1998Editorial Writing

Why Rushdie Matters

Bernard L. Stein
February 27, 1997

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"I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses book which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death."
-- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, February, 1989

In the Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Khomeini is portrayed as the enemy of time. "We will make a revolution," he proclaims, "against history . . . the intoxicant, the creation of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies--progress, science, rights." His disciple--a satiric rendering of rock singer Cat Stevens--sings "Burn the books and trust the Book; shred the papers and hear the Word."

Salman Rushdie has learned a great deal in the eight years since the Ayatollah's decree made him a marked man, but he had already understood why the right to speak freely is democracy's most fundamental right, the cornerstone of our freedom. He already understood that words and the ideas they convey offer us the possibility of change, and that without that possibility, self-government is a meaningless concept.

"In totalitarian societies," said Rushdie in one of his guerrilla speeches when he emerges briefly from hiding and as quickly disappears again, "there is always an attempt to replace the many truths of freedom by the one truth of power, be it secular or religious power. Totalitarian regimes seek to halt the motion of society."

That is why what happens to Rushdie should matter to all of us, why his fate transcends the issue of his personality, his religion, or his literary merit, all of which have been invoked to his discredit. Whether Salman Rushdie can go to the corner newsstand for a paper, book a table in his own name at a restaurant, or announce a speaking engagement in advance is a measure not only of his freedom but of ours. It will tell us whether we can really read what we please, whether we can grapple with ideas as we wish, whether we can be changed and make change.

So it is a pity that the anniversary of the Ayatollah's death sentence passed so quietly this year. The author published an op-ed piece on his plight in The Times; CNN took notice of his existence; but the storm of articles and appeals that characterized years past dwindled to a drizzle.

It would be comforting to think that the author no longer needs defending, that the fact that eight years have passed, that the Ayatollah is dead, and that Rushdie has grown bolder shows the danger has past. But a bounty of millions remains on the novelist's head and he continues to live underground.

Moreover only eight years ago this nation's largest bookstore chains withdrew the book from their shelves in the face of threats. More recently, Penguin refused to publish a paperback edition, leaving the task to an underground consortium out of fear of reprisals. What that says about the state of our own freedom is not comforting.

"How fragile civilization is; how easily, how merrily a book burns!" wrote Salman Rushdie as he watched Moslem demonstrators in York consign The Satanic Verses to the flames. The need to defend our fragile civilization remains undiminished. The ashes are not yet cold.