Hitchens said:
This was the most extraordinary reactionary challenge to the idea of free expression that had occurred my lifetime. The theocratic head of a foreign state offers money in his own name for the suborning of murder, the offense being the writing of a work of fiction, and the intended victim being someone who isn’t an Iranian and lives in England. It was rather the same feeling as I later had on the eleventh of September, 2001, a direct confrontation between everything I love and everything I hate.
But did non-Muslim religious leaders speak up to defend free speech? Open Culture’s accompanying article quotes Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great:
One might have thought that such arrogant state-sponsored homicide, directed at a lonely and peaceful individual who pursued a life devoted to language, would have called forth a general condemnation. But such was not the case. In considered statements, the Vatican, the archbishop of Canterbury, the chief sephardic rabbi of Israel all took a stand in sympathy with–the ayatollah. So did the cardinal archbishop of New York and many other lesser religious figures. While they usually managed a few words in which to deplore the resort to violence, all these men stated that the main problem raised by the publication of The Satanic Verses was not murder by mercenaries, but blasphemy. Some public figures not in holy orders, such as the Marxist writer John Berger, the Tory historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, and the doyen of espionage authors John Le Carré, also pronounced that Rushdie was the author of his own troubles, and had brought them on himself by “offending” a great monotheistic religion. There seemed nothing fantastic, to these people, in the British police having to defend an Indian-born ex-Muslim citizen from a concerted campaign to take his life in the name of god.
In the radio interview, Hitchens tells what happened when he agreed to take Rushdie’s place at a reading at a bookstore in Berkeley. Starting at about the five minute mark, he describes the heavy security, the FBI agent who stood near him… and the later discovery of a (fortunately) poorly-made pipe bomb that had failed to go off in the bookstore.
Using the reasoning of Rushdie’s critics, clearly the fault lay with Hitchens and the bookstore for provoking the attempted bombing.