Rushdie and the satanic clerics of Iran

In May 2015, the PEN Literary Gala presented its Courage of Freedom of Expression Award to the murdered cartoonists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Earlier that year, two Islamists gunned down a dozen cartoonists who had had the audacity to satirize the Prophet Muhammad.

Among other images, they depicted him wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a detonating device. Other cartoons poked fun at a “religion of peace” that seemed particularly good at terrorizing the world and slaughtering its own people. (The magazine also devoted issues to the conflation of Judaism and Christianity.)

Six esteemed literary hosts of the Gala chose to skip the ceremony in protest. They wondered why cartoonists, even those who have been murdered, should be honored for insulting and enraging Muslims. After all, Muslims are a marginalized people of color. Where is the “courage” to attack their religion?

For long-time members of PEN and those dedicated to freedom of expression and the principle that art conveys essential truths, the boycott has both contradicted and undermined PEN’s historic mission. Questioning whether the cartoonists deserved the prize meant that PEN sided with censorship and murder.

Salman Rushdie, a top literary lion, well acquainted with militant Muslims and their avowed right to take the lives of those who commit blasphemy, quipped, “It was six authors in search of character”.

Rushdie was never short of character or courage. Shortly after the publication of his acclaimed novel, “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, a book which, in part, romanticized the Prophet in an unflattering way, a fatwa was decreed against him by the Ayatollah of Iran, and a $3 million bounty placed on his head. .

Today, the long-dead Ayatollah finally got his wish: Rushdie lies in a New York hospital, the nerves in one of his arms severed, an eye lost and his life possibly irrecoverable. A few days ago, a devout Muslim took the stage at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York, where Rushdie was about to speak, and stabbed him ten times.

Once the fatwa was issued, “The Satanic Verses” were banned and burned in various Muslim countries. Bookstores that sold the book around the world were ransacked. The novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death. Both the Italian translator and the Norwegian editor were seriously injured.

For ten years, Rushdie lived in hiding in London, under constant surveillance by the British government. He then moved to the United States, obtained citizenship, published more books, and slowly began to return to a normal life, knowing that the fatwa was still in effect.

Apparently the law of averages has caught up with him, largely because Islamists are always improving the odds that a death is imminent. Rushdie miscalculated, believing that the Iranian government may no longer have any interest in him. It was the 21st century, for Muhammad’s sake! Almost four decades after the novel was published, how likely was this targeted assassination to be carried out now?

The six smug, slavishly woke writers at this PEN Literary Gala had the luxury of treating a fatwa as nothing more than a fantasy – purely fictional, a scene from a novel, a thought experiment in the staff room. But the clear conclusion now that Rushdie is fighting for his life is that an Islamic death sentence should be taken seriously, not dismissed as hyperbole. Moreover, Islamists should not be seen as oppressed people who need safe spaces. Awakened well-being should be directed elsewhere.

But the clear conclusion now that Rushdie is fighting for his life is that an Islamic death sentence should be taken seriously, not dismissed as hyperbole.

To side with the terrorists rather than the cartoonists is, to say the least, an erroneous moral judgment.

Indeed, the attack on Rushdie was pure barbarism – blasphemy and sacrilege against humanity, not the divine. Supporters of the Ayatollah’s edict have already taken to social media to praise the stabbings. They pray to Allah that Rushdie succumbs to his injuries. Still others warn the enemies of Islam that a similar fate awaits them.

Imagine if Mormons reacted the same way to the mercilessly biting musical “The Book of Mormon.” What if they blew up the theater on Broadway opening night? Would such a despicable act be excused simply because the musical offended? Of course not. There is nothing awakened in Mormonism. Cancellation is just a non-white, non-Western prerogative.

Perhaps the Biden administration will learn something from this latest episode of Persian Islamist madness. Lifting the sanctions and restoring the deal with Iran is an even more magical thought. Isn’t it clear now that uranium enrichment is the only enrichment the Islamists are capable of?

After all, the same people who for decades have been clamoring for Rushdie’s head are part of the same bigoted society that took to the streets to chant, “Death to America!” Death to Israel!” Or cheerfully burning American and Israeli flags and Uncle Sam in effigy.

Pew polls continue to show that a significant majority of Muslims around the world still support strict adherence to Sharia. You know what that means: beheadings, dismemberments, stonings and lashes. Death to apostates and infidels. Hang homosexuals from cranes.

It is not unreasonable to ask: is it a religion or a death cult? Far too many Muslims yearn for a return to the 13th century caliphate. Such rigid beliefs and a total rejection of secular life are simply incompatible with Western democratic ideals. The no-go areas in France are just one example of the failure to integrate certain elements of Islam into modern life.

Rushdie’s attempted murder at the Chautauqua Institute was also an attack on civilization. Chautauqua has existed for over 100 years as a summer retreat dedicated to art and ideas. People go there to immerse themselves in great books, classic cinema and sumptuous music. I taught there for two summers and I know that its very essence is the enemy of closed minds and illiberal hearts. This was no place for Rushdie’s abuser and those like him who yearn for the Dark Ages who would so brutally and ruthlessly rob humanity of one of its chief cultural lights.

As for PEN and that tarnished 2015 gala, the irony is that Rushdie was one of PEN’s past presidents. What did they not learn from his life experience? Like similar contradictions within the ACLU, organizations once committed to free speech are now seemingly more focused on equity and other progressive priorities.

PEN may not have blood on his hands, but surely he should shed ink and watery tears for one of his own.


Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, professor of law and professor emeritus at the University of Touro, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture and Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is “Saving Free Speech…From Itself”.

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