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Cowardice of the West
Cowardice of the West
THE RUSHDIE CASE AND THE COWARDICE OF THE WEST
The following essay is reprinted from Ketzerbriefe 12, a magazine published by Bunte Liste Freiburg, a West Germany Atheist group. Ketzerbriefe ("Heretical Letters") focuses on information about the continuing legal prosecution of Atheists in West Germany. Ahriman Verlag, the publishing arm of Bunte Liste Freiburg, recently issued Salman Rushdie — Portrait of a Poet, a review of the Rushdie controversy by Peter Priskel
At the time of the British Empire, an Indian maharajah complained to the governor because the latter had prohibited the burning of widows — this, being an old custom should, after all, be kindly respected — and got the brief and probably quite effective answer, "We hang widow murderers."
Since the Rushdie case this uncompromising attitude towards religious barbarity, no matter of what color, obviously belongs to the past for good. Even more frightening than the Iranian order to kill Salman Rushdie is the cowardice with which Great Britain and the entire West are bending to the threats of the potential poet killers. More oppressive than the rabid appeals of the ayatollah — what could be expected from him in the matter of freedom of speech is known, after all — are the comments soaking with "understanding" given by the West about this outrageous order by a foreign religious leader, to kill a European citizen.
For the better comprehension of the extent of this super-soft attitude, the following comparison may wing the reader's fantasy: What would have happened if the order to kill had not come from Iran but, about ten years ago, from the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, if the victim had not been Rushdie but Solzhenitsyn? What would have happened if West European parties, sympathizing with the Soviet Union, had organized mass demonstrations, had burnt the book The Gulag Archipelago publicly, and had threatened to kill any publisher or bookseller continuing to publish or sell the book? What would have happened if a pro-Soviet combat group had announced a proposed assassination of the secretary of state of the United States as well as bomb attacks on American civilian airplanes until the United States government permitted the shooting of Solzhenitsyn? Would there have been in this case, too, "understanding" for the motives of the Soviet leadership and the "being insulted" of the Soviet population? There is no question: From the proclamation of the state of emergency to military retaliation, anything would have been acceptable to counter this blackmail.
The cowardice of the West is the more apparent as its opponent in this case is not a more or less well-armed great power but a regime that has just barely escaped a military defeat. Furthermore, only a few years ago in the Falkland War, Great Britain had shown what a single NATO state is capable of doing if it sees its interest threatened in any part of the world. A non-interventionalist policy cannot be the reason for the attitude of the West European governments: this time they are the attacked and they have not only the right but the duty to defend themselves and to protect Rushdie with all means. This would include, should Iran take to open violence, military intervention, of which we approve — as we have shown in the Falkland War — if it serves progress, for example the fall of a South American regime of torture. We do not at all share the perverse underlying logic of the pseudo-left that this is just "Imperialism" and "Eurocentrism."
It is, however, apparent even without open military exchange that the West does not want to protect Rushdie efficiently, For if it had, it would have protested when the Satanic Verses were prohibited in the first several countries. It would have particularly interfered when on its own territory Rushdie's books were burnt by fanatic Moslems and the poet himself was executed in effigy — as was the custom in the Middle Ages when one could not get hold of the heretic. Instead of the leaders of the pogroms being thrown into prison, thus preventing further riots, they were encouraged to more rioting by the reverent murmurings about supposedly "insulted religious feelings" and were thus given state licence for putting up the stakes. After Khomeini's order to kill, it should have gone without saying that the Satanic Verses should have been published at the expense of the state. Instead this was left to a few single persons with little determination and even less means, who are furthermore much more easily blackmailed and intimidated. Instead of being hidden, Rushdie should have been given an opportunity to speak for himself publicly, particularly after the death threat, without, of course, any personal risk. Why were not radio and television put at his disposal to defend himself? Let no one say that a state such as Great Britain or West Germany is not capable of defending any one of its citizens from the attack of killer commandos! Here the GSG 9 would have made sense for a change.
The use of all the means of the state is not only absolutely necessary for the protection of Rushdie but most urgent for another reason: Khomeini's death order aims at a particular person and opinion, but it aims furthermore fundamentally at freedom of speech, the protection of which is a duty of the state and can only be granted — or broken, that is — by the public power. Anyone who, in the face of the monstrosity of the call for someone's being killed because of his different opinion, utters "understanding" for the rabble-rousers, thereby expresses his basic agreement with the murderers and makes the victim the culprit ("Why, after all, did he write this book?"). With each kowtow towards the "insulted religious feelings," the West sells out those values that once distinguished the bourgeois states from the rest of the world. The greatest value of the achievements of the French Revolution was that one could no longer be tortured, burnt, broken on the wheel, or quartered if one held a different opinion than the church. For it is the particular feature of the freedom of speech that anyone can utter his opinion without having to prove any entitlement or having to justify doing it in this or that manner. Any opinion, differing from that of the government or the majority, most of all any view contradicting that of the church, has a particular right to protection. This is, historically and logically, the essence of freedom of speech. This right, to which any human being is entitled, was fought for in Europe over centuries and paid for by a high blood toll. If it is still valid today — though increasingly restricted by censorship and blasphemy legislation — this is only due to the beneficial late effect of the guillotine and the — increasingly diminishing — commitment of the public to freedom of speech. This right was won by the European part of mankind just as the other advantages that distinguish the bourgeois states from the Middle Ages and present-day Iran.
As the Rushdie case shows drastically, who censors never-mind-what-opinion clears the way to witch burning and lynch justice. This is the first thing the pogroms against Rushdie teach: how short and inevitable the way is from censorship to the stake.
Who in the face of the order to kill Rushdie demands the latter should carry the costs for his police protection himself (as can be read in the American journal Spectator and a disgusting comment in the Frankfurter Allgerneine Zeitung from March 3), gives Rushdie and his successors to the hangman and furthermore pronounces them guilty. The up-to-now unimaginable then becomes possible again: that, because of their opinion, heretics can be killed in Europe with the explicit approval of the government. This is the real and most frightening meaning of the European reaction to Khomeini's death command.
There is finally the question as to why Salman Rushdie with his book of all books has become the victim of this large-scale witch-hunt. To our knowledge for the first time in Islam, Rushdie has by his Satanic Verses pursued the way the European heretics — i.e., the early enlighteners — had taken centuries before him. According to his own statement, Rushdie wanted by his book to picture in a literary fantastic form "the inner life of someone who has lost his faith." His intention is comparable to many occidental pieces of art, including doubtless world literature (as, for example, Gargantua and Pantagruel by the French humanist Rabelais). Compared to the heretics of the early modern era, however, Rushdie finds himself in a much worse position, as the bourgeois states cowardly and hypocritically deny their own origin and prostitute themselves to their former mortal enemies. Not so imams and popes. They plan for centuries and have remained the same for centuries. In the concerted action of the world religions against the freedom of speech and the achievements of the French Revolution, Iran has taken the role of the leading agitator and acts with the support of all other religious leaders. The death command of Khomeini was given after prior consultation with the pope, who now doesn't keep his approval to himself.
The Rushdie case is the first — deadly serious — test as to how much freedom of speech means to the West. If Rushdie is killed and thus the first burning of a heretic takes place in Europe after two hundred years, the West bears the full responsibility as it has omitted to protect Rushdie with all means and with him freedom of speech!