Newsreal: The ayatollah who came in from the cold

Salman Rushdie has had it with Western writers who think it's his own fault that the Iranians are out to kill him. First up in the cross hairs: John Le Carr

Published December 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Among the strongest impulses of the intellectual class must be the itch for the "unpredictable"; the desire to say something different or unusual. When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie and "those responsible for the publication" of "The Satanic Verses" on Valentine's Day, 1989, he made the most frontal possible challenge to free expression. A large bounty, offered in public, for the solicitation of murder, by the theocratic leader of a nation, against an author in another country, for the offense of composing a work of fiction. This had no historic precedent.

Most writers rallied to the side of Rushdie and his publishers. But a number of them decided that it would be boring to say all the obvious things. Instead, they criticized Rushdie for offending against the tenets and emotions of a great religion. They implied that criticism of Islam was a Western, elitist, colonialist practice. They accused him of caring more for royalties than for human life and of insisting on a paperback edition rather than acting to calm the passions aroused by the hardback. And they said, darkly, that "he must have known what he was doing."

These were the positions of British writers Roald Dahl, John Berger, Paul Johnson, Hugh Trevor-Roper and John le Carri, among others. At the time, Rushdie was rather busy finding a place to stay, and didn't get around to replying to each in turn. But nor did he forget, as a recent rancorous correspondence in the Guardian of London has demonstrated.

Le Carri, angered by the suggestion in the New York Times Book Review that the central character in his latest thriller, "The Tailor of Panama," was an anti-Semitic "Judas" caricature, had made a speech to a Jewish organization in his own defense and given it to the Guardian to reprint. In it, he bemoaned the tendency of some Jews to equate all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and denounced said tendency as a form of "correctspeak." A day or so later came a letter from Salman Rushdie saying, in effect, that now that le Carri knew what it was like to face a mild form of religious correctness, would he care to change his mind about the real thing?

Le Carri, it turned out, did not care. He repeated all the charges listed above, including the one about the pro-Rushdie forces evincing "colonial" attitudes. He added that he had been motivated in his call for a moratorium on the paperback of "The Satanic Verses" by concern for the "mailroom girls" who might get their hands blown off. This solicitude, he loftily implied, was more elevated than any concern for Rushdie's earnings. (Contempt for mere royalties is new for le Carri but then, so is the idea that the author of "Midnight's Children" and "The Jaguar's Smile" is an apologist for Western-style colonialism.)

At this point, I should declare, I myself wrote a letter to the Guardian inquiring whether le Carri would have been satisfied by a free edition of the book, given out from trestles in the street. As for the "girls" in the mailroom, none had been harmed in eight years' worth of defiance of the fatwa. Instead, rather inspiringly, the staffs of Crown Books and B. Dalton had rebelled against their respective managements' proposal to drop the book as a security risk. This rather dented le Carri's suggestion that Rushdie's defenders were all members of the elite. To compare their brave conduct to blasphemy was, I suggested, like relieving yourself in your hat and then stuffing the hat on your head. (I now slightly regret the last bit, because it gave later correspondents the opportunity to change the subject.)

Le Carré returned to the fray, repeating his point about there being no "God-given" right to criticize monotheism free of charge. (Take away the unintentionally funny phrase "God-given" and Le Carré seems to be saying that there is no right to offend the religious at all.) And his old friend, journalist and author William Shawcross, contributed a whole column in which he said that if any book of his had led to such an explosion of violence, he would have asked for the paperback "to be put on hold, in the hope that passions would die before people."

I wonder about that last bit. Shawcross wrote a fairly critical book about Henry Kissinger, "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia," published in 1979. Had Kissinger threatened to have Shawcross killed, would he have felt that the proper response would be to limit the circulation of the offending book? And how would he react if people went around saying that, given Kissinger's murderous record, Shawcross had no right to be surprised at the treatment he was receiving? Shawcross is the chairman of Article 19, a British organization that combats censorship. The officers of its international board wrote a letter effectively disowning him and making the rather obvious point that:

"It is not acceptable that Ayatollah Khomeini or his successors in the Iranian government should determine what works of fiction may be written or published internationally, in particular under the threat of extreme violence. To have delayed publication of the paperback would have meant acquiescing in terrorism."

Of course, there have been victims. Several people were killed in riots led by supporters of the Ayatollah's line. Hitoshi Igarashi, Japanese translator of "The Satanic Verses," was murdered. Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was severely wounded in another attack, as was William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher. They all did what they did as volunteers, despite the fatwa. At least they have been spared the sneer that they, too, "knew what they were doing." The idea that these crimes are the responsibility of Salman Rushdie, on the face of it a thought too absurd and disgraceful to merit debate, is the logical inference to be drawn from the view of many supposed "intellectuals."

On one level, Rushdie certainly knew what he was doing. There has been, for some time, an argument within Islam about the literal truth of the Koran and the fundamentalist application of its teachings. Men and women in the Islamic world risk their lives every day in the course of this debate. Many of them, including Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz -- himself the victim of a murderous assault by clerical fanatics -- have issued a volume titled "For Rushdie," in which they state that the affair of "The Satanic Verses" is the defining issue separating them from the dogmatists. Signatories include most of the writers worth reading in Iran, Palestine, Lebanon and Algeria. (And le Carré wrote that the friends of Rushdie operated from "armchair" positions of "colonial" safety ...)

But, in deciding consciously to employ supposed holy writ for literary purposes, Rushdie could not possibly have predicted the fatwa. Nobody could have. The published view of the mullahs is that his novel is a co-production of international Zionism and various intelligence circles. How can you anticipate the thinking of minds like that? And why should anyone be asked to try to appease the self-evidently unappeasable?

Even had he known, I would argue that Rushdie would have had every right to produce a blasphemous provocation if he so chose. I would also note that no other Islamic authority, political or religious, has endorsed the fatwa. To describe the death-threat ravings of a senile cleric as the view of the whole Islamic world is a none-too-subtle denigration of a great religion, offered by those who hypocritically claim to be extra "sensitive" to such insults.

Most bizarre of all is the idea, put up by the supposed defenders of those "mailroom girls," that the safest course is to refuse to publish a paperback that mailroom girls could afford to buy. There was a time when the Bible was not supposed to be translated into the vernacular lest the profane rabble get hold of it and review it for themselves. William Tyndale was strangled and burned for his English edition of the holy scripture. Indeed, most landmark struggles for free speech have been against those foes who claim a divine warrant. In our time, "The Satanic Verses" happens to be the test case. It might not be the test case everyone would have picked, but it is the test case nonetheless.

I am grateful to le Carré and to others who refuse to see this, for keeping the argument alive and for preventing it from becoming another pious mantra.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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