This Friday, St. Valentine’s, marks 25 years since Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death.
We can count it as a victory for the cause of freedom around the world that Rushdie is still alive today.
For those unfamiliar with the story: In 1988, the India-born British author published a novel called The Satanic Verses, which at one point quotes a controversial would-be passage from the Quran whose very utterance is considered blasphemous by some Muslims.
By including these so-called “Satanic Verses” in his novel, Rushdie himself was accused of blaspheming against Islam, and protests against the book erupted around the world.
When word of the kerfuffle reached Iran, that country’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called upon all the world’s Muslims to hunt down and kill Rushdie, along with his editors and publishers, promising a monetary reward for those who succeeded. This so-called “fatwa” was issued on February 14, 1989.
It wasn’t any idle threat. Although Rushdie survived the ordeal, it was not before spending some 12 years in hiding, constantly changing his address, moving under armed guard 24/7, effectively devoting his life simply to not getting himself murdered.
While Rushdie himself was never harmed, the novel’s Japanese translator was fatally stabbed, its Norwegian publisher shot and wounded, and countless bookstores bombed or otherwise disrupted for daring to offer the book for sale.
This was the price for expressing an unwelcome thought about organized religion.
Today, a quarter-century after the fact, we might reflect on how depressingly little the world has changed. How the act of transmitting unpopular or controversial views remains terrifyingly fraught. And how, on this subject, America really is exceptional.
To wit: The president of the United States has in recent years asserted his authority to order and execute the killing of an individual—even an American citizen—if such a person is found to have colluded with groups such as al Qaeda to physically harm America or American interests.
What the commander-in-chief cannot do, however, is act likewise toward an individual who writes a book or makes a speech suggesting (for example) that America is a wicked, imperial power, or that makes disparaging comments about Christianity or the NRA or anything else.
What is more, while the art of offense-taking is alive and well in American culture, it is very rarely expressed through violence within our borders.
For instance, when some prolific atheist publishes a book denying the existence of God, the usual gaggle of clergymen, “family values” spokespeople and the like descend upon cable news shows and other outlets to vent, and sometimes to call for boycotts of the offending work. But that’s about as far as it goes.
This is no accident. Rather, it is a direct and purposeful consequence of our country’s indispensable First Amendment.
Because the U.S. Constitution stipulates that everyone has the right to say whatever the hell they want, and can practice any religion that they want, no one has any cause to feel that their views are being institutionally suppressed or abridged, and violent uprisings thus become far less likely to occur.
Elsewhere? Not so much.
Over in Russia, we find two members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot arrested and jailed for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” following a 2012 performance of a protest song called, “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away,” in a Russian Orthodox church. (The women were released this past December, likely as a propagandistic show of goodwill in preparation for this month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.)
Just this week in Nigeria, the government fine-tuned its already anti-gay policies by criminalizing not only gay marriage and gay sex, but also the “public show” of gay relationships, exhibited “directly or indirectly,” as well as the proliferation and mere support of various gay organizations. In effect, saying a kind word about gay people is now illegal in Nigeria, as well as in countless other African and Middle Eastern countries in one way or another.
In short, the dissemination of dangerous ideas will always be a struggle, and the right to free expression will always need to be fought for, so long as there are those with the determination (and the weaponry) to fight against it, often with the support—be it latent or overt—of their government. Salman Rushdie learned this lesson more painfully than most, and he will not be the last to suffer the consequences of saying things that some people would prefer not to hear.
And so it is up to each of us, as defenders of America’s most sacred principles, to see that the battle is not lost, and that the cause of freedom lives to fight another day.