It is a strange and bitter coincidence that the latest eruption of violent Islamic indignation takes place just as Salman Rushdie publishes his new book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, about his life under the fatwa.
In 23 years not much has changed.
Islam’s rage reared its ugly head again last week. The American ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members were murdered by a raging mob in Benghazi, Libya, possibly under the cover of protests against a film mocking the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
They were killed on the watch of the democratic government they helped to install. This government was either negligent or complicit in their murders. And that forces the U.S. to confront a stark, unwelcome reality.
Until recently, it was completely justifiable to feel sorry for the masses in Libya because they suffered under the thumb of a cruel dictator. But now they are no longer subjects; they are citizens. They have the opportunity to elect a government and build a society of their choice. Will they follow the lead of the Egyptian people and elect a government that stands for ideals diametrically opposed to those upheld by the United States? They might. But if they do, we should not consider them stupid or infantile. We should recognize that they have made a free choice—a choice to reject freedom as the West understands it.
How should American leaders respond? What should they say and do, for example, when a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s newly elected ruling party, demands a formal apology from the United States government and urges that the “madmen” behind the Muhammad video be prosecuted, in violation of the First Amendment? If the U.S. follows the example of Europe over the last two decades, it will bend over backward to avoid further offense. And that would be a grave mistake—for the West no less than for those Muslims struggling to build a brighter future.
For a homicidal few in the Muslim world, life itself has less value than religious icons, such as the prophet or the Quran. These few are indifferent to the particular motives or arguments behind any perceived insult to their faith. They do not care about an individual’s political alignment, gender, religion, or occupation. They do not care whether the provocation comes from serious literature or a stupid movie. All that matters is the intolerable nature of the insult.
The riots in Muslim countries—and the so-called demonstrations by some Muslims in Western countries—that invariably accompany such provocations have the appearance of spontaneity. But they are often carefully planned in advance. In the aftermath of last week’s conflagration, the State Department and Pentagon were investigating if it was just such a coordinated, planned assault.
The Muslim men and women (and yes, there are plenty of women) who support—whether actively or passively—the idea that blasphemers deserve to suffer punishment are not a fringe group. On the contrary, they represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam. Of course, there are many Muslims and ex-Muslims, in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere, who unambiguously condemn not only the murders and riots, as well as the idea that dissenters from this mainstream should be punished. But they are marginalized and all too often indirectly held responsible for the very provocation. In the age of globalization and mass immigration, such intolerance has crossed borders and become the defining characteristic of Islam.
And the defining characteristic of the Western response? As Rushdie’s memoir makes clear, it is the utterly incoherent tendency to simultaneously defend free speech—and to condemn its results.
I know something about the subject. In 1989, when I was 19, I piously, even gleefully, participated in a rally in Kenya to burn Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. I had never read it.
Later, having fled an arranged marriage to the Netherlands, I broke from fundamentalism. By the time of Sept. 11, 2001, I still considered myself a Muslim, though a passive one; I believed the principles but not the practice. After learning that it was Muslims who had hijacked airplanes and flown them into buildings in New York and Washington, I called for fellow believers to reflect on how our religion could have inspired these atrocious acts. A few months later, I confessed in a television interview that I had been secularized.
The change had consequences. Asked about the poor integration of Muslim immigrants into Holland’s civic culture, I recommended the emancipation of girls and women from a religious practice that motivates parents to remove them from school as teenagers and marry them off. Through emancipation, Muslim integration into Dutch society would come faster and endure. But I soon learned that by making such statements, I had unwittingly blasphemed three times: by associating terrorist attacks with a theology that inspired it; by drawing critical attention to the treatment of women in Islam; and—the worst blasphemy of all—by leaving the Muslim faith.
That was just the beginning of the adventure. When I eventually entered politics and campaigned for a seat in the Dutch Parliament, the atheist-liberal Dutch elite was thrown into total confusion: I was either praised as a Voltaire or condemned as a diva desperate for attention. The week before I was sworn into Parliament, I gave an interview to an obscure paper in the Netherlands that caused an uproar. Dutch Muslim organizations had been demanding that the age of marriage be lowered from 18 to 15, touting the Prophet Muhammad as their moral guide. In response, I suggested that some of the actions of the prophet might be considered criminal under Dutch law. This prompted a delegation of ambassadors from Turkey, Malaysia, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia to knock on the door of my party leader shortly after I took my seat in the legislature, demanding my eviction from Parliament for hurting the feelings of Muslims—those not only in Holland, but everywhere in the world, all 1.5 billion of them.
But that was nothing compared with what happened when I made a short film with Theo van Gogh (titled Submission) that drew attention to the direct link between the Quran and the plight of Muslim women. In revenge for this act of free thinking, Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan man, murdered van Gogh—shooting him eight times and stabbing him with two knives, one of which pinned a note to his body threatening the West, Jews, and me. As he was dying, my friend Theo reportedly asked his assailant, “Can’t we talk about this?” It’s a question that has haunted me ever since, often in bed at night. One side proposing a conversation; the other side thrusting a blade.
Now I knew what it was like to be a combatant in the clash of civilizations. Having renounced Islam and openly criticized its political manifestations, I was condemned to a life cordoned off from the rest of society. I quickly learned the drill leading up to any public meeting or event. “Follow me,” the agent on duty would bark out, half-request and half-order, opening the doors to the armored car, doors I was not allowed to touch. Then a fast-paced walk, more like a march: a dash into basements and cellars; down dark corridors and elevators; through greasy kitchens and laundry rooms full of startled workers looking up, frozen in place. Agents whispering into wrists, elevators opening at the perfect moment, and I would be ushered into the occasion I was supposed to attend: a meeting of politicians; a town hall gathering; a reading; an intimate birthday party.
IT IS a dreary, enervating routine—one with which Rushdie is oppressively familiar. In Joseph Anton, he movingly relates the story of his ordinary life before the fatwa, how he lost that life, and then how he learned to adjust to it without losing his sanity. He keeps himself going by focusing on the funny side of things. He grows accustomed to waking up in unfamiliar houses and discussing his every move with strangers appointed by the government for his protection. Before the fatwa, Rushdie had been a proud and stubbornly free man. But under threat of murder, he suddenly found himself forced to take orders from strangers for the sake of keeping himself—and his family—alive.
This risk was not abstract. Senior government officials told Rushdie about plots involving hit squads. The Japanese translator of Verses was stabbed to death, and the Italian translator seriously injured in a similar attack. Despite all this, he has remained a stalwart, fearless defender of free speech.
His critics in Britain were less reliable. Intellectuals who harbored personal dislike of him or contempt for his work suggested that he only had himself to blame for the fatwa and that he could have perhaps done something to avoid it. (When the critics exhausted this argument, they complained that taxpayers had to foot the bill for Rushdie’s protection.) It came as an especially hard blow when those he had considered ideological compatriots took the side of the fanatics by default (usually by refusing to defend an inalienable right to write what he wished about them).
Rushdie felt particularly aggrieved that many of the attacks came from people whose worldview he shared. His leftist credentials were undisputed, given his positions on apartheid, the Palestinian question, racism in Britain, and Margaret Thatcher’s government. What’s more, Rushdie considered himself a friend, not an enemy, of Islam. He believed that his roots in Islam—though his family was not particularly religious—gave him credibility. His previous book, Midnight’s Children, had been a hit in India, Pakistan, and even Iran. He had no clue that Verses would trigger a hostile reaction among Muslims.
How wrong it was to accuse him of provoking those who sought to silence him—and for the British government to urge him to apologize as a way of accommodating Muslim leaders. In the past 23 years, we have learned a lot about the danger of giving in to the demands of extremists. We now know all too well how it incites them to demand more and to refuse reason and a peaceful settlement.
Or at least some of us know it. How often have I endured bizarre conversations with government officials who cling to the illusion that the threat is temporary or that it can be negotiated. And then there are the even more delusional positions staked out by some prominent intellectuals who blame the writer, the politician, the filmmaker, or the cartoonist for provoking the threat. In the days after van Gogh was murdered, too many prominent Dutch individuals expressed precisely this position, declaring smugly, “Yes, of course killing is wrong, but Theo was a provocateur ...” Will they never cease looking for ever more ingenious ways of apologizing for free speech?
As the latest wave of indignation sweeps across the Muslim world, we should not be despondent. Yes, this is a setback for the Arab Spring. Yes, it is bloody, dangerous, and chaotic on the streets. Yes, innocent people are dying and their governments are powerless. But this too shall pass.
Utopian ideologies have a short lifespan. Some are bloodier than others. As long as Islamists were able to market their philosophy as the only alternative to dictatorship and foreign meddling, they were attractive to an oppressed polity. But with their election to office they will be subjected to the test of government. It is clear, as we saw in Iran in 2009 and elsewhere, that if the philosophy of the Islamists is fully and forcefully implemented, those who elected them will end up disillusioned. The governments will begin to fail as soon as they set about implementing their philosophy: strip women of their rights; murder homosexuals; constrain the freedoms of conscience and religion of non-Muslims; hunt down dissidents; persecute religious minorities; pick fights with foreign powers, even powers, such as the U.S., that offered them friendship. The Islamists will curtail the freedoms of those who elected them and fail to improve their economic conditions.
After the disillusion and bitterness will come a painful lesson: that it is foolish to derive laws for human affairs from gods and prophets. Just like the Iranian people have begun to, the Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, and perhaps Syrians and others will come to this realization. In one or two or three decades we will see the masses in these countries take to the streets—and perhaps call for American help—to liberate them from the governments they elected. This process will be faster in some places than others, but in all of them it will be bloody and painful. If we take the long view, America and other Western countries can help make this happen in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union.
We must be patient. America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative. At the heart of that alternative are the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of thought, worship, and expression. For these values there can and should be no apologies, no groveling, no hesitation.
It was Voltaire who once said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As Salman Rushdie discovered, as we are reminded again as the Arab street burns, that sentiment is seldom heard in our time. Once I was ready to burn The Satanic Verses. Now I know that his right to publish it was a more sacred thing than any religion.