Friday, May 2, 2014

[OM] On Salman Rushdie's death sentence and freedom of speech

Everyone should read this article, as it's a great story on what Mr. Rushdie went through after the fatwa by the Iranian regime [1]. Let me, however, focus on one aspect of the story: what are we to make of these religious reactions? One can say that Mr. Rushdie was a victim of what appears to have been a political move by Iran. Indeed his novel's views on Islam have inflamed many places (and his book, the Satanic verses is not considered to be controversial by some) and he was refused a place to speak in India recently. Also, if you're interested, I have another article on censorship.

As an American, I easily side with Mr. Rushdie and his novel, having that American spirit of Freedom of Speech to fall back on (full disclosure, I have not read the novel, but I plan to). An author should be able to write about whatever it is they want. But alongside this story is the context of history. [2] 

If you read the Vanity Fair article, you will see that there was a split in the Western intellectual world that was caused by different interpretations of this history. What are people, who agree that Western Imperialism is to blame for a lot of the violence in the Islamic world, to say when someone comes along and inflames the situation with a book? Especially when one's liberal ideals equate freedom of expression as important—and stronger than what religions think.

In my opinion, there is danger in thinking that one has to choose a side. Surely you can be for an author's right to publish, and fight for that right, but at the same time fight against atrocities in the same lands where reactions to certain books/cartoons are occurring?

There are too many people these days, including some I respect (the late Hitchens, for example as well as Rushdie), who hold the view that the fatwa on Rushdie was a harbinger for the violence of the future and of 9-11. These people seem to avoid talking about what is done for these reactions to happen. I'm not sure why these views have become prevalent, but they are. [3]

And unfortunately it appears that Rushdie falls for this. Claiming that this extremism is something rare and indicative of something extremely unique. Certainly the man has been through a lot, and for that he should be commended. But that someone so intelligent can see the world and say that one side (read the 'other' side) is acting with a specific and unheard of ferocity is delusional.[4] And indeed, the Vanity Fair article highlights some of this odd dichotomy that seems to live in elite circles [5]  whereupon they seem to live by the same us v them tribal rules that most people do, but since their views are covered with a cultivated veneer, their view is better.

This is not an easy question (what does it come down to? Power and the reaction to it?), and as always I'd prefer a discussion over 'wins' (if such things are possible). Your thoughts?

Update 21JAN2015: With the Charles Hedbo  tragedy fresh in our minds, and Rushdie commenting on the matter, I will have to point out that you can find more on the matter here. I still stick by my own convictions.


[1] It should be noted that Iran had a coup (backed by Western Powers), a murderous Shah (installed by Western Powers, a decade long war (helped along by Western Powers) and a civilian airliner shot down (by Americans, the year before the fatwa). To say that they were reeling would be an understatement. So is saying that they were cornered. And to say that Western Nations would react (their secular parts or their Christian parts) less violently is simple false (or lacks, as I mentioned, a historical perspective).

[2]And I shake my head when the likes of Bill Maher and others blame Islam (hinting that there is something inherent to that religion that makes it violent etc) for all its reaction. Again, it is a world view that seems to want to discard history, or even what else is happening in the world.

[3] I would dare say that I see this in many of the New Atheists' talk about Islam. In some sort of intellectual jujitsu they claim none of their own nations' violent tactics should be considered vile/war atrocities (Hitchen's stance on the Iraq war stands out on this matter) while at the same time condemning the actions of those who would fight back against these tactics. Unfortunately, it has turned New Atheism into some sort of neo-colonialist squad. 

[4] It should be said that like us, other people don't forget such traumatic events all that easily.

[5] At times this cosmopolitan set, of many races it should be noted, seem to sing the same songs, showing that diversity should be considered on many levels in life (and especially when considering the opinions of those who have the most to gain from those in power, or a power system).

Update Sep2014: People have told me that this article is simply not getting through. Therefore I, as a writer, have failed. Fair enough:
Let me make another point: that if we as liberals want to espouse one law, want to treat it as universal, we cannot be quiet about the many other laws (right to dignity, or even just life) that are needed for that one law to matter. To ignore the entire lot is disingenuous.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can contact me at if you have any questions or wish to discuss something or just to say hi. Look forward to hearing from you. 

I do have a book that takes a slight look at what happens in a clash of morals.
Ministry of Bombs, tackles many aspects of power and reactions to it. 

Some other articles that are related to the subject matter here.
# How to read the news today (relevant because even an article like this must be read with an eye towards history)
# An article about Drone Warfare today.
# A list of the best international books out there (something Mr. Rushdie would love).

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  1. Easy to say so when one doesn't have the fatwa on their heads. Sure, that means a skewed view of the world, but you need to consider that much more strongly. At the end of the day the main point was to silence someone. Is that ever right? No. Make your adjustments accordingly.

    1. Different writer here: should anyone be allowed to make a decision based on the fact that they are under extreme emotional stress, and should they then be allowed to make a decision for the rest of us?
      Yes we should not want freedom of speech to be infringed (and that is exactly what has happened with regard to this entire affair: people are scared to write on Islam), but what about past history? Surely that cannot be ignored? I'm not saying I have an answer, I'm saying that it's more complicated than you are making allowances for

    2. listen, I would feel extremely emotional if I had a death threat on my head for a fictional story that I wrote. I agree, and completely. But that's not the basis for rational thought or the basis for an ethos. By doing that, you're inherently avoiding a long term view. That's what I want to take into account here.

      Mainly that the freedom of speech, very important, should be but one law (international) that we try to spread. Otherwise, any protests come across and idiotic and may help cabals in power.

      Yes it sounds horrendous to even, for a second, go against freedom of speech, but the point is not that. But that freedom of speech only works in conjunction with other freedoms. That is simply the way of life. A great power does something like wage war against you, then of course you'll be pickier about speech that they sling your way (and possibly see it as propaganda, even if it isn't).

      To not see life in this way is foolish, through and through.

    3. Foolish? You kiddin, right? Cause if I remember you had a good article on the necessity of freedom of speech, of making sure we didn't silence people, of making sure that all voices were heard because that exchange and free flow of ideas works well to move a society forward, to air grievances, to, well, everything. So what's the difference here?


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