Article paru dans Workers Hammer, No 105, March 1989, p. 12-9
CENSORSHIP BY ASSASSINATION
When Ayatollah Khomeini issued his decree of death against novelist Salman Rushdie and the Viking/Penguin publishers of his Satanic Verses, a shudder spread around the world. Here was the ultimate statement of theocratic totalitarianism: not only must the book be banned, but its author executed for the “crime” of having written it. It was a throwback to the days when heretics were burned at the stake and witches boiled in oil. Suddenly the dark past of the Inquisition was no further than the local shopping centre. There it was, the benighted superstition of the Middle Ages in the middle of the Computer Age.
From the moment it was published last September, Rushdie’s Satanic Verses drove Islamic fundamentalists around the world into a frenzy, leading to its banning by one government after another. Here in Rushdie’s own country, protests and book-burnings swept through British Muslim communities as recounted in our article “Let Satanic Verses be read!” in the last issue of Workers Hammer. Then, on 12 February, the furore became deadly as six people were killed in Islamabad, Pakistan when police fired into a crowd of thousands protesting publication of the book. Fifteen more have since died in protests in Kashmir and Bombay in India.
On 14 February, the Shi’ite theocracy’s wali faqih (Supreme Leader or
Fuhrer) issued his diktat to the world over Iranian radio, that Rushdie and “all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death”. Khomeini called on “all Muslims to execute them quickly wherever they are found so that no others dare to do such a thing”. As though to underscore the seriousness of the threat, the regime executed 70 people that day for “drug smuggling”. Assuring any assassin killed in the attempt that he would “be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven”, the ayatollah added a more earthly reward of $3 million for Rushdie’s head ($1 million if the killer happened to be an infidel), which was then raised to $5.2 million.
Rushdie and his wife, the novelist Marianne Wiggins, immediately went into hiding. When Iranian president Khamenei offered to lift the death threat if Rushdie apologised, the writer issued a cautious statement expressing regret over distress the book had caused. The Iranian regime first accepted Rushdie’s statement, then repudiated it later the same day. Even if Rushdie had become “the most pious man of time”, the Imam declaimed, “it is incumbent on every Muslim… to send him to hell”. Khamenei immediately fell into line, declaring: “an arrow has been shot toward its target”. The Imam in Qum acted as if to confirm Rushdie’s portrayal of the imam in Satanic Verses who declared history to be the work of the devil, and unleashed his fury against “the greatest of the lies – progress, science, rights”.
The initial reaction in the imperialist West, whose governments habitually rant against “terrorism” whenever they want to terrorise some defenceless people, was breathtaking in its silence. Rushdie’s friend and fellow writer Christopher Hitchens observed caustically: “the normally vociferous ‘anti-terrorist’ lobby is unusually cautious in its choice of terms, and… the spokesmen for the godly are uncharacteristically silent”. Hitchens also noted that the American Jewish talk show host “Alan Berg was murdered in cold blood in Colorado by Nazi Christians for failing to shut up, and in this very decade in America there are book burners ready to muster” (New York Times, 17 February).
In Britain, Thatcher and the “opposition” leader Kinnock kept their
mouths firmly shut for more than a week. The New Statesman (24 February) went to the heart of the matter for the British bourgeoisie, quoting a Tory MP who explained the profitable possibilities for British exporters in the aftermath of the Gulf war and the fact that “Britain has a strong interest – as we have had for 100 years – in preventing the Iranians from lurching into the arms of the Russians”. Labour MP Max Madden’s contribution to the debate was amending a Tory motion seeking to extend the blasphemy laws. The Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the established church in England, had the same idea – so that the next time a Rushdie comes along he can be nailed with the more “refined” methods of English jurisprudence.
Rushdie’s American tour was cancelled. The country’s largest book
distributor, Waldenbooks, pulled Satanic Verses off the shelves, followed
by the second largest, B Dalton. Canada banned imports of the book with the line that it might be “hate material”. The Spanish, French and West German publishers with translation rights decided to suspend publication. On 22 February in New York, some 1000 people, mostly writers, demonstrated outside the Iranian mission to the United Nations behind a banner of the National Writers Union quoting George Bernard Shaw: “Assassination Is the Extreme Form of Censorship”. Speaking to an overflow crowd at a reading from Rushdie’s book sponsored by PEN later that day, Leon Wieseltier, an editor at the New Republic said: “Europe, too, was once a theocratic society that burned books and people. We know all about the debt that democracy owes to heresy… it was blasphemy that made us free. Two cheers today for blasphemy.” Indeed the great bourgeois revolutions of the 17th-18th centuries were aimed at breaking the stranglehold of theocratic censorship over society and asserting the separation of church and state.
LIBERALISM AND CHAUVINISM
Now that Khomeini has extended his writ to London and New York, dictating who is to read what, people around the world are shocked by the medieval brutality of his “Islamic republic”. But when the mullahs first took power in 1979, their Islamic “revolution” was supported by most of the Western left, who hailed Khomeini’s theocracy as “anti-imperialist” and denounced our slogan: “Down with the shah! Down with the mullahs! Workers to power!” Internationally, most of the fake-left and pro-imperialist liberals fell into step behind US imperialism’s “human rights” outcry against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, where a gang of CIA-backed cutthroat mujahedin were carrying out Khomeini’s programme of torture and terror against Afghan women and leftists.
At the PEN reading from Rushdie’s book in New York, Professor Edward Said, a member of the Palestine National Council who has himself in the past been targeted for assassination by ultra-Zionists, hailed Satanic Verses as “a deliberately transgressive work of nose-thumbing daring”. Said also recalled that “Israel bans hundreds of books in occupied Palestinian territories, and Palestinian writers are jailed without trial; where are the protesting voices of Western writers and intellectuals?” As the Iranian regime executed thousands of women, national minorities and leftist political prisoners in a massive blood purge, much of the bourgeois press maintained a stony silence and most of the Western left refused to lift a finger. In contrast, the Partisan Defense Committee and international Spartacist tendency organised an emergency worldwide campaign of protest demonstrations to demand: Stop the Executions!
Now that popular outrage against Khomeini has been unleashed over the Satanic Verses, our early warning that right-wing forces are preparing the way for a racist backlash has already begun to prove all too true. From the pubs of Bradford to the editorial offices of the Sunday Telegraph, the race question in this viciously racist society has been brought to the fore. As one Peregrine Worst horne swinishly fulminated: “it ts becoming disturbingly clear that immigrants, anyhow from Islamic countries, are going to constitute the biggest concentration of religious fanaticism and sexual and social reaction that this country has experienced for many centuries”. After a demonstration in Paris of hundreds chanting “Death to Rushdie! Down with the infidels! Khomeini is right!” took place on 26 February, fascist French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen swiftly moved in to spew his racist filth: “What Khomeini, with revolting cynicism, has succeeded in doing is precisely what I fear for France and for Europe that is to say an invasion of Europe by Moslem immigrants” (The Scotsman, 1 March). And when Muslim counter-demonstrators at the UN protest waved signs reading “Satanic Verses Is Satanic”, one of the “civil libertarian” types carrying a placard that said “Let Freedom Roar” shouted back: “Deport them – Deport those who call for murder!”
More righteous-than-thou Western “liberals” would do well to recall that there is nothing unique about Islamic intolerance. As we put it in the PDC and Spartacist League/US statement to the writers’ protest in New York (reprinted on this page): “the capitalist ruling classes are compelled to revive religious obscurantism, superstition and terror; the pogrom is industrialized, the inquisition goes high tech, and Armageddon is nuclear.” Islam hasn’t cornered the market historically – the Old Testament book of Leviticus decrees, “Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to the death”. The first code of law in the colony of Virginia in 1611 prescribed death for blaspheming Christianity and the Trinity. The original settlements were theocratic to the core – anyone who didn’t agree with the supreme faqui of Plymouth colony had to leave, or else. Remember the Salem witch trials?
A short report in the Economist (25 February) entitled “God’s law, not Allah’s” notes that “England gave up threatening its citizens with death for insulting the state religion towards the end of the seventeenth century. But it has never quite been persuaded to excuse them completely. The last recorded burning of a heretic was in 1612.” And the blasphemy law remains on the books, invoked as recently as 1978 against Gay News for the poem about Christ “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name”. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine a more revolting spectacle than Margaret Thatcher of Zircon, Spycatcher and Sinn Fein ban fame, extolling the virtues of “freedom of expression”.
The initial tepid reaction of the Western imperialist “democracies” to Khomeini’s death edict against Rushdie was of a piece with their unperturbed silence over the recent blood-bath of political prisoners in Iran. US president Bush only declared that the order to kill the author was “deeply offensive”; State Department sources explained that anything more would serve the interests of those “who are using the book affair as a way of bringing a halt to the trend in recent months of Iran improving relations with the West” (New York Times, 22 February). The Common Market countries finally pulled their diplomats out of Iran only after Khomeini made it clear that no “apology” would do. They were finding out what Washington had learned in the Iran/Contra fiasco, that it was “neither possible nor sensible” to have a “normal relationship” with the ayatollahs.
AFGHANISTAN: DEFEAT ISLAMIC REACTION!
The growth of Islamic fundamentalism in recent years is in no small
measure a by-product of the billions of dollars lavished on the fanatically reactionary and anti-Communist Afghan “freedom fighters” and the billions more funnelled to maintain Zia/Bhutto’s Islamic regime in Pakistan as a staging area for the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. A small taste of what Afghan women have in store should the mujahedin win in the face of the Gorbachev regime’s criminal withdrawal was provided by a recent example in Teheran. When a woman interviewed on Teheran Radio had the audacity to say that the prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatima was not relevant as a role model because she lived 14 centuries ago, Khomeini decreed that she – and the programme’s producers – be shot.
When the Soviet Union broke its silence on Rushdie, it was to criminally apologise for Khomeini. A TASS statement on 1 March said that “perhaps” the Imam “had no choice proceeding from Koran teaching other than denouncing a man who had insulted Islam”, dishonestly asserting that “The Iranian government has not condemned Rushdie to death” (Independent, 2 March). “The threat of the Rushdie problem complicating the settlement of some regional disputes is becoming very real indeed”, the statement continued. Consistent with its treacherous pullout from Afghanistan, the Gorbachev regime hopes the murderous Khomeini regime fresh from executing thousands of Communist and other leftist prisoners – will play a role in a “peaceful” settlement there.
Meanwhile, the Kabul regime, which is now facing a fight to the death – while the life of every leftist and unveiled woman in the country is at stake – has actually banned Satanic Verses in its continuing suicidal attempt to appease the mullah cutthroats. As Rushdie said: there are “taboos against which ‘The Satanic Verses’ has transgressed… I also tried to write about the place of women in Islamic society”. The battle line for elementary freedoms and social progress against Islamic fundamentalism is today drawn in beleaguered Afghanistan. Those who backed the feudalistic mujahedin “freedom fighters” would do well to remember that the next time they feel like reading a “heretical” novel, not to mention looking at Playboy.
Adapted from Workers Vanguard no 472, 3 March 1989
Salman Rushdie must not be silenced!
We print below the statement of the Spartacist League/US and Partisan Defense Committee, distributed to the New York City National Writers’ Union demonstration and PEN conference called in support of Salman Rushdie.
Ayatollah Khomeini promises heaven and $5.2 million to the assassins of noted author Salman Rushdie as punishment for writing The Satanic Verses. Demonstrations of Islamic fanatics against the book in Pakistan and India killed eight. In New York Cardinal O’Connor chose Sunday morning mass to denounce The Satanic Verses. Three major U.S. bookstore chains controlling 2,400 outlets ordered the book off their shelves. Racist South Africa joined the Islamic world in banning the book altogether while French and West German publishers suspended their translations. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature,” wrote Milton in his eloquent 17th Century defense of freedom of conscience and press, Areopagitica, “but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.”
Using the jihad against Rushdie, Iran’s rulers manipulate passions in
order to divert concern for the millions who died in the pointless war
with Iraq, and from a shattered economy and endless repression. The Shi’ite theocracy launched its holy war against The Satanic Verses after executing thousands of leftists and other dissidents, seeking to drown every manifestation of social discontent in rivers of blood. The so-called “community of civilized nations” watched the mounting wall of corpses in total silence, while the New York Times applauded the “liberalization” of Iranian society. Khomeini’s Iran is a foretaste of what a mujahedeen victory would mean in Afghanistan, where the CIA-backed “freedom fighters” skin alive school teachers for teaching girls and women to read. Pursuing its policy of conciliation with the mullahs, the Afghan government just banned the book also!
But the exploitation of religious bigotry in the service of political tyranny is by no means the monopoly of the Islamic world. In the name of “National Security” Nixon tried to suppress the Pentagon Papers; Thatcher attempted the same with Spycatcher. Crying “blasphemy,” Christian fundamentalists together with assorted fascist scum have launched a crusade against Martin Scorcese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Book-burners in white sheets and black robes have tried to ban Darwin and even Goldilocks from public and school libraries. Following Ed Meese’s Porn Commission, the government uses RICO to prosecute the sale of books and videos with sexual content as “racketeering.”
The German Jewish radical poet Heinrich Heine’s apt warning is now
poignantly displayed at the memorial to the victims of Hitler’s Dachau concentration camp: “Once they burn books, they will end up burning people.” To preserve a social system which had outlived its progressive mission even before the dawn of this century, the capitalist ruling classes are compelled to revive religious obscurantism, superstition and terror; the pogrom is industrialized, the inquisition goes high tech, and Armageddon is nuclear. The defense of the social, scientific and cultural achievements of the Renaissance, the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions including the American Civil War, and the conquests of the proletarian October Revolution in Russia from freedom of conscience to freedom from exploitation – is inseparable. In defense of the fundamental democratic rights and elemental human decency we demand: Let the Satanic Verses be read!
Partisan Defense Committee
22 February 1989