What price freedom of expression? Rushdie's blood bounty goes to $2.5 million

February 23, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

If you have not read Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," you probably should. It is at least a near-great novel - great in my judgment. It is also today's most exemplary evidence of the cost and the burdens of free expression in a civilized society.

It is, as all great work is, both playful and intense. A major element of its metaphor mocks -quite respectfully, almost fondly, to my eye and ear - some of the miraculous material of the Muslim faith. It is about as rude about Islam as, say, H.L. Mencken was on Presbyterianism - but not nearly so tough as Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" was on Massachusetts Puritanism.

The book was published in the autumn of 1988. On Feb. 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, absolute religious and civil authority in Iran, issued a "fatwa," an infallible holy decree, declaring "The Satanic Verses," to be blasphemous and sentencing to death its author "and all involved in its publication," putting up a bounty and a guarantee of instant transport to heaven for any martyred assassin of Rushdie.

Khomeini died in less than a year. His ukase lives on - as does Rushdie.

Ten days ago, on the fatwa's eighth anniversary, Ayatollah Sheikh Hassan Sanei, a successor to Khomeini, turned up the flames. He raised the bounty from $2 million to $2.5 million. That money is held by Sanei's "15 Khordad Foundation." It can be collected by Muslim or infidel alike, he said, and urged that the job be done by members of the Scotland Yard security detail guarding Rushdie in Britain, where he lives in seclusion.

Hypocritical support

This is serious stuff. The Japanese translator of the book was murdered by Iranian terrorists, and the Italian translator and the Norwegian publisher were brutally wounded but recovered. Iran continues to export terrorists virtually world-wide, and although the Iranian government has made misty-meaning cooing sounds about not actually enforcing the fatwa as official policy, it is not credible.

A lot of people have gathered around Rushdie. But the support of the man - and far more importantly, of the principles involved - is less than heartening.

In a column published in the New York Times eight days ago, a few days after the bounty-raising, Rushdie harshly - and I believe entirely rightly - condemned the hypocrisy of European governments:

"Leaders of the European Union pay lip service to the great European ideals - free expression, human rights, the Enlightenment, the right to dissent, the importance of the separation of church and state. But when these ideals come up against the powerful banalities of what is called 'reality' - trade, money, guns, power - then it's freedom that takes a dive. When it's Danish feta cheese or Irish halal beef against the European Convention on Human Rights, don't expect free expression to win. Speaking as a committed European, it's enough to make a Euro-skeptic out of you."

Anyone who has paid even passing attention to the manners of major European governments as to terrorists in particular and terrorism in general should be skeptical.

France, Italy, Greece, Germany have been permissive to the point of virtual collaboration with terrorists. Few other European countries have shown either courage or principle, with the arguable and spotty exception of Britain, which at least has spent more than $10 million, and running, on providing Rushdie personal protection.

What is the core of the concern?

In that same Times column, Rushdie distilled the issue with characteristic grace: "Those of us engaged in this battle have long understood what it's about. It's about the right of human beings - their thoughts, their works of art, their lives - to survive those thunderbolts and to prevail over the whimsical autocracy of whatever Olympus may presently be in vogue. It's about the right to make moral, intellectual and artistic judgments without worrying about Judgment Day."

By one respectable definition, all art is offensive, for true art's purpose is to change perceptions, to topple graven images, to question orthodoxy, to escape the finite.

Enemies of art

A very reasonable extension of that suggests powerfully that since art is the enemy of established authority, then governments, inescapably the vessels of established authority, are by nature the enemies of art.

It is not that simple, thanks be to Whatever Infinite Power You Recognize. But it is a basic force at work.

I had met Rushdie casually a couple of times before the fatwa, in London in the kind of gatherings that draw together those who scribble, and I think in New York as well. But it was only after he had been so very publicly sentenced to die, and then had gone through seven years of living in that awareness, that I talked to him alone, at length and intensely. That was a bit more than a year ago, when he was on a security-laden tour for "The Moor's Last Sigh."

His presence is not saintly; he does not have that quality of selflessness that seems to emanate, an invisible glow, from certain remarkable people. To the contrary, Rushdie is acutely self-aware, and sometimes seems to carry that to the threshold of narcissism, though in fairness I believe that may be largely due to the experience of being forever asked to express his state of mind and spirit.

But there is a sense of peace about him. This is how he put it to me: "The history of literature teaches us who are its present-day practitioners that we cannot use persecution as an excuse not to do our work. Writers have always faced persecution... Stop whining, I thought. Stop whining, Rushdie, get on with your work."

He shouldn't have to do that alone.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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