When Truth-Seekers Meet Truth-Believers

December 06, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- President Clinton met Salman Rushdie at the White House at the end of November ''to make the point that . . . freedom of speech includes especially the willingness to respect the rights of people who write things we do not agree with.''

He had unfortunately to call in the press soon afterward to explain that he had not meant to endorse Mr. Rushdie's blasphemous treatment of Islam, a religion, the president rather unexpectedly added, whose culture and history he has been studying for more than 20 years. This, for Mr. Rushdie, must have provided rather an anticlimax.

I am perhaps not alone in thinking that Mr. Rushdie has become something of a bore, if a truly unfortunate one. He wrote his

book, ''The Satanic Verses,'' with intent to shock, and found the result was more than he had bargained for. Iran put a price on his head, a murder threat that he has good reason to take with the utmost seriousness.

However, instead of holding to his convictions, going to ground and getting on with his writing in private, he has since made a career of his victimization, which not unnaturally has inspired Islamic fundamentalists to keep up the clamor for his death. His conduct is perfectly understandable, but has not been entirely edifying.

The Islamic fundamentalists' determination to prevent the publication of works they consider heretical, and to punish heretical writers, stands in a long tradition of hostility to free speech on the part of people who believe they are themselves in possession of exclusive truth.

It is a tradition that passes by way of our American Puritan forefathers (and foremothers), and the church of the bad old days of the Index of Forbidden Books, and manifests itself today not only in Islamic intolerance but that of the politically correct in the United States. (The latter, playing farce to the fundamentalists' tragedy, proposes to censor even the expression ''Dutch treat,'' for fear that by using it we might diminish the self-esteem of our brave Netherlands allies. That the Dutch, marked by a Calvinist past, might consider frugality positively virtuous does not occur to the censors, nor would they, I suppose, even see the joke.)

Two intellectual forces are in tension here. There are truth-seekers and truth-believers, for whom censorship follows logically from their conviction that they possess a truth that is of universal benefit -- even, ''objectively'' (as the Marxists used to say), to the Salman Rushdies. If you are certain that you are in possession of the truth it is perfectly logical to suppress error, if you can, so that the masses, and future Salman Rushdies as well, can be spared the loss of eternal salvation (and even be spared hurtful expressions while they still traverse this vale of tears).

Against this are not only unbelievers but a powerful, modern Western tradition of skepticism, whose systematic attack upon established values was scandalous a century ago but is today itself established as the conventional discourse, the conventional wisdom. Mr. Rushdie's potentially fatal error was to apply this modern European standard of discourse to a religion that still believes in itself.

On the other side as well is the best product of the modern world, a respect for the elusiveness of truth and a certain humility in the search for enlightenment. It is an approach to history and existence that has given us the commitment to free debate that President Clinton wished to celebrate by his meeting with Mr. Rushdie.

It says that reality is not easily grasped in all of its complexity, and that individuals, as human persons, have an absolute right to freedom in their pursuit of truth and their debate of it. It says that through debate, error can be pared away from our perception of reality. However, this is an intellectual tradition and set of values that prevails in only a very small part of the contemporary world.

It is a product of the intellectual evolution of Western civilization. The great philosophical innovators and tragedians of Western antiquity, the theological and metaphysical debaters of medieval Europe, the philosophical and revolutionary thinkers of the Enlightenment in North America as well as Western Europe have all made their contributions to this.

It is not an evolution that has taken place inside Islamic civilization, even though there obviously are many individuals within the Islamic tradition who have adopted the essentials of this Western position. It has not occurred in Chinese civilization. These values still are matters of struggle and controversy inside what in the past was Byzantine Eastern Europe -- in Serbia, modern Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and in Russia itself.

The assumption in the West is that our values are ''universal,'' which means that we think they are of universal validity and should be universally respected. But they are by no means universally recognized; they are in many places perceived as a profound threat to the right order of humanity and religion. One must not treat this lightly. The murder threat to Salman Rushdie convincingly attests to that.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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