The Satanic Verses: Censorship's chilling effect

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When is it all right to censor a book? My wife, whose mother was a decorated hero in the French resistance, threw a fit when our son, who was 16 at the time, announced that he wanted to order Hitler’s Mein Kampf from Amazon.com. I was reminded of the intensity of her reaction just now because this week marks the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah ordering the death of British author Salman Rushdie for having written his brilliantly satirical novel, "The Satanic Verses."

The fatwa — essentially an Islamic commandment — was never carried out, but it has had a chilling effect on the publishing industry that is still being felt today. Most recently, Sherry Jones’ novel "Jewel of Medina," about Mohammed’s first wife, Aisha, was dropped by Random House, after it was suggested that it might spark a similar reaction. Random House protested that the novel had historical inaccuracies, but what novel does not? As a result of the controversy, the book was picked up by a smaller publisher, Beaufort Books.

The case of the Satanic Verses is more complex, although the threat against Rushdie was mindlessly simple. I was on assignment in the Iranian Holy city of Qom during the height of the controversy, and I asked the leaders of several of the religious schools there what they would do if they suddenly encountered Rushdie. Would they actually murder him? “Of course,” the head of one of the schools told me. “It would be my duty.” That answer was repeated at every one of the half dozen schools I visited. When I asked which part of the book merited a death sentence, I was told that one can criticize Islam, what you cannot do is to make fun of religion.

Rushdie’s book is, in fact, wildly comical, but it is also filled with piercing insights. Its most satirical passages are directed against Britain’s attitudes towards immigration from its former colonies, and if anyone had a right to be upset when it was published, it was Maggie Thatcher, not Ayatollah Khomeini.

The book is not critical of Islam, but targets false prophets who distort the words of the Prophet Mohammed and the Koran for their own purposes.

When I asked religious leaders in Qom which part had offended Khomeini the most, I was told that Khomeini had not actually read the book at all. Instead, a few passages had been hastily translated into Farsi and shown to Khomeini. According to the cleric I talked to, Khomeini had then been told that if he did not issue a fatwa by 5 p.m. that evening, he would lose his position as spiritual leader of the Islamic world.Khomeini , according to this source’s account, complied.

But the real story, as a highly placed Pakistani friend explained, may actually be more complicated than that. Before Satanic Verses, Rushdie had written another searing novel, although a shorter one. It was called “Shame,” and it told the story of a ludicrously contradictory and hopelessly corrupt Muslim country under the control of a military dictatorship. Part way through the book, Rushdie writes ironically that some readers might think that he was describing Pakistan, but of course, that would be impossible.

By the time that Satanic Verses was published, Pakistan had elected Benazir Bhutto as prime minister. Her public popularity and the fact that she was a woman trying to assume power in a male-dominated society infuriated many of the generals.

Rushdie had already ridiculed Pakistan’s army brass and the subsequent protests that tore across Pakistan as well as Iran put Bhutto in an almost impossible situation. If she defended the book, which hardly anyone had actually read, she would anger Muslim supporters at home. If she allowed the book to be attacked, she would only confirm western impressions that the region was benighted, backwards and against freedom of speech. Bhutto’s assassination, years later, only confirmed that the area is a dangerous neighborhood, and that the fatwa against Rushdie deserved not to be taken lightly.

The argument over free speech remains unresolved. The flap over Satanic Verses has calmed down to the point where Rushdie is only surrounded by a few bodyguards when he appears on the London social scene. The West never did see much reason to be excited over Satanic Verses, but other cases are more problematic.

The hate mongering engaged in by Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines, which is now generally credited with having played a key role in sparking the mass genocide in Rwanda in 1994, is a case in point.

And it is not alone. On Thursday, Britain’s foreign office ordered Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders barred from admission to England at London’s Heathrow Airport. Winders, an ultra-nationalist, had been invited by the House of Lords to show his film “Fitna,” a pseudo-documentary that links images of Islamic terrorism to passages in the Koran. The film, which had been widely distributed over the Internet last year, has probably been seen by just about anyone who might be interested, but the British government decided not to take chances. David Millibrand, Britain’s secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, told the BBC, "A hate-filled film designed to stir up religious and racial hatred in this country is contrary to our laws."

Perhaps the best comment was made by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. "The most stringent protection of free speech,” Holmes famously wrote, “would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

More GlobalPost dispatches from William Dowell:

Flashback on the Iranian revolution

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