New York Times, Nov. 27, 2002 (Opinion: Salman Rushdie)
It’s been quite a week in the wonderful world of Islam.
Nigerian Islam’s encounter with that powerhouse of subversion, the Miss World contest, has been unedifying, to put it mildly. First some of the contestants had the nerve to object to a Shariah court’s sentence that a Nigerian woman convicted of adultery be stoned to death and threatened to boycott the contest — which forced the Nigerian authorities to promise that the woman in question would not be subjected to the lethal hail of rocks. And then while calling for Ms. Daniel to be beheaded, and who could blame them? Not the president of Nigeria, who put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the hapless journalist. (Germaine Greer and other British-based feminists, unhappy about Miss World’s decision to move the event to London, preferred to grouse about the beauty contest. The notion that the killers, looters and burners should be held accountable seems to have escaped notice.)
Meanwhile, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hashem Aghajari, a person with impeccable Islamist credentials — a leg lost in battle and a résumé that includes being part of the occupying force that seized the Great Satan’s Tehran embassy back in the revolution’s salad days — languishes under a sentence of death imposed because he criticized the mullahs who run the country. In Iran, you don’t even have to have cheeky thoughts about the prophet to be worthy of being killed. The hearts of true believers are maddened a lot more easily than that. Thousands of young people across the country were immature enough to protest against Mr. Aghajari’s sentence, for which the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, duly rebuked them. (More than 10,000 true believers marched through Tehran in support of hard-line Islam.)
Meanwhile, in Egypt, a hit television series, “Horseman Without a Horse,” has been offering up antiSemitic programming to a huge, eager audience. That old forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — a document purporting to prove that there really is a secret Jewish plot to take over the world, and which was proved long ago to have been faked by Czar Nicholas II’s secret police — is treated in this drama series as historical fact.
Yes, this is the same Egypt in which the media are rigorously censored to prevent anything that offends the authorities from seeing the light of day. But hold on just a moment. Here’s the series’ star and co-writer, Mohammed Sobhi, telling us that what is at stake is nothing less than free speech itself, and if his lying show “terrified Zionists,” well, tough. He’ll make more programs in the same vein. Now there’s a gutsy guy.
Finally, let’s not forget the horrifying story of the Dutch Muslim woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has had to flee the Netherlands because she said that Muslim men oppressed Muslim women, a vile idea that so outraged Muslim men that they issued death threats against her.
Is it unfair to bunch all these different uglinesses together? Perhaps. But they do have something in common. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was accused of being “the Dutch Salman Rushdie,” Mr. Aghajari of being the Iranian version, Isioma Daniel of being the Nigerian incarnation of the same demon.
A couple of months ago I said that I detested the sloganization of my name by Islamists around the world. I’m beginning to rethink that position. Maybe it’s not so bad to be a Rushdie among other “Rushdies.” For the most part I’m comfortable with, and often even proud of, the company I’m in.
Where, after all, is the Muslim outrage at these events? As their ancient, deeply civilized culture of love, art and philosophical reflection is hijacked by paranoiacs, racists, liars, male supremacists, tyrants, fanatics and violence junkies, why are they not screaming?
At least in Iran the students are demonstrating. But where else in the Muslim world can one hear the voices of the fair-minded, tolerant Muslim majority deploring what Nigerian, Egyptian, Arab and Dutch Muslims are doing? Muslims in the West, too, seem unnaturally silent on these topics. If you’re yelling, we can’t hear you.
If the moderate voices of Islam cannot or will not insist on the modernization of their culture — and of their faith as well — then it may be these so-called “Rushdies” who have to do it for them. For every such individual who is vilified and oppressed, two more, ten more, a thousand more will spring up. They will spring up because you can’t keep people’s minds, feelings and needs in jail forever, no matter how brutal your inquisitions. The Islamic world today is being held prisoner, not by Western but by Islamic captors, who are fighting to keep closed a world that a badly outnumbered few are trying to open. As long as the majority remains silent, this will be a tough war to win. But in the end, or so we must hope, someone will kick down that prison door.
Salman Rushdie is author, most recently, of “Step Across This Line.”