Commentary Magazine


Topic: Salman Rushdie

Blasphemy’s New Friends

Innocent victims of violence and injustice often attract the opposite of fair-weather friends: when they are at a low point, they become a cause. The surviving staffers of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine at which twelve were murdered by Islamist terrorists for publishing Muhammad cartoons, would probably be surprised by some of their new friends. And in fact, some of those new friends might be surprised themselves.

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Innocent victims of violence and injustice often attract the opposite of fair-weather friends: when they are at a low point, they become a cause. The surviving staffers of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine at which twelve were murdered by Islamist terrorists for publishing Muhammad cartoons, would probably be surprised by some of their new friends. And in fact, some of those new friends might be surprised themselves.

Over at his new perch at the Atlantic, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier has written a piece about the choice now facing the Jews of France. It’s headlined “We Are Hyper Cacher,” a reference to the kosher market whose shoppers were taken hostage by the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, who then killed four of the Jewish hostages. In discussing the history of French Jews, Wieseltier pairs the religious shoppers at Hyper Cacher and the secular satirists of Charlie Hebdo this way:

The mockers at Charlie Hebdo had no place in their hearts for the believers who shopped at Hyper Cacher, and the pious consumers at Hyper Cacher were not readers of the witheringly anticlerical Charlie Hebdo, but they were unlikely partners in the same project: a society of freedoms and rights. In striking at them both, the killers struck at the same thing. The cartoons and the challahs both were talismans of democracy, which is Islamism’s nightmare.

When cartoons and challahs occupy the same bunker in a culture war, one of them has either been sacralized or demoted. In this case, the cartoons have been sacralized.

What’s interesting about this is the clarifying moment the mass murder at Charlie Hebdo now appears to have been. The cartoons don’t suddenly possess new meaning; if such meaning is present, it predated the massacre. Wieseltier, though, didn’t seem to think so the last time they were in the news.

In the fall of 2012, Charlie Hebdo was a topic of conversation around the time of the terrorist attack on the American mission in Benghazi and the administration’s ham-handed attempt to blame it on the obscure anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims. Right after the attack, Charlie Hebdo published more cartoons making fun of Muhammad, raising fears of more attacks and calls to tone down anti-Islam “art,” such as it was.

The Washington Post’s Charles Lane was having none of it. In a column decrying “censorship-by-riot,” Lane wrote: “I say: One cheer for Charlie Hebdo. I doubt that its cartoons are either laudable or responsible. In fact, I’m sure that they are neither. But if free speech means anything, it’s the right to say and publish things that other people find objectionable and irresponsible, even blasphemous.”

Lane was right about the attempted censorship through violence (or fear of violence). Wieseltier didn’t think so. And he particularly didn’t care for Lane’s bestowal of the term “blasphemous” on Charlie Hebdo’s antics. He shot back at Lane:

When the cartoons of Mohammed were published by Charlie Hebdo in Paris, it was another exercise in pseudo-blasphemy, even if they did give real offense, because the right of a French magazine to publish them was never in doubt. The constitutional freedoms of Pastor Jones were never imperiled by General Dempsey when he implored the odious cleric not to circulate “Innocence of Muslims,” the Islamophobic garbage that led ineluctably to violence in the Muslim world. It is not “censorship-by-riot,” as Charles Lane indignantly put it, to attempt to prevent innocent people, Americans among them, from dying. Is this video not crying fire in a crowded theater, or providing theater for a crowded fire?

Here we have two points that seem to have dissipated with the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher. First is Wieseltier’s suggestion that what Charlie Hebdo’s editors were doing wasn’t real blasphemy, and it wasn’t brave. It was the empty gesturing of ungrateful nogoodniks. This is because, according to Wieseltier, the cartoons were protected by law.

But law had no helping hand to lend when the terrorists came for the cartoonists and murdered them in cold blood. And the law certainly permitted Western newspapers from republishing examples of the subject matter that some felt was worth dying for. But the hasty and obsessive self-censorship in the wake of that attack had nothing to do with the law, because it wasn’t the law anyone was worried about. It was censorship-by-riot.

And it’s not censorship, Wieseltier said, to lean on cartoonists and filmmakers to take it easy on Muslims because lives are at stake. Once upon a time, Charlie Hebdo deserved mention alongside Innocence of Muslims while Wieseltier decried the latter as shouting fire in a crowded theater–arguably unprotected speech. Today, however, Charlie Hebdo has been promoted. It is speech that ought to be protected, it is essential to democracy, it is analogous to the bread Jews bless and eat to signify their miraculous survival by God’s grace in the wilderness.

It appears the 2012 set of incidents were the exception in Wieseltier’s worldview. In 1989, he castigated fellow Western writers for not immediately stepping up to defend Salman Rushdie from the latter’s censorship-by-fatwa. And those who found some dark irony in writers like Rushdie having opposed the free world’s democrats whose support and protection he now requires, Wieseltier called “mean and grudging and partisan.”

I don’t think so, but on the rest he was surely right then, as he is right now. And it would be mean and grudging and partisan to ignore the fact that some writers, Charles Lane among them, were right all along.

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Salman Rushdie and Moral Courage

Salman Rushdie had quite the megaphone this weekend: the New York Times Sunday Review op-ed section and its 1,200-word space from which to preach. And Rushdie used that space to make quite the pronouncement: the world–the West included–was sliding back into dangerous territory, in which patience for the wisdom of dissidents was running low, and our willingness to let those men and women dissent running low along with it.

It must be said that Rushdie, as the famous target of the Islamic world’s fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, knows firsthand about the danger to artists and intellectuals who cross those willing to do violence. And it can also be said that politicians who found Rushdie to be an insufferable troublemaker didn’t give him all the support he might have deserved. But Rushdie’s column in the Times shows that while he survived the fatwa on his head thus far, his judgment did not.

Rushdie seems incapable of distinguishing between true dissidents and useful idiots or puffed-up rabble-rousers. Everyone who crosses the government is speaking truth to power, to Rushdie. And his column is useful not for its intellectual value but because this mindset has so infected the world of the arts and academia that its roster is unable or unwilling to realize that the problem is not how we treat genuine dissidents but that the global left has diluted the meaning and the cause by calling clownish poseurs by that name.

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Salman Rushdie had quite the megaphone this weekend: the New York Times Sunday Review op-ed section and its 1,200-word space from which to preach. And Rushdie used that space to make quite the pronouncement: the world–the West included–was sliding back into dangerous territory, in which patience for the wisdom of dissidents was running low, and our willingness to let those men and women dissent running low along with it.

It must be said that Rushdie, as the famous target of the Islamic world’s fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, knows firsthand about the danger to artists and intellectuals who cross those willing to do violence. And it can also be said that politicians who found Rushdie to be an insufferable troublemaker didn’t give him all the support he might have deserved. But Rushdie’s column in the Times shows that while he survived the fatwa on his head thus far, his judgment did not.

Rushdie seems incapable of distinguishing between true dissidents and useful idiots or puffed-up rabble-rousers. Everyone who crosses the government is speaking truth to power, to Rushdie. And his column is useful not for its intellectual value but because this mindset has so infected the world of the arts and academia that its roster is unable or unwilling to realize that the problem is not how we treat genuine dissidents but that the global left has diluted the meaning and the cause by calling clownish poseurs by that name.

Rushdie’s column is titled “Whither Moral Courage?” But that question should be asked of Rushdie, as it should of anyone who writes the following:

America isn’t immune from this trend. The young activists of the Occupy movement have been much maligned (though, after their highly effective relief work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, those criticisms have become a little muted). Out-of-step intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and the deceased Edward Said have often been dismissed as crazy extremists, “anti-American,” and in Mr. Said’s case even, absurdly, as apologists for Palestinian “terrorism.” (One may disagree with Mr. Chomsky’s critiques of America but it ought still to be possible to recognize the courage it takes to stand up and bellow them into the face of American power. One may not be pro-Palestinian, but one should be able to see that Mr. Said stood up against Yasir Arafat as eloquently as he criticized the United States.)

There is much to unpack here. When he says America isn’t immune from this trend, he means the trend of suffocating dissent, and puts the United States in a category that, by his own description in the essay, includes the Soviet Union and modern Pakistan. Rushdie may think he is being provocative, but such nonsense deserves to be laughed out of the room.

Yet Rushdie continues the thread. If America is Soviet Russia or Islamist Pakistan, his brave dissidents here are akin to Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi, Salman Taseer. And who are these heroes? First, there is the Occupy Wall Street movement, who not only weren’t oppressed by the government but left alone to squat on land in downtown Manhattan. Women in these camps were shocked at the lengths to which Occupy leaders would go to protect rapists who prowled the camps, because they were worried not for the safety of innocent women but for their own reputations. The camps were responsible for harming local small businesses, and the Occupiers’ simmering resentment targeted Jews and other supposed symbols of Western society hated by these pseudo-anarchist mobs. If Rushdie is worried about intellectuals, he need not shed a tear for the fate of Occupy Wall Street; roving rape camps are not incubators of high intellectual pursuit.

As for Chomsky, Rushdie must be kidding when praises the “courage” it takes to shout Khmer Rouge propaganda in the face of American anti-Communists. And is Chomsky sitting in Guantanamo or a gulag? Of course not. Chomsky’s vile stupidity only discredits his supporters; his opponents have nothing to fear from him. It would have been nice of Rushdie to at least include a reference to the dissidents of the despicable Cambodian regime to balance out Chomsky, but that would have made plain the irrationality of his argument.

And what of Said? Rushdie says it’s absurd to accuse him of being an apologist for Palestinian terrorism. (Sorry–“terrorism.” Rushdie’s moral relativism requires him to dismiss reality as open to interpretation. Magical realism is not realism, after all. One wonders if that same Islamic violence that threatened Rushdie’s life and hounded him for decades deserves scare quotes, or only that violence which is launched against others.)

But of course that’s exactly what Said did. Here he is, for example, during the Second Intifada claiming that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “is the source of violence.” He goes on to make clear his opposition to Arafat was where he felt Arafat was too willing to engage in the Oslo peace process, and he says that every time a Palestinian official is asked about the conflict he should say that “Occupation with tanks, soldiers, checkpoints and settlements is violence, and it is much greater than anything Palestinians have done by way of resistance.” That was Edward Said, in his own words, claiming that the mere existence of a Jewish village is “much greater” than horrific bombing campaigns directed at innocent men, women, and children. That’s not moral courage, and it’s to our credit as a society that we reject it.

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