"Send him to hell"
We in the West are living in the midst of a jihad, and most of us don't even realize itbecause it's a brand of jihad that's barely a generation old.
Islam divides the world into two parts. The part governed by sharia, or Islamic law, is called the Dar al-Islam, or House of Submission. Everything else is the Dar al-Harb, or House of War. It's called the House of War because it, too, according to the Koran, is destined to be governed by sharia, and it will take warholy war, jihadto bring it into the House of Submission.
Jihad began with Muhammed himself. When he was born, the lands that today make up the Arab world were populated mostly by Christians and Jews; within a century after his death, those areas' inhabitants had been killed, driven away, subjugated to Islam as members of the underclass known as dhimmis, or converted to the Religion of Peace at the point of a sword. The Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were not wars of conquest by Europeans but attempts to take back what had once been Christian territory. America's very first foreign conflict after the Revolutionary War was with the Barbary pirates, who, sponsored by the Muslim governments of North Africajust as terrorist groups today enjoy the sponsorship of countries like Libya, Iran, and Syriahad for generations been preying on European ships and selling their crews and passengers into slavery. (Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, over one million Europeansincluding people like Cervantes, Saint Vincent de Paul, and French playwright Jean Francois Regnardbecame chattel in North Africa, a minor detail that rarely makes it into Western history textbooks, perhaps because it would compel textbook writers to accord jihad a major role in their narratives of Western history.)
In 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. ambassadors to Britain and France respectively, met in London with the Tripolitanian envoy to Britain and asked him why his pirates were preying on American ships; he explained, as Adams and Jefferson reported afterward to the Continental Congress, that the pirates' actions were "founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise."
In their own eyes, in short, as well as in the eyes of the Muslim governments of the day, the Barbary pirates were engaged not in criminality but in jihad (or, more specifically, al-jihad fil-bahr, "the holy war at sea"). For a time the young United States of America joined European governments in shelling out "tribute" to the piratesthat is, paying them offto keep them from plundering ships and enslaving sailors. But once America had built up seagoing forces that were up to the job, it sent in the Navy and Marines to put an end to this brigandage in what became known as the First and Second Barbary Wars (1801-05, 1815)thus the line in the Marine Corps hymn about "the shores of Tripoli." (These wars, too, fail to merit a mention in many American history textbooks.)
After their defeat in the Barbary Wars, the pirates left U.S. vessels alone. But the spirit of jihad, like a hardy virus, survivedquiescent, yet lethalonly to manifest itself, in later generations, in different forms. Today, piracy; tomorrow, terrorism.
In the late 1980s, a brand-new mutation of the virus appeared. The news came, most famously, in the form of an announcement made on Valentine's Day 1989 by the Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini, who in 1979 had succeeded the overthrown Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Iran's supreme leader (thereby earning a nod as Time's Man of the Year) and promptly subjected that country to sharia, was a muftian Islamic scholar who is qualified under sharia law to issue a fatwa, an authoritative opinion that settles a question of faith. In this case the question was whether the British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie should be killed for having insulted Islam in his recently published novel The Satanic Verses. Khomeini's answer? Iranians heard it over the radio: "I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who are aware of its content are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them." Days later, Iran officially put a bounty on Rushdie's head. The author went into hiding. He has been guarded day and night by British police ever since.
Nothing quite like this, it's safe to say, had ever happened before.
Khomeini's fatwa reflected the recognition that jihad's proper targets don't just include Western vessels and buildings. They also, and more fundamentally, include Western freedomsabove all, the foundational freedom: freedom of speech. What has emerged from this recognition is a new phase of jihad whose advantages include not requiring jihadists to engage in combat to the death but only in such low-risk activities as the writing of letters of complaint to government officials, participating in "intercultural dialogue," and the occasional rally, march, riot, flag-burning, or act of embassy vandalism. Not only do the participants in this modern brand of jihad take virtually no chances (there is little likelihood of arrest and even less of conviction), but they also enjoy the assistance of non-Muslims who, when not supporting these New Age jihadists out of a misguided sense of sympathy or outright fear, are motivated by ideologynamely, the pernicious doctrine of multiculturalism, which teaches free people to belittle their own liberties while bending their knees to tyrants, and which, as we shall see, has proven to be so useful to the new brand of cultural jihadists that it might have been invented by Osama bin Laden himself.
In Khomeini's singling out of Rushdie, there was no little amount of irony. A son of Muslims, Rushdie was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and educated at Cambridge. More to the point, though he resided in Britain and lived essentially as an Englishman, he was no knee-jerk critic of Islam or defender of the West. Far from it: at the time of Khomeini's fatwa, Rushdie's politics could be fairly described as more or less standard-issue British literary intellectual leftism. "It was ironic," the Islam expert Martin Kramer has noted, "that Rushdie, a postcolonial literary icon of impeccable left-wing credentials, should have been made by some Muslims into the very personification of orientalist hostility to Islam." Indeed, Rushdie had opposed the Shah and supported the Islamist revolution that brought Khomeini to power. Anyone familiar with his books at the time of the fatwa would have said that he harbored considerably less animosity toward Islam, radical or otherwise, than toward America and Britain, which he tended to identify not so much with freedom and human rights as with colonialism and imperialism. He was particularly hostile to Britain's then prime minister, Margaret Thatcherupon whose government's protection, after the fatwa, his well-being entirely depended. (Rushdie's positions on Western values and Islamic revolution, to be sure, would shift somewhat as a result of his post-fatwa experiences.)
The Satanic Verses was Rushdie's fourth novel. Its title was taken from the commonly used name for certain passages that had supposedly been inserted into the Koran at an early date and later declared inauthentic and removed. Long, muddled, often surrealistic, and consistently overheated, the novel (which, like most of Rushdie's fiction, I personally find all but unreadable) was meant to be understood as a reflection on the experience of South Asian immigrants in the West. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in her New York Times review, it "deals only incidentally with Islam." Yet Khomeini and others managed to convince the Muslim world otherwise.
Khomeini was the most powerful person to charge Rushdie with blasphemy, but he wasn't the first. Three months before the fatwa, in October 1988, the New York Times ran an article about India's ban on The Satanic Verses, and published an open letter from Rushdie to that country's prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, charging that the prohibition was meant to mollify "two or three Muslim politicians" who hadn't even read the book. Yet Khomeini's fatwa was the decisive act, persuading Muslims worldwide that killing Salman Rushdie would be a holy act of jihad. The Union of Islamic Students' Associations in Europe, for example, declared its solidarity with the ayatollah. Mellow-voiced pop singer Cat Stevens, who had converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, said that if Rushdie turned up at his door, he'd call Khomeini personally "and tell him exactly where this man is." British Muslim leader Iqbal Sacranie, who would later be awarded a knighthood, said of Rushdie: "Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him . . . his mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness to [sic] Almighty Allah." On May 27, 1989, Rushdie was burned in effigy at a gathering of at least fifteen thousand Muslims in London.
The Satanic Verses was banned in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sudan, South Africa, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Singapore, and even Venezuela, but not in any North American or European countries. There were those in the West, howeversome of them in positions of enormous influencewho would doubtless have forbidden its sale if they had the power to do so. When asked about the fatwa, for example, former president Jimmy Carter didn't call for greater Muslim sensitivity to other people's freedom of speech but for greater Western sensitivity to Muslim feelings. Conservative British politician Norman Tebbit accused Rushdie of betraying "his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality." Both Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Labor leader Neil Kinnock waited a week before finally criticizing the fatwa. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, proposed that Britain's long-dormant blasphemy laws be extended to cover Islam. (As we shall see, Archbishops of Canterbury have become a lot more conciliatory since the day of Thomas Becket.)
One of America's then largest bookstore chains, B. Dalton, decided not to stock The Satanic Verses for security reasons. Other bookstores also declined to carry it, and still others had copies on hand but kept them out of sight. Several booksellers in both the United States and Britain were bombed, and dozens if not hundreds of others were threatened with bombing. Over the years, moreover, there were several attempts to kill Rushdie. But he survived. Others involved in his book's publication were less fortunate. In a single month, July 1991, the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses was attacked, beaten, and stabbed, and Hitoshi Igarashi, its Japanese translator, was murdered. Two years later, William Nygaard, Rushdie's Norwegian publisher, was shot several times outside his home in Oslo; though left for dead, he pulled through (and, bizarrely, lived to publish, in 2004, the memoirs of terrorist leader Mullah Krekar, for whom he threw a festive garden party). In 1989, twelve people died in a Bombay riot protesting Rushdie's book; in 1993, a fire set at a literary festival attended by Rushdie's Turkish translator claimed thirty-seven lives. (The translator survived.)
Rushdie tried to talk his way out of the fatwa, issuing a statement of regret in hopes that the death sentence would be withdrawn. No such luck. The ayatollah replied in highly unambiguous terms: "Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell."
Rushdie gave it another try in 1990, when he publicly reaffirmed his Muslim faith and called on his publishers not to issue a paperback edition of The Satanic Verses or to license translations of it. But it was to no avail: the fatwa remained in place. (Rushdie would later express regret for having crawled to Khomeini in this fashion.)
How did Rushdie's fellow writers respond to the fatwa? In various ways. His old Cambridge classmate Germaine Greer's reaction was to call him "a megalomaniac" and to say, rather cryptically, "I refuse to sign petitions for that book of his, which was about his own troubles." Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a statement that foreshadowed the despicable reactions of many intellectuals and academics to neo-jihadist pressures and threats, said he "would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring Mr. Rushdie's manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them." Other writers proclaimed their solidarity with Rushdiethough many stayed silent, and most of those who spoke up took a while to do so. Among those whose declarations of support for the novelist were particularly courageousgiven that they lived in predominantly Muslim countrieswere Nobel Prize winners Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. In New York, leading authors on both the political left and right-from Susan Sontag and E. L. Doctorow to Diana Trilling and Norman Podhoretz-came together at a public meeting to voice their solidarity with Rushdie. One of these authors was Leon Wieseltier, who, in acknowledging Rushdie's often caustic attacks on the West, noted that "[i]n an open society, you defend even people who criticize that society." Richard Bernstein, in a New York Times article about the meeting, concluded that "the overwhelming consequence of the Khomeini death threat" had been "a clear solidifying of the writers' ranks, a refusal to be cowed."
Yet by whom or what were these writers refusing to be cowed? To read contemporaneous news articles and opinion pieces about the Rushdie case in the Western press is to notice that Islam itself is almost always strangely marginal. Though everybody understood, to be sure, that this brouhaha was in some fundamental sense all about religion, there seemed nonetheless to be an unspoken assumption that Khomeini's fatwa was a freakish departure from the usual order of things, even in the Muslim world. People talked about it as if it could be explained entirely by Khomeini's quirky personality and, perhaps, by the seemingly unique degree of fanaticism that was gripping Iran at that particular historical moment. That the fatwa might, alternatively, be understood as illuminating the eternal nature of Islam itselfand the attitudes toward freedom, especially freedom of speech, that are inextricable from the religion's theological essentialswas a possibility on which few prominent Western commentators chose to focus. In retrospect, indeed, it seems a bit strange: during the years preceding the fatwa, the West had been through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, Iran's Islamic revolution of 1978-79 and hostage crisis of 1979-81, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, and such atrocities as the 1985 murder of the elderly American tourist Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists who dumped him and his wheelchair off the deck of a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, into the Mediterranean. All these events had kept the Muslim world in the headlines for yearsyet none of them had led Westerners, in meaningful numbers, to consider it necessary to educate themselves in any serious way about Islam. Even most of us who regarded ourselves as relatively well-informed about history and current events didn't yet grasp how profoundly different the Islamic worldview was from that of the secular West, or imagine how important it would soon be for usfor the sake of our own civilizationto understand that worldview, its religious foundations, and its long-term implications.