Rushdie: Free at last

Reason and decency have their occasional victories, too, and the lifting of the fatwah against the author of "The Satanic Verses" is on.

Published September 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Now that the Iranian government has disowned the mercenary and murderous elements of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwah against Salman Rushdie -- leaving only the hysterical and uncomprehending denunciation of his novel to stand, as the mother of all bad reviews -- there is an occasion to celebrate a huge moral victory. The new regime of President Mohammad Khatami won a democratic election, and has been groping for its own sake toward a version of "separation" between clerisy and politics: It made this gesture of repudiation for good and sufficient reasons having to do with its own society.

So who will now say that a lone novelist "brought it all on himself" by "insulting Islam"? The insult to Islam, as Rushdie and his supporters argued all along, was the assumption that the Muslim culture itself demanded blood sacrifice. No doubt Iran's confrontation with the Taliban played its part in Khatami's decision, as did other considerations of realpolitik. (Changes of mind are not dictated by God, either.)

And no doubt there are still some consecrated assassins bewailing the "traitors" and apostates in the new Tehran. Nonetheless, reason and decency have their occasional victories, too, and this is one of them. Perhaps Cardinal O'Connor of New York, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi of Israel will now wish to reconsider the statements they made in February 1989, in which condemnation of "blasphemy" took precedence over any denunciation of murder for bounty.

A few days after my Salon story about the disgraceful bombing of Sudan, the New York Times ran a front-page story in which every assertion by the Clinton administration was either withdrawn by one "spokesman" or another, or was shown to be false. The soil samples too dubious to be produced for inspection; the operations of the factory misunderstood or misrepresented; the "terror" connection a bit overstated; the odd local CIA agent fired for making things up ... it's an old story.

But after the Times piece, the other shoe never dropped. How could such a giant fiasco occur, and be so swiftly and humiliatingly admitted, if there was not some appalling haste involved? And what might that haste be? Those who jokingly cited "Wag the Dog" on the day itself may have been acting cynical or knowing, but even they must now be shocked to hear that it was as bad as, or worse than, they thought.

Some more points have come to light about the simultaneous rocketing of Afghanistan that I ought to have appreciated in the first place. As the Progressive rightly pointed out, the sending of a shower of cruise missiles over Pakistani airspace (so soon after the Pakistan-India nuclear standoff) could have created panicky apprehension about an Indian "first strike." Were the Pakistanis, once our gallant allies, given any warning?

No, says Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Why not? They could hardly have told their -- and our -- former friend Osama bin Laden to move his tent in time. Meanwhile, Pakistani nuclear experts, so often kept short of high-tech material, are feasting on the wreckage of a cruise missile fired with such indecent urgency that it fell, unexploded, on their soil. A fine day's work.

But, alas, the work of fundamentalism is never done. A friend of mine who is an expert on Sudan and a strong sympathizer with the southern rebels against the vile clerical regime says that the story about the Al-Shifa factory was only for fools and pollsters to believe, and laments the fact that it has strengthened the Khartoum government's hand. But he adds a point I haven't seen made anywhere else. Those who promoted the recent "Defense of Religious Freedom Act," surfacing again in Congress under the auspices of the Christian Coalition, employ Sudan as their propaganda showcase of a Muslim regime that oppresses and enslaves Christians. The core constituency for this legislation is among Southern Baptists and others of a simple proselytizing disposition. You might almost call them voters.

We know from his own lips that Clinton chose the targets himself. Could he have been swayed by such a blatant domestic consideration? Here is an impeachable point that I think Ken Starr will not be making.

At the time of the attacks, Clinton and his spokesmen said that the attacks heralded a "long war" against militant Islam. This was a good short-term way of getting people to line up terrified behind our fearless president, of course, but a rather shaky start to a new crusade. For one thing, the ghouls on the other side have known about this "long war" for a long time. Even those of them who are not veterans of covert operations in Afghanistan, or clients of our "moderate Arab" chums in Saudi Arabia, have watched as the main Muslim populations under European rule -- those dwelling in Bosnia and Chechnya -- have been put to the sword, in both cases with Western complicity. They may have noticed that this was allowed in part because it appeased that horrible favorite of Western statesmanship, Boris Yeltsin. (At least they can't blame Yeltsin on the Jews, though they probably try anyway.) NATO's torpid indifference about Kosovo is another way of teaching the Muslim world about our unshakable attachment to pluralism.

Not long after the Iranian president and foreign minister executed their climb-down at the United Nations, fundamentalist papers back home in Tehran announced that the withdrawal of the fatwah was not binding on them. This was to be expected. It marks the increasingly deep and open difference between contrasting schools in a once-monolithic Iran. Excellent.

My dear friend Dr. Israel Shahak, who is the scourge of the Orthodox bullies in Israel, has a happy way of describing those episodes that compel people to decide between dogma and humanism. "There are," he says with delightful gravity, "some encouraging signs of polarization."

It's been clear for some time that certain Iranian arms-profiteers, intelligence services and hard-line military men have their own state within a state, and care nothing for the democratic process. Thank heaven that this could never happen in God's Own Country.

By Christopher Hitchens

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

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