Before the War

A few months before her death, Ellen Willis emailed to say pieces by Charles O’Brien and Fredric Smoler on the Danish Cartoon Controversy posted on this site were “good.” (That was high praise from Ellen whose mode of approbation was the opposite of American idolaters.) Struck by how much those pieces “echoed themes” in what she’d written at the time of the Rushdie affair, she wondered if we “might be interested in reprinting the editorial I wrote in the Voice [in 1989] as a historical affirmation of the bad road we are going down.” What follows is the piece of the past that Ellen thought belonged in First. (It was originally titled “The West Betrays Its Principles.”) B.D.

Make no mistake: Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Salman Rushdie’s execution is not simply a piece of lunatic demagogy directed at an individual, but a serious act of political intimidation with far-reaching consequences. The Iranian head of state has declared war – quite literally – on Western secular, democratic institutions. He has rallied his international troops in his most daring bid yet to extend the power of Islamic theocracy beyond his own country, even beyond the Moslem world, by force. Do the people and the governments supposedly committed to democratic values have the will to fight back?

Already Khomeini has won a few battles. Rushdie can hardly be blamed for going into hiding, and perhaps it’s too much to expect of his publishers that they go on with his book tour as a protest, with a video or audio tape of Rushdie taking his place. But Vikings’ craven statement that they never intended to offend anyone by publishing Rushdie’s book and “very much regret the distress the book has caused” is inexcusable. So is the action of the Waldenbooks, the country’s largest books chain in taking Satanic Verses off the shelves. (As the company’s executive vice-president, Bonnie Predd, sententiously put it: “We’ve fought long and hard against censorship. But when it comes to the safety of our employees, one sometimes has to compromise.” (How about simply offering any nervous employee a few days off.?) In France, Presses de la Cite, Rushdie’s publisher, has ‘postponed’ publication of the French edition (you remember France, home of Voltaire, but more recently the drug company that tried to scuttle the abortifacient RU 486 under pressure from anti-abortion activists). Nor will the West German house Keipenheuer and Witsch publish Rushdie’s book as scheduled.

There is no indication that the world’s governments are taking Khomeini’s move as seriously as it deserves. Britain has made the strongest statement, which nonetheless falls short of declaring that officially putting a price on the head of a British author exercising the right to free speech in his own country is an act of war against Britain and will be viewed as such. The United States has confined itself to a routine condemnation of terrorism. Canada gets the prize for moral oafishness. Revenue Canada, a government customs and taxation agency, has temporarily banned further imports of the Rushdie book, pending an investigation of the possibility that it contains “hate literature” (the ban was announced the first day of Canada’s National Freedom To Read Week). Will Britain, the U.S., or anyone else move to bring this issue before the United Nations? If they do, is there any chance the UN will vote for meaningful sanctions against Iran? And if not, will those Western nations that call themselves democracies get together to impose sanctions on their own, The last two questions are, I’m afraid, rhetorical.

The attack on Rushdie and the anemic response to it are not occurring in a vacuum. Democratic secularism is increasingly vulnerable to a religious fundamentalism that in all its forms – Christian, and Jewish as well as Islamic – is increasingly feeling its power. And Western governments, far from resisting anti-democratic absolutism, have been abetting it. The Thatcher government has enthusiastically pursued its own censorship of books and other media. The U.S. has, of course, been in bed with fundamentalist Christianity since the election of Jimmy Carter. The Reagan administration never got too exercised about violent attacks on abortion clinics, refusing to include them in its antiterrorist rhetoric, the political climate surrounding abortion has become so intimidating that no American drug company has been willing to test RU 486, must less market it. Our government also supports, on the grounds of the right to freedom and self-determination, the fundamentalist guerrillas in Afghanistan, who – if, as now seems likely, they end up in power – may make Khomeini look mellow. Is there anything left of the West’s loudly proclaimed commitment to freedom that goes beyond such ironies? More and more that question, too, begins to seem rhetorical.


January, 2015