“Wherever they burn books, they also burn people in the end.”
Ayatollah Khomeini had not read The Satanic Verses at the time his fatwasuborning the murder of Salman Rushdie was proclaimed. After all on February 14, 1989, the novel had yet to be translated into Arabic, let alone Farsi. Rather, the Iranian leadership had witnessed on television the immolation of a copy of Rushdie’s book by a council of Muslims in Bradford, which triggered a succession of replicate demonstrations of ire and rage across parts of the Islamic world. Heine’s assertion, “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen,” was thus eerily appropriate – “Wherever they burn books, they also burn people in the end.”
“The Rushdie case,” as it was dismissively referred to at the time, has been pushed back into the public consciousness with the release of Rushdie’s memoirs, Joseph Anton, and his torture has come to be seen as a forewarning. The order of Rushdie’s execution by a theocratic dictator in Iran, the assassination of the novel’s translators, the bullying and intimidation of publishers, the destruction of bookstores, and the burning of books – all for the offense of writing a literary novel – was not an isolated incident. As recent events in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have demonstrated, vociferous reaction of this type is a phenomenon which affects the world still.
But as important as the physical consequences of the fatwa was the test it placed on our most fundamental, inalienable right, that of freedom of speech. For, at the time of publication and reaction, there were a good number of cultural and political commentators who deemed that Rushdie had made a rod for his own back by daring to write a novel which played with themes pertaining to the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad.
John Berger, the Marxist critic and novelist, suggested in The Guardian in February 1989 that Rushdie should self-censor and withdraw the book from circulation, “not because of the threat of his own life, but because of the threat to the lives of those who are innocent of either writing or reading the book,” in essence accusing him of starting “a unique 20th-century holy war, with its terrifying righteousness on both sides.” President Carter, concurring with Berger, entered the dispute via aNew York Times op-ed in March of that year. Rushdie, Carter wrote, “must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world,” adding that Westerners “tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Muslims whose sacred beliefs have been violated.”
When faced with such hostility, this willingness to undermine essential Enlightenment values to avoid confrontation was then and remains now very dangerous indeed. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks William Roper if he would be satisfied to “cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” A particularly vigorous prosecutor, Roper answers, “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!” “Oh?” More replies, advancing on Roper. “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”
In other words, when the free speech of another is violated such as Rushdie’s wont to write and publish without prior restraint, the violators and those who aid and abet them make themselves hostage to their own reckless actions. The question has to be asked of individuals as diverse as Berger, Carter, and Charles Krauthammer who condemned Rushdie at the time: What would happen when the book burners and the Bible bashers turn up in your neighborhood, your rights to answer back having been suppressed, “the laws all being flat?”