It is hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu — last Friday there were demonstrations in many parts of the Islamic world against the knighting of Salman Rushdie. For many, the Rushdie Affair of 1989, when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini first issued the now-notorious fatwa calling for Rushdie to be murdered, was their introduction to the Islamic fanaticism that now dominates the daily headlines. But could Muslims possibly still be angry with Salman Rushdie, after all these years?
The answer from Iran was predictable. Mohammad Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, found in the knighthood evidence of a moral defect among the British: “Knighting one of the most hated figures in the Islamic world is a clear sign of Islamophobia among high-ranking British officials. Honouring a hated apostate will definitely put the British statesmen against the Islamic community and hurts their feelings once again.”
An Iranian jihadist group, the Organisation to Commemorate Martyrs of the Muslim World, offered $150,000 to anyone who finally killed Rushdie. The reaction from Pakistan was even more ominous. Protestors burned Rushdie and Queen Elizabeth in effigy, chanting “Death to Britain, death to Rushdie.” Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, declared before the Pakistani parliament: “This is an occasion for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision. The West is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British Government apologises and withdraws the ‘Sir’ title.” After receiving criticism for apparently justifying a suicide attack, Ijaz ul-Haq later modified this statement, saying: “If someone blows himself up, he will consider himself justified. How can we fight terrorism when those who commit blasphemy are rewarded by the West? We demand an apology by the British government. Their action has hurt the sentiments of 1.5 billion Muslims.”
Muslim leaders in Britain were just as unhappy. Abdul Bari, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that “many will interpret the knighthood as a final contemptuous parting gift from Tony Blair to the Muslim world…The insensitive decision to grant Rushdie a knighthood can therefore only do harm to the image of our country in the eyes of hundreds of millions of Muslims across the world.”
Salman Rushdie once again indicates just how large is the gulf between the Islamic world and the post-Christian West in matters of freedom of speech and expression. Freedom of speech encompasses precisely the freedom to annoy, to ridicule, and to offend. If it doesn’t, it is hollow: inoffensive speech doesn’t need the protection of a constitutional amendment. The instant that any person or ideology is considered off-limits for critical examination and even ridicule, freedom of speech has been replaced by an ideological straitjacket. For years now, Islamic states and organizations around the world have painted Rushdie as a symbol of evil as they have attempted to place Islam off limits not just for ridicule, but for any investigation into the elements of the religion that encourage violence against unbelievers, discrimination against women and religious minorities.
The entire Rushdie Affair, both in 1989 and in its new phase, is a sobering and instructive reminder of the gulf between the perspectives of the West and the Islamic world, and of the latter’s determination to silence anyone they considered to have offended Islam. Western leaders have a new opportunity in the controversy over Rushdie’s knighthood to explain that freedom of speech is part of a view of the dignity of the human person that is ultimately rooted in Judeo-Christian conceptions that are superior to the Islamic view of human beings as slaves of Allah. They could mount an ideological challenge to jihadism by pointing out that if submission to God and abhorrence of blasphemy are really worth anything, they are much more valuable if chosen freely, rather than being coerced.
In today’s multiculturalist fog, no Western leader dares speak this way. But a response to the ideological challenge the jihadists present is needed more than ever — and the need for it is only going to increase.