Thuggish crybullies will find more targets
Salman Rushdie has been the target of the world’s biggest lynch mob for over three decades.
Ever since Ruhollah Khomeini issued a death sentence against him in 1989 over his novel The Satanic Verses, he has lived in and out of hiding for fear of Islamic extremists executing the verdict against him. Khomeini’s edict ironically boosted Rushdie’s profile in the press, and made him a cause célèbre for liberal free speech activists. Yet the threat against him was always real. The motive for Rushdie’s gruesome stabbing this Friday before a lecture in Chautauqua, New York, of all places, is not confirmed. Yet it seems that after three decades living under ominous threat, the writer’s luck finally ran out.
The Rushdie affair was one of those rare events that perfectly exposed a cultural fault line. Freedom of expression of an author, particularly when criticising religion, comes as close as it gets to being a solidly held value in the otherwise relativistic post-Christian West. The idea that someone should have to die for publishing a book is simply incomprehensible to almost any secular European or American. For Muslims though, the vast majority of whom are observant, it’s the reverse that is unconscionable: That blasphemy could be art, or that an individual’s freedom of expression could ever be viewed as more important than values a community holds sacred.
The entire debacle over his death sentence is far more revealing to me than anything that Rushdie wrote in a novel in 1989. I’m not a free speech absolutist, nor do I believe that secular progressivism should have a trump card over religion in the public sphere. What episodes of murderous crybullying like this show, however, is something intolerably pathetic and thuggish about the people doing the persecuting. Having evidently abandoned the idea that others might actually respect them and their beliefs on the merits, many Muslims have fallen back on either complaining about their hurt feelings in hopes of pity, or simply terrorising others into shutting up. That is not a sign of confidence or self-assurance about one’s identity or worldview. It is a sign of an inferiority complex of terrifying dimensions.
Contrary to popular belief, the apocalyptically thin-skinned reaction by many Muslims to offensive books, movies, and cartoons is not based something in the Quran that mandates a response to blasphemy. It’s a modern cultural phenomenon that also happens to be a concrete expression of decline. People who are self-assured in their beliefs do not have emotional meltdowns over perceived slights by others. They naturally fall back upon their own confidence and charisma in order to model a superior example. For what it’s worth, that’s an attitude that actually finds support in traditional religion — including in Islam. The idea that anything can be justified in the name of the hurt feelings of the weaker party reflects a departure from traditional religious ethics that is more akin to ideas popular in modern progressivism. If that comparison strikes you as surprising, consider that the tactics and psychology of modern Islamic extremism have always been heavily influenced by radical Western Leftist and anarchist movements.
Riling up a mob, yelling and screaming, or stabbing a writer you don’t like in the neck are not behaviours that make anyone else think that Islam has anything useful or admirable to offer the world. In addition to my own instinctive horror at the assault on Rushdie, who, frankly, never lived up to the hysterical Islamophobic caricature that Muslims have made out of him, that is why I’m completely opposed to these violent outbursts over blasphemy. There’s nothing to rationalise, explain, or defend here: It’s wrong. I don’t expect this will be the last such ugly incident. Yet I would hope that in future the people who should know better, including many educated Muslims, not hold us to a lower moral or intellectual standard than other people by attempting to justify them. To put it plainly, you’re not helping.