Steyn on Rushdie: Learning to Talk Back to Bullies with Thin Skins

Mark Steyn nails it: we need to talk back, to show spine, to learn from the past. It may hurt, but that’s a lot less painful than encouraging aggression with the kind of imbecillic apologies that trip so readily off our lips. It’s definitely preferable to fighting a Jihad that, like WWII, will kill tens of millions… at least.

Mark Steyn: We’ve replaced Rushdie in hiding

Syndicated columnist

A year or so after the Ayatollah Khomeini took out an Islamist mob contract on Salman Rushdie in 1989, the novelist appeared, after elaborate security arrangements, on a television arts show in London. His host was Melvyn Bragg, a longtime British telly grandee, and what was striking was how quickly the interview settled down into the usual cozy, literary chit-chat. Lord Bragg took Rushdie back to his earlier pre-fatwa work. “After your first book,” drawled Bragg, “which was not particularly well-received.”

That’s supposed to be the worst a novelist has to endure. His book will be “not particularly well-received” – i.e., some twerp reviewers will be snotty about it in the New Yorker and the Guardian. In the cozy world of English letters, it came as a surprise to find that being “not particularly well-received” meant foreign governments putting a bounty on your head and killing your publishers and translators. Even then, the literary set had difficulty taking it literally. After news footage of British Muslims burning Rushdie’s book in the streets of English cities, BBC arts bores sat around on talk-show sofas deploring the “symbolism” of this attack on “ideas.”

There was nothing symbolic about it. They burned the book because they couldn’t burn Rushdie himself. If his wife and kid had swung by, they’d have gladly burned them, just as the mob was happy to burn to death 37 Turks who’d made the mistake of being in the same hotel in Sivas as one of the novelist’s translators. When British Muslims called for Rushdie to be killed, they meant it. From a mosque in Yorkshire, Mohammed Siddiqui wrote to the Independent to endorse the fatwa by citing Sura 5, verses 33-34, from the Quran:

“The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land, is execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land.”

That last sanction apparently wasn’t an option.

Britain got so many things wrong during the Rushdie affair, just as America got so many things wrong during the Iranian embassy siege 10 years earlier. But it’s now 2007 – almost two decades after Iran claimed sovereignty over British subjects (Rushdie), almost three decades after they claimed sovereignty over American territory (the U.S. Embassy in Tehran). So what have we learned? I was with various British parliamentarians the other day, and we were talking about the scenes from Islamabad, Pakistan, where the usual death-to-the-Great-Satan chaps had burned an effigy of the queen to protest the knighthood she’d conferred on Rushdie.

I told my London friends that I had to hand it to Tony Blair’s advisers: What easier way for the toothless old British lion, after the humiliations inflicted upon the Royal Navy sailors by their Iranian kidnappers, to show you’re still a player than by knighting Salman Rushdie for his “services to literature”? Given that his principal service to literature has been to introduce the word “fatwa” to the English language, one assumed that some characteristically cynical British civil servant had waved the knighthood through as a relatively cheap way of flipping the finger to the mullahs.

But no. It seems Her Majesty’s Government was taken entirely by surprise by the scenes of burning Union Jacks on the evening news.

Can that really be true? In a typically incompetent response, Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, issued one of those “obviously we’re sorry if there’s been a misunderstanding” statements in which she managed to imply that Rushdie had been honored as a representative of the Muslim community. He’s not. He’s an ex-Muslim. He’s a representative of the Muslim community’s willingness to kill you for trying to leave the Muslim community. But, locked into obsolescent multicultural identity-groupthink, Mrs. Beckett instinctively saw Rushdie as a member of a quaintly exotic minority rather than as a free-born individual.

This is where we came in two decades ago. We should have learned something by now. In the Muslim world, artistic criticism can be fatal. In 1992, the poet Sadiq Abd al-Karim Milalla also found that his work was “not particularly well-received”: he was beheaded by the Saudis for suggesting Muhammad cooked up the Quran by himself. In 1998, the Algerian singer Lounès Matoub described himself as “ni Arabe ni musulman” (neither Arab nor Muslim) and shortly thereafter found himself neither alive nor well. These are not famous men. They don’t stand around on Oscar night, congratulating themselves on their “courage” for speaking out against Bush-Rove fascism. But, if we can’t do much about freedom of expression in Iran and Saudi Arabia, we could at least do our bit to stop Saudi-Iranian standards embedding themselves in the West.

So many of our problems with Iran today arise from not doing anything about our problems with Iran yesterday. Men like Ayatollah Khomeini despised pan-Arab nationalists like Nasser who attempted to impose a local variant of Marxism on the Muslim world. Khomeini figured: Why import the false ideologies of a failing civilization? Doesn’t it make more sense to export Islamism to the dying West?

And, for a guy dismissed by most of us as crazy, Khomeini made a lot of sense. The Rushdie fatwa established the ground rules: The side that means it gets away with it. Mobs marched through Britain calling for the murder of a British subject – and, as a matter of policy on the grounds of multicultural sensitivity, the British police shrugged and looked the other way.
One reader in England recalled one demonstration at which he asked a constable why the “Muslim community leaders” weren’t being arrested for incitement to murder. The officer told him to “f— off, or I’ll arrest you.” Genuine “moderate Muslims” were cowed into silence, and pseudo-moderate Muslims triangulated with artful evasiveness. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, who went on to become leader of the most prominent British Muslim lobby group, mused about the Rushdie fatwa: “Death is perhaps too easy.”

In 1989 Salman Rushdie went into hiding under the protection of the British police. A decade later he decided he did not wish to live his life like that and emerged from seclusion to live a more or less normal life. He learned the biggest lesson of all – how easy it is to be forced into the shadows. That’s what’s happening in the free world incrementally every day, with every itsy-bitsy nothing concession to groups who take offense at everything and demand the right to kill you for every offense. Across two decades, what happened to Rushdie has metastasized, in part because of the weak response in those first months. “Death is perhaps too easy”? Maybe. But slow societal suicide is easier still.

UPDATE: See the interesting essay of a Pakistani writer to grapple with this problem: Sir Salman in the Sea of Blasphemy.

In fact, Sir Salman’s case is made worse in their view as he was born a Muslim, and appears to have turned against his own faith. In certain interpretations of the Qur’an and the sharia, apostasy is punishable by death. To compound the perceived insult to their religion, Muslims now see the author actually being rewarded for his blasphemy and apostasy. This simply confirms their view that the west is against Islam and Muslims.
Indeed, the whole Rushdie episode emphasises once again the deep division between the western, secular, postmodern worldview, and the deeply religious Muslim world where the Qur’an is the literal word of God. When Muslims were incensed in 2006 over the Danish cartoons, westerners, long accustomed to seeing their holiest icons being pilloried by satirists and cartoonists, simply could not understand where all the anger was coming from. Muslims from Egypt to Indonesia had never seen their beloved prophet being caricatured, and reacted with fury. But Muslims who have spent much of their lives in the west ought to have been able to ignore the cartoons as mildly offensive expressions of a different viewpoint.

12 Responses to Steyn on Rushdie: Learning to Talk Back to Bullies with Thin Skins

  1. joe says:

    In fairness, though, what he said was pretty offensive.

    Of course, that does not justify an extreme response.

  2. RL says:

    i don’t understand. he is rushdie? what was extreme? nothing that compares with what scholars have said about christian and jewish scriptures.
    why do muslims have a right to demand a level of “reespect” (which means non-criticism) that no other “player” does… especially when (unlike, say buddhists) islam is probably the most aggressive religion out there right now?

  3. joe says:

    Unlike in Christianity, there has been no reformation in Islam, so Muslims do not have 500 years of history to get used to people saying offensive things.

    I also think there is something about Islam which makes adherrants unusually protective over their faith, rather than ignoring idiots like the rest of us. But then, even in Christianity (my own faith) we have firebrands who get a uptight at the slightest thing.

    My main point is just that Rushdie said something which he knew to be offensive, then was a bit surprised when the people he meant to offend were offended. Like durrr.

  4. Richard Landes says:

    it’s not the reformation that made christianity receptive to criticism. and the wahhabi “reformation” is very similar on one level to the protestant reformation — sola scriptura.

    the issue is ability to accept criticism, and that comes with modernity (and maturity).

    if you think rushdie is too harsh in his criticism — the satanic verses are indeed a key incident in the origins of islam — then what do you suggest we do to get muslims to be less violent every time their faith is questioned.

    remember they challenge your faith all the time, have no hesitation about asserting the superiority of theirs. don’t we have a right to question back?

  5. joe says:

    Yes, and I can take criticism. They can’t and that is a weakness.

    There is questioning in order to find out and questioning with the sharp end of a stick. You have the right to poke with a stick, but you have to take the consequences.

  6. fp\ says:


    he suggests we refrain from anything that offends the muslims until they go through reformation. iow, we impose parts of sharia law on our society and wait for people whose whole opbjective is to stop modernity to modernize.

  7. fp\ says:

    got that, rl? you MUST take the consequences. if they kill you, you gotta accept that as a consequence of your expressing your opinion.

    i don’t think that even islamists counted on such useful idiots.

  8. Michael says:

    Extraordinary. On the one hand; the Iranian hostage crisis, the bombings of the American embassies in Africa, the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the mass murder of civilians on Sept 11th, the mass murder of civilians on London trains and buses, the mass murder of civilians on trains in Madrid, the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Iraq, the kidnapping and murder of Israeli soldiers and civilians attempted almost daily, death threats made outside the Danish Embassy in London, threats of genocide and holocaust against Europe generally, threats of death made outside Westminster Cathedral in London after a speech, and now demands for a British writer to be murdered.

    And on the other hand; a novel, a speech, a cartoon, a meaningless honour…

    Remind me, who exactly is poking around with the sharp end of the stick? Joe, you must be joking.

    When does this Islamic Reformation take place? How long do I have to watch what I say? How long do I have to walk on egg shells when discussing religious matters? (I’m a graduate in Theology, and I would like the freedom to discuss religious matters without fear, it’s not a question of wanting to offend any particular group).

    Joe, if you can’t tell me when this Reformation is taking place, then I’m sorry but I’m not holding my breath; and in the meantime I expect my society to fight tooth and nail to defend my right, Salman Rushdie’s right, and YOUR right to say whatever the hell we want – right or wrong, smart or dumb – without intellectual or physical threats and intimidation from a religious community that refuses to accept the rights that accompany non-belief in a secular democracy.

  9. fp\ says:


    it’s worse than that. it’s at best debatable, given the way in which islam and arab culture are merged — after all, islam was not by chance invented by the arabs — that a reformation would even take place. but then why would it take place when the west is appeasing it and losing big time?

    that’s not the way, as far as i recall, that the reformation occurred in christianity.

    but hey, that’s history, something that the joes of the world dk very much about or attach any importance to.

  10. Michael B says:

    The Reformation was an internal movement, while also a paroxysm, within Xiantiy (in part well reasoned, in other parts more fitful and febrile and reactionary and provincial), overrated and hugely over-equivocated (with Islamic themes) in these types of discussions. The notion – and it is a notion rather than something more thoughtful – that it’s all “religion” and therefore all falls within the same critique is both rife and riven with basic faults. (E.g., Benedict’s Regensburg address hits upon a primary divergence when it seeks to redress anti-Hellenic movements within Xianity.)

    Modernity is key (ultimately this is a social/political and not a theological or ecclesial debate), though it too needs something of a reformation, given the malignancies that have attached themselves to the “modern” project and given original impurities which were never purged or otherwise redressed.

  11. fp\ says:

    of course.

    i was just responding to the joe’s reformation nonsense.

  12. Michael B says:

    fp, yes, i understand, i was responding to joe as well, or more accurately was responding to the theme, or the cliche, he invoked. (and only to clarify, “Michael” and I – “Michael B” – are two different commenters)

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