As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the Ayatollah's "valentine" to Salman Rushdie, I thought I'd note down two reflections on that affair that have given me pause.
The first is Noam Chomsky's very sharp comparison of the Rushdie affair to the trial of Ernst Zündel in Canada in 1988. He points out that while "everyone started screaming" when the fatwah was issued against Rushdie, no one said anything when a holocaust denier was sentenced to 15 months in prison by their own state for speaking his mind. (More precisely, Chomsky compares Zündel's sentence to the actions of that same state in holding The Satanic Verses back "for a couple of weeks" in customs.) Here's my favourite part of Chomsky's remarks on this:
You didn't have Susan Sontag getting up in public saying "I am Ernst Zundel," all this kind of thing. The point is, you defend freedom of speech when it's speech you like, and when you're sure there's a half-billion Western Europeans out there between you and the Ayatollah Khomeini so you can be courageous. (Understanding Power, p. 271-2)
The vaguely flarfy effort I posted on Sunday was of course inpired by this remark. It's important to notice that Chomsky is not in any way trivializing the fatwah itself or Rushdie's predicament. He's ridiculing a particular display of intellectual "courage".
And it is also the reaction of intellectuals that Christopher Hitchens, my second example, is interested in, this time the reaction on the other side of the affair. "Here was an open incitement to murder," writes Hitchens of the fatwah, "accompanied by the offer of a bounty and directed at a writer of fiction who wasn't even a citizen of the theocracy [that issued it]." But while Chomsky is a bit bemused about the eagerness of intellectuals to "courageously" rush to Rushdie's side, what struck Hitchens was the reticence of some intellectuals to defend Rushdie. Maybe, they argued, Rushdie really had done something to offend the Ayatollah? (I.e., maybe the Ayatollah had a point?)
In public debates with those who worried about the blashphemous or profane element in the novel, or who said that they did, I would always begin by saying, look, let's get one thing out of the way. May I assume that you are opposed without reservation to the suborning of the murder, for pay, of a literary figure? It was educational to see how often this assurance would be withheld, or offered in a qualified form. In those cases, I would refuse to debate any further. (Letters to a Young Contrarian, p. 48)
I generally like Hitchens on the issue of free speech, where he holds a position very much like Chomsky's. In fact, Hitchens defended David Irving when he found himself in almost precisely Ernst Zundel's position, and I think rightly so. It's a rightly principled stance. But I'm often less impressed with his debating posture, which often includes this sort of "refusal to debate any further" with people who won't denounce particular outrages worded in particular ways (by Hitchens himself of course. I mean "suborning of murder"? Really. I think I'd mutter something under my breath too before granting the obvious truth he is proposing.)
The thing that strikes me about Hitchens's remarks here is that he wants unqualified assent ("without reservations") to a position that is, if you look closely, already put in a strangely "qualified form". Does Hitchens really mean that "a literary figure" should be more free from threats of assassination than other people? In fact, notice that he qualified his description of the fatwah by pointing out that Rushdie "wasn't even a citizen of [Iran]." Are the fatwahs that are in fact carried out against Iranian apostates less problematic?
As far as I can tell, Rushdie's state protected him (as it would probably have protected any figure, literary or not, if a $6 million bounty had been publicly put on his or her head). I think the interesting issues here do not turn on the fatwah itself, but on the reactions of intellectuals, and the lack of reactions to comparable actions of their own states.