Commentary Magazine

The Rushdie Affair

To the Editor:

In “The Ayatollah, the Novelist, and the West” [June], Daniel Pipes, writing from an American point of view, notes the threat to our values from the militant fundamentalists of Islam and says only that our response depends more on us than on them. Quite. In the United Kingdom, where a libertarian tradition of tolerance has imposed amazing restraint in this matter—the accusation of “racism” is something politicians will do almost anything to avoid—the response has been violence from the Muslim community, public fear, and a determination by the authorities to be virtuous about all this.

But except for a ridiculous public performance by Harold Pinter, there has been relatively little of the pompous and absurd literary playacting in the American style described by Midge Decter in “The Rushdiad,” also in the June COMMENTARY. The British situation has a practical seriousness which brushes such gestures aside. Large sections of important cities—Birmingham, London, and above all Bradford in the north of England—are populated by Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, many of whom are militant fundamentalists. They have responded to British restraint with book-burning, rioting, and flagrant violation of the law which forbids incitement to murder, calling for the killing of Rushdie and stating their readiness to carry out his “execution” themselves. “Moderate” Muslim spokesmen and leaders have made no real effort to control their bigots. On the contrary, they have inflamed them by blaming their excesses on Rushdie, on British intolerance, and on the publishers of the “offensive” book. . . .

In mid-summer, a fire-bombing campaign began in British bookstores. A number of public figures, notably the Asian Labor MP Keith Vaz, have championed Muslim demands for the extension of Britain’s antiquated blasphemy law to “protect” Islam. Important Muslim political blocs in Yorkshire, the large Midlands city of Birmingham, and London have threatened electoral sanctions against local members of Parliament, including the deputy head of the Labor party (Muslims vote almost exclusively Labor), if Labor disowns Vaz. . . .

British willingness to abet illiberal Muslim bigotry has extended even to Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who in a letter published in the Times of London (March 4, 1989) called for censorship of material which abused freedom of speech by “offending the genuine faith of many millions of devout believers.” Rabbi Jakobovits included Khomeini in his condemnation of such abuse, but he also placed Salman Rushdie’s book in virtually the same category as the Ayatullah’s open call to murder an author for apostasy. . . .

If Chief Rabbi Jakobovits’s call for less tolerance were isolated, it would not matter much. But it has been heard from many quarters in Britain; its background is the reluctance of British authorities to respond to statements like that of Dr. Kalim Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute on June 7: “I still believe absolutely that the Imam’s [i.e., Khomeini’s] ruling was quite correct. But if Salman Rushdie withdraws the book, then the British Muslim community will leave him alone.” One commentator in the Sunday Times remarked that no one, including the police, had asked Dr. Siddiqui what not “leaving him alone” means. The same article pointed out that the Crown Prosecution Service had turned a Nelsonian (blind) eye to public incitement to murder a British citizen. . . . And yet the British, politicians and law-enforcement authorities alike, remain determined to pursue a course of tolerant goodness. Fiat caritas, and if it will make us look saintly, let our own forces—that means here not just the tradition of free speech, but the law itself—be destroyed.

Such passivity is strong in the West, and more so today in America than anywhere else, because such threats as we face are seen as purely notional, to be neutralized by notional means. This conviction lies close to the roots of the left-wing liberal tradition. It has, for another instance, resounded through American and European demands for Israeli restraint in the face of PLO violence, and in the willingness to take the PLO at its European-language word, ignoring its Arabic statements of lethal intent against Israel.

As the postwar threat to the West is fading in the memory of the young, making “cold war” into a term of abuse, our very willingness not only to support our allies but to defend ourselves is being submerged in a wash of public-relations enthusiasm for “peace,” as though the conflicts of a half-century and the enormous abyss between our world and that of a rabidly militant bigotry can be made to vanish by a display of friendly gestures and good intentions, and by ignoring the lethal intent of those who hate us.

Herb Greer
Manchester, England



To the Editor:

Both Daniel Pipes and Midge Decter accurately portray different aspects of the Salman Rushdie affair. Miss Decter, with her usual insightfulness, forcefully analyzes and describes the feckless and self-serving behavior of the literati. Yet there were at least two other aspects of the affair which were not discussed, and which disclose a great deal about the current state of Western civilization.

The first of these is the weak response of the Western nations to the Khomeini threat. Within months, the diplomats who had been noisily recalled from their posts were quietly reinstated. In this respect the Rushdie affair calls to mind the behavior of the Western nations during the so-called oil crisis of the mid-1970’s, when there seemed to be a despicable competition as to which country could genuflect more often and more deeply at the altar of the PLO and the Saudis. . . . The failure of the West to respond to Khomeini’s death threat by specific counter-threats involving the destruction of Iranian military bases or population centers . . . makes the Khomeinis of this world successful at mocking Western values and revealing their shallowness.

The second aspect of this affair . . . is the continuing and frightening role of irrational, fundamentalist belief systems in society. By failing to confront such absurdities, the Western nations are undermining their own religious heritage and their own commitment to rational thought and are thereby giving credence to fundamentalist extremism as a valid way of life. . . .

Sheldon F. Gottlieb
Mobile, Alabama



Daniel Pipes writes:

Sheldon F. Gottlieb writes that I left out of my account the lame response of the Western states, but I did devote considerable space to this topic (pp. 13-15). Still, his letter provides an opportunity to update the story since late March, when the European Community authorized the return of chiefs of mission to Teheran. Within a month, all but the British, French, and West German diplomats had returned to Teheran. The latter two were back in place in June, just after Khomeini’s death. Their Canadian counterpart, who had also been withdrawn, returned along with the majority of the EC representatives. By summer, only the British ambassador remained absent. One almost wonders why they bothered with the whole diplomatic brouhaha in the first place.



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