Salman Rushdie’s knighthood is causing a furor — especially in Pakistan and Iran — among Islamic extremists, who see it as an official state endorsement of a writer who has been anathema to them ever since the publication of The Satanic Verses. And it has caused a few ripples of conscience in the West, too, a part of the world where writers are not routinely threatened with death but where we do try, often perplexedly, to respect the validity and the intensity of other people’s feelings.
Mr. Rushdie’s new honor raises the same question now that his work raised when Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwah against him in 1989. Do we choose to live in a world that honors writers or in a world that kills them?
It is tempting to say that this is too simple a way to look at it. It’s possible to argue that our desire to protect free speech — and, in effect, do away with the very notion of literary heresy — is as much an acculturation as the desire to enforce religious orthodoxy. But the problem Mr. Rushdie raises is not about the origins of human belief. It is about the consequences of human belief and, specifically, the consequences of religious tyranny [emphasis mine].
The imaginative range of his work, its complexity and its ability to test the limits of what we know and believe entitle him to the respect and the honors he has earned. Yet in some parts of the world it would earn him assassination. You cannot judge a society only by the way it treats writers. But you can be certain that if a society treats writers badly, it treats ordinary people no better.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
On Sunday I wrote about people's "holding onto" religious beliefs to the extent of trying to foist various practices on others, and as an example I cited the furor in some parts of the world over the knighting of Salman Rushdie. An editorial in today's New York Times (titled "Honoring Rushdie") discusses that case and provides an excellent phrase for the very thing: