On this day in 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini announced a fatwa calling for the killing of the novelist Salman Rushdie. His “crime” was having described Islam’s founder Muhammad in his book, “The Satanic Verses,” in a way that displeased the Islamic leader. All Muslims were called upon to kill Rushdie — basically, an international contract was put out on him. For an America that was not yet fixated on the dangers of Islamic extremism, it was a chilling moment, both frightening and confusing.
As the fates would have it, that same year the United States faced its own debate around the freedom of artistic expression. Sen. Jesse Helms launched an all-out attack on Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic art and demanded the National Endowment for the Arts not pay for it. Of course, Helms didn’t want to kill anyone, but he did want the government to not support art he found offensive.
These are two very different examples of trying to censor art, but they come from the same place. They are both essentially allegations of blasphemy. Blasphemy is an important concept these days. Back in 1989, most Americans, led by the left, found the fatwa and the defunding to be contrary to the American principle of freedom of speech. Rushdie’s case in particular was scary. Would he have to go into hiding? Would he really be killed? Nobody knew.
But the question of blasphemy is an old one in America, in one of his final letters to his friend and rival Thomas Jefferson; John Adams had this to say:
There exists I believe throughout the whole Christian world a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or to doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the old and new Testaments from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel: in England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red hot poker: in America it is not much better, even in our Massachusetts which I believe upon the whole is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States A law was made in the latter end of the last-century repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the old Testament or new. Now what free inquiry [exists] when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigation into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Volney’s Recherches Nouvelles? who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? but I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws.
Good stuff. Adams reminds us here it was not that long ago that we in the West — or, dare I say, Christendom — sought exactly the kind of punishment for blasphemers that the ayatollah did. As a Catholic, I have to admit we burned a lot of people at the stake. But, by the late 20th century, this attitude was no longer deemed acceptable. You couldn’t just kill people because they insulted God.
But why was insulting God, be it Jesus or Muhammad, ever dealt with so harshly? What made Christians 300 years ago and some Muslims to this day think blasphemous words are an offense worthy of death? Why was an author, who is probably too complicated for most people to read, slated for killing for slurs against Allah? To understand this mindset, we must understand that blasphemy is not just speech; it is also an action. And it is an action that can cause harm.
Prohibitions on blasphemy are rooted in the concept that words that criticize God harm society. One need not stretch very far to see how today’s progressives attempt to suppress speech on exactly the same grounds. The idea that speech may be censored if it “does harm” is a broad invitation to mandated orthodoxy. This month in England, a woman was arrested and held in jail for tweeting that a trans woman is in fact a man. This is not as far from the fatwa against Rushdie as leftists would like to believe.
The fact that Rushdie has not only survived but also thrived is a testament to the power of a free society to protect its own. Not everyone has been so lucky. In Denmark and France, Islamic terrorists did manage to exact their deadly vengeance on members of the press. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded by al-Qaeda, and among his last words were “I am Jewish.” That is a very old “blasphemy.”
Thirty years since a sentence of death was proclaimed by a powerful Iranian lunatic against one of our great novelists, it makes sense to reflect. Thirty years since an American senator tried to have our government approve or disapprove art, it makes sense to reflect. How much freedom do we want? What power do we believe words actually hold to harm, or do violence? Are we moving farther away from the fatwa that tried to condemn Rushdie? Or are we moving closer to it?
As Americans, the people who stand before the world to uphold the concepts of freedom and individual rights, as a people who were shaken by the threats against Rushdie then, we must be steeled against threats to free speech now. There can be no middle ground. Basphemers must be allowed to blaspheme. They’re not always wrong. On this anniversary, let us redouble our efforts to support free speech, and to recognize and call out those forces who believe some words are too harmful to be spoken.