Scared to Death to Offend a Muslim

It’s now been twenty years since the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie. Our Flemish correspondent VH has translated a report from De Volkskrant by a correspondent who interviewed Mr. Rushdie on this anniversary occasion:

Scared to death to offend a Muslim

By Diederik van Hoogstraten

Salman Rushdie is rightly concerned about the fear that even Westerners no longer dare to criticize Islam.

Salman RushdieThe novelist Salman Rushdie did not mention Geert Wilders when he was recently in New York for a rare public appearance. But even without saying it, the prosecution of Wilders fit seamlessly into Rushdie’s arguments.

Annoyance and victimization

Any form of correctness fed by fear and hypersensitivity is an abomination to the writer. The culture of being eternally offended is dangerous, he said on this winter evening. It becomes risky to say anything; you just might insult someone and that has become the worst of violations. “Who are you today when you are never annoyed about something anymore?” Identity seems to revolve around money and victimization, said Rushdie, who for years has been a hunted man for insulting Muslims. It really was unfortunate that the Amsterdam judges who gave the order for Wilders’ prosecution were not here.

Within walking distance of the United Nations building, Rushdie said that he once spotted a nice slogan on a T-shirt: “Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” But the 57 countries constituting the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) think otherwise. Earlier this month an OIC resolution against blasphemy was adopted by the General Assembly: the shaming of “all religions” is condemned in it. This is what those countries have done since 2005, when the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed stirred up a wave of protests in the Muslim world.

Blasphemy resolution

We can safely assume that the UN ambassadors of countries like Pakistan, Sudan, and Syria are not worried about the fate of insulted Jews or Christians in their midst. In an unveiled way, “all religions” here means “Islam”.

The blasphemy resolution, which the U.S. and the Netherlands voted against, made almost no headlines. And consistently ignoring it is perhaps the recommended response to the many absurd statements that come from the skyscraper on the East River. But according to Rushdie, it does no harm to draw attention every now and then to these kinds of travesties.

In New York he is not the only one. There has never been any clarity about the purpose of the resolution, the constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams wrote, a great connoisseur of the American free speech doctrine. That goal: “The harassment of those who might criticize Islam.”

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Delivering criticism is essential, however, said Rushdie. “If you can not openly talk about the fundamental ideas of a culture, you can not talk at all.” The Islamic world becomes a ‘closed world’ this way. For a substantial reform, said Rushdie, the Quran is has to be seen in the historical context. He explained that his father and many others, midway through the last century, also read the Koran that way: freely interpreting and discussing. But the hypersensitivity that also arises from the UN resolution — and from the prosecution of Wilders — underlines that the Quran today only exists “within history”, and is untouchable, according to Rushdie.

He expressed his criticism in a conversation with Irshad Manji, the Canadian columnist, Ugandan-born and residing in the U.S., who teaches at New York University and writes about the need for radical reform within Islam.

“We have to realize that people are born equal, but cultures are not”.

Where Rushdie calls himself a proud atheist, Manji is — despite the many attempts to silence her — a dedicated Muslim. With a homosexual orientation and a sharp tongue, though. She agreed with Rushdie and described “a new infrastructure of fear” within Islam, but also among Western outsiders who are literally scared to death to insult a Muslim.

Rotting Process

“People are born equal,” she said. “But cultures are not. It is good to realize that”. She shook her head when Rushdie argued that the being-insulted trend now also becomes visible in other religions. Manji, who like Rushdie has been frequently threatened: “In Christianity and Judaism you can say what you want, because you don’t have to fear for your life.”

She and Rushdie agreed that cultural sensitivity has led to cultural relativism through a “rotting process”. Thus the fanatics and extremists can insist with impunity on their “cultural rights” — even if those rights lead to the prosecution of writers, the erosion of freedom of expression, or what’s more, the stoning of homosexuals.

Asking questions

The worst thing, according to Rushdie, is that the Westerners today are adapted “to the mullahs and other bastards,” while in the Islamic world many people are struggling to break the power of “the priests and generals” to build a modern society. “We did not do that in the time of the Soviet Union.” In those times the dissidents instead were heard and respected. Official voices were not taken seriously.

The non-Muslim who dares to ask questions now, “is a racist,” said Rushdie. And that, as everyone now knows who ever had the courage to write something critical of Islam, has become the ultimate verdict. Rushdie knows that better than anyone else. The reason for the debate was the fatwa by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989, twenty years ago, because of the blasphemy in Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.

Being Silenced

The fatwa of those days is the UN resolution of today. The death sentence of the ayatollah is now formulated in a formal declaration against “insult to all religions,” a framework of international justification. The means are different; the purpose is the same: to silence freethinkers like Rushdie and many lesser-known critics of Islam.

Unlike in Canada and Europe, in the U.S. Rushdie and Manji can, even in this age of “you should not insult me,” say and believe what they want, just like any other Muslim, Jew, Christian or atheist. But based on what he declared in New York again about the Koran and the Prophet, Rushdie would be dragged before the courts if he were in The Netherlands.

Chilling effect

The “chilling effect” of UN resolutions, fatwas, and prosecutions bring him great worry: fear and self-censorship will follow automatically on intimidation. Rushdie himself has never suffered from those and that is cause for a little celebration on February 14. The spiritual leader who declared the fatwa twenty years ago is long dead. Rushdie lives well and free in New York and continues to write. Moreover, he sometimes leaves his study, close to the UN, to make noises that can not be heard often enough.

Rushdie sounded energetic when he said that the global response to the fatwa has given him hope: “People responded with their best. If we do that, we can defeat the threat.” He said that The Satanic Verses has been translated in 43 countries. “And the writer who had to die, is sitting here talking. This is a small victory. It is important to realize that.”

There also the unbeliever can say only one thing to that: Amen.

Diederik van Hoogstraten is a De Volkskrant staff writer in the United States.