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On Point

Rushdie, Danish Cartoons and Free Expression


by Austin Bay
February 7, 2006


In 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini didn't simply diss Salman Rushdie's provocative novel, "The Satanic Verses." Khomeini issued a death threat, and backed his fatwa with a multimillion-dollar reward for the believer who killed the novelist.

Salman Rushdie is still alive and kicking, though the reward remains in place, a Damoclean sword made of money and an angry man's invocation of God.

I read "Satanic Verses" when it was published in 1988, but haven't looked at it since. I found the book to be disorganized and rambling -- bad James Joyce, I recall telling a friend -- though its explorations of identity and change were occasionally compelling.

A sequence in the novel featuring a Mohammed-like figure raised orthodox Muslim ire. Disputed Koranic verses sparked the controversy. Rushdie explored a doctrinal inconsistency in Islam -- imitating what Enlightenment intellectuals did with Christianity.

The controversy made Rushdie a literary cause celebre. Media oomph led to literary prizes for a book that's an aesthetic snooze. The death threat, however, gave Rushdie two less attractive identities. He became a hunted man. He also became a symbolic political figure in what he discovered wasn't an artistic contretemps, but a very long war.

Rushdie benefited from his media ploy -- he wanted readers to think, to explore, but first he needed readers. A little sputtering reaction by the rednecks or the clerical collars? Hey, it's good box office.

At least it is in the Western world.

The media ploy's much bigger brother is information warfare. Rushdie played the ploy -- Khomeini fought a war. In the late 1980s, Tehran was in tough straits economically, politically and militarily. Rushdie's ploy gave a calculating strategist like Khomeini a perfect target: a liberal Muslim intellectual who could be branded a heretic and a Westernized sycophant. Call it a tyrant's "two-fer." Attacking Rushdie deflected internal political dissent and promoted Khomeini's claim to international leadership of "Islamic revolution."

I support Rushdie's right to free expression, fully and unequivocally. Rushdie, however, failed to appreciate the power, goals and will of his opponents. In fact, the word "opponent" is part of the problem, for it implies a competition with rules -- rules like the First Amendment or British common law, a philosophic debate that may get a little heated and could end up in court. But it is the wrong word for Khomeinis and -- in our time -- al-Qaidas and Saddams. The appropriate word is "enemy" -- an armed, ruthless, unappeasable and murderous enemy.

In May 2005, Newsweek ran its phony Guantanamo prison "Koran flushing" story -- a story designed to embarrass the Bush administration as well as sell copies of Newsweek. A good sales ploy? When riots began in Muslim countries, the world got a lesson in information warfare. Indian military analyst Bahukutumbi Raman claimed that in Afghanistan the riots were incited by "well-organized agents of the Hizb ut-Tahrir terror gang."

The cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten are categorically different from Newsweek's indefensible action. The cartoons, like Rushdie's novel, don't purport to convey fact but are opinion, in their case mild satire. The Danish editor argued many Muslim immigrants criticize Europeans but brook no counter-critique.

Four months after their publication, however, we witness waves of orchestrated, coordinated violence -- war and information war directed at the West but also designed to deflect domestic challenges to Middle Eastern dictatorships. Vicious anti-Muslim cartoons -- not published by the Danes -- now circulate with the originals (suggesting a calculated act of propaganda designed to further inflame). Syria's secular dictatorship made cynical use of the cartoons. Mobs burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus. The attacks would not be possible without the tacit permission or connivance of the Syrian government. At the moment, Syria faces U.N. censure for its role in the murder of Lebanon's Rafik Harari.

Turkish Muslims, however, held peaceful protests. They opposed the cartoons, but they are not enemies. Turkey is an emerging democracy.

I support the publication of the original cartoons, but I also know the figurative war of free expression in the West occurs in the midst of a real (non-figurative) and active global war against terror and tyranny. That's why I also support combat operations that lead to free elections and, ultimately, liberation.

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