** Please See Update Below **I still remember, vividly, what my initial thoughts were upon learning that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of the Islamic Republic had pronounced an order of death and offered a three million dollar bounty to anyone who carried it out by killing British author Salman Rushdie.
In his fatwa, Khomeini decreed:
In the name of God Almighty. There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare insult the Islamic sanctities. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God willing. In addition, anyone who has access to the author of the book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should refer him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May God's blessing be on you all.
This was in 1989. At the time I was an over-aged undergrad at Cal, living in Berkeley, attending class, working hard waiting tables at two jobs and, whenever I could, haunting my home-away-from-home, the Cafe Milano. (You could smoke on the upper deck back then; that's how long ago it was). To the extent I thought about Islam at all, it was in the context of the Iranian Revolution. At that time I saw myself as a staunch democratic socialist, a secularist, a member of Michael Harrington's DSA and very much the model of a liberal.
Which is why, looking back, my reaction to the news of the Ayatollah's fatwa
was so odd. In its essence my reaction was: "well now, buddy, I'm sure your religion is important to you, but you don't have the right to declare death sentences on British citizens. Our belief in freedom of speech and our liberty is as important to us as your Koran is to you and you won't find us bending in to threats like this so easily. Who does this pipsqueak priest think he is?!? This guy has seriously over-stepped his bounds and is in for a terrible thumping, both culturally and probably militarily as well."
Which just goes to show you how much Conservatism is actually a question of temperament. Here I was, Mr. Berkeley Radical, just assuming that Tehran was in a heap of trouble with the U.K. and the U.S. for presuming to usurp its most cherished rights.
I was, as you can imagine, quickly disabused of such a naive notion.
First, I noticed that my friends and acquaintances, to the extent that they thought the matter worth commenting about at all, largely condemned Rushdie for opening this can of worms. "He should have known better," was the standard stance. After all, we all know these people are fanatics, so what good can come of provoking them? More reasoned commentators took this a step further by asking what good could possibly come of Western governments standing up to Tehran on the issue. "He wrote the bloody book and it's not our responsibility to shield him from the consequences of his act," seemed to sum it up.
When Cody's, the famous Berkeley bookstore, was fire-bombed for carrying The Satanic Verses, the reaction was not what I would have then expected, yet another nail in the coffin of my leftism. I tried to imagine if the muted reaction would have been the same if a militant Christian sect had bombed the store for carrying Chomsky and found myself laughing at the very thought.
Then, searching the British press (a much more difficult task in those days, involving 9-day old copies of the Times
bought at five times its cover price), one learned of Muslim demonstrations in Britain, including book burnings and hangings in effigy, being met with statements of solidarity by Members of Parliament, usually from those in constituencies with large Muslim populations. Rushdie went into hiding and those responsible for the foreign affairs of the U.K. pronounced themselves still committed to "engagement" of the radical Islamist regime. British analysts tried to figure out what this meant for the Muslim vote and Labour's prospects. Any mention of the underlying principle escaped my attention.
Looking back, it is as clear as day that the Rushdie affair marked one of the opening battles in what has come to be a larger war, a battle that the Islamists could not have done anything but walk away from with their view on the matter vindicated. Oil and confident power were shown to be worth much, much more than abstract principles like "liberty" or "freedom." Can we really blame them if they took from this affair a reasoned judgment that we were unable to respond in kind to their programme?
Since that time, of course, this grand game of "Chicken" has reached epic proportions. Again and again, Islamists of many stripes have presented a challenge to the West, only to find that, when pushed, we in the West were likely to prefer our illusions and our comforts to the terrible prospect of an actual counter-response.
And, so, the famous Bin Laden Myth of the Paper Tiger was born. Kill their soldiers, bomb their diplomats, blow holes in their warships, demand that they kow-tow to our beliefs, craft respect for the Islamist political programme as an issue of "civil rights," murder their men while they are bringing food to a starving Muslim nation, murder sailors during hijackings, use any counter-reaction by Westerners as a ploy for international sympathy, use war in Bosnia and Kosovo as a method to advance the cause in Europe itself--none of it provoked anything but the feeblest responses, mostly symbolic and costing in the millions of dollars. And how could they fail to notice our self-flagellation after even such a weak reaction? One can blame the Islamists for much, but certainly not for their underwhelming judgment of the West's resolve.
In the era just prior to 9.11 Bin Laden and his compatriots must have wondered what they needed to do to get the West to take them seriously.
All of which famously led to September 11, 2001, an event which, for a moment, backlighted the underlying grander issue with the same sort of crystal clarity that fine Autumn morning itself is now famous for.
But old habits die hard and I was never one of those who thought that the moment of clarity would last or that it would "change everything." What I did think, however, was that it pretty decisively dealt a body-blow to the "let's just apologize" school of American foreign relations. It was, frankly, a joy to see America rise as one and not only refuse to apologize and revel in its new-found role as international victim but to fight back, hard and fast. Conservatives don't like to talk about it (except for the admirable Jonah Goldberg, as far as I can tell) but another reason aside from the obvious for taking the war to Iraq was to continue to demonstrate that the apology phase of our relations with the Islamic world were at an end.
As Eban used to say, the Arabs can have peace or they can have war, but the one thing we will not allow them is to wage war on us while having peace at home. There is more wisdom in that one statement than a year's worth of editorials out of the New Republic
, and we'd all do well to remember that in these dark times. Like they said at the beginning of Fallout: war never changes. One either prevails or one does not.
(Side note: Eban is a fantastic source for quotes. One of my other favorites also concerns the Arabs, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War: "I think that this is the first war in history that on the morrow the victors sued for peace and the vanquished called for unconditional surrender.")
Having through the years learned to manipulate Western prejudices and concerns, especially with regard to religion, the Islamists continue to conjure up controversies and slights for which we owe them apologies. The latest concerns a series of cartoon interpretations of the figure of Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper. Like the faux rage brought up every year about waging war during the Most Holy Month of Ramadan Which Does Not Allow Fighting (Unless We Launch The Attack) And Especially Does Not Allow Fighting If We Are Getting Our Sorry Asses Kicked, the worldwide Muslim rage over the cartoons has now risen to the level of a serious international incident.
Proving once again that they don't understand the West one bit, major Muslim governments demanded that the Government of Denmark apologize and grovel. Of course, the GoD has absolutely nothing to do with the matter and couldn't prevent a newspaper from publishing the cartoons in question even if it wanted to, which it should not.
With the requisite apology not forthcoming, the leading lights of Europe pulled a Rushdie and immediately began blaming Denmark for this "regrettable" incident. And now, from Davos, we have word that a President of the United States has joined this shameful chorus. Said Clinton:
"None of us are totally free of stereotypes about people of different races, different ethnic groups, and different religions ... there was this appalling example in northern Europe, in Denmark ... these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam,"
Does this man even begin to understand the scope of his responsibilities? The importance of the principle of free speech? Is he seriously saying that "outrageous cartoons" appearing in a newspaper is a matter for a national government to apologize for? Does he not understand that we are free people and that we are even free to say things people don't like, even if it's along the line of "Islam is a load of horse shit"?
This man is a President of the United States, not some toothy-grinned, back-slapping Southern con-man telling his audience of marks what they want to hear so as to ingratiate himself with his benefactors.....
UPDATE: Speaking of Eban, I found the following excerpt from a speech of his to the United Nations during the Yom Kippur War. Looks like nothing much has changed in the Arab world since that time, which both illustrates the state of political stagnation in that world and the scope of the problem:
Finally, pending the further elaboration of our position at a meeting, which I understand has been requested, of the Security Council, I want to say something about the lessons of this experience. First, about the nature of the hostility that we face. The nature of that hostility is such that no security concern can be exaggerated. When President Sadat said in an Egyptian newspaper that he admired Hitler, all the world smiled indulgently. The Soviet Union, which had resisted Hitler, heroically but belatedly, went on supplying arms. Other nations shrugged their shoulders. When the Egyptian Prime Minister praised the murder of pilgrims and tourists at Lod, we were told "it is only propaganda". Anti-semitic literature abounds in Cairo, a spiritual heroin, fraught with death and decay.
There is too much international indulgence for that hostility. There was indulgence for it at the Algiers Conference. There was indulgence in a speech in which a fine continental tradition of peace, fidelity and friendship was violated by the President of Zaire on this platform.
There is too much indulgence of this hostility. We really must take Egyptian and Syrian statements of hostility at their face value.
The same blind hatred, the same international indulgence, the same war.