Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Islamism and Intellectual Freedom

I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book 'The Satanic Verses', which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the koran, 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 may find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Muslim sanctions. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded a martyr, God willing.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, February 14, 1989. Quoted in The Observer, February 19, 1989.

I was motivated by the law that commands me to cut off the head of anyone who insults Allah and his prophet.

Mohammed Bouyeri, confessing to the November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, July 2005.

In light of the recent commemoration of Banned Books Week, it is important to remember that there are threats to intellectual freedom far graver than parents who challenge the latest Harry Potter book. In particular, radical Islamists have made their hatred and contempt for free thought and the freedom to read abundantly clear. Any book or creative work that offends or contradicts their totalitarian distortion of Islam is to be banned, and those who produced and distributed it are to be subject to punishment. Islamists have not only burned books, they have frequently murdered those who write and publish them.

The most notorious example of the threat posed by Islamism to intellectual freedom is the Rushdie affair. In late 1988, author Salman Rushdie published his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. Many Muslims regarded the novel as blasphemous, and in February 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa calling for Rushdie's death.

This was a shocking and unprecedented act even by the dismal standards of censorship. The ruler of Iran had seen fit to order the murder of a British citizen over a book published in the UK. Rushdie was forced to go into hiding. Justifiably so, for it has recently emerged that a 21 year old Lebanese man blew himself up in London in August 1989, almost certainly while making a bomb intended for the British author.

Unfortunately, Iranian security forces did enjoy some successes in carrying out Khomeini's edict. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered, as were two Muslim leaders in Belgium who spoke out against the fatwa. The book's Italian translator and Norwegian publisher were both wounded in assassination attempts. There was violence even here in the US, as two California bookstores that carried The Satanic Verses were firebombed.

Seeking the murder of an author was nothing new for Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1947, he arranged the killing of Iranian writer and intellectual Ahmad Kasravi. However, simply having Kasravi murdered was not enough for Khomeini. According to Iranian journalist Amir Taheri, after the Ayatollah seized power in 1979, "Kasravi's book were dug out of libraries and private collections and burned and his tomb ransacked by Khomeinist thugs."

Khomeini, of course, was the father of the Shia version of radical Islamism. The majority of Islamists are Sunni, as are the majority of Muslims in general. Despite their sectarian differences, Sunni and Shia Islamists agree on many issues. Sadly, this includes a shared hatred of intellectual freedom.

Even before Khomeini had issued his fatwa against The Satanic Verses, radical Sunni Muslims had gathered in the British cities of Bolton and Bradford to burn copies of the book. Numerous British Muslim leaders joined in the call for Rushdie's death.

The Rushdie case merely represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of violent Islamist efforts to crush intellectual freedom. To quote the preface to 1998's Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds:

Egyptian intellectual Farag Fouda and Algerian novelist and journalist Tahar Djaout, among scores of Algerian intellectuals, were murdered during the 1990s by fundamentalist terrorists. In 1994, the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed and seriously wounded. Other writers, such as Taslima Nasrin of Bangladesh, have been driven into exile by death threats or, like Egyptian novelist Alaa Hamed, sentenced to prison for blasphemy. The writing of feminists such as Nasrin, Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt and Fatima Mernissi of Morocco, who challenge interpretations of Islamic dogma that restrict women, has particularly angered both governments and Islamist fundamentalists.

Even al Qaeda has joined the war against intellectual freedom. This July, according to Stephen Ulph of the Jamestown Foundation, al Qaeda in Iraq took a break from its campaign of suicide bombing to call for the death of "Egyptian author Dr. Sayyid Mahmud al-Qimny, famous for his historical and anthropological works examining critically the origins of Islam." The terrorists "gave the author a week" to repudiate his writings, which he apparently did. As Ulph points out, calls for the murder of writers are commonplace on jihadist web sites. In fact, "(t)he targeting of authors was explicitly suggested as an option" in a recent al Qaeda strategy document.

The most horrific example of the jihadists' willingness to destroy free thought is the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh had made a controversial short film condemning the treatment of women in much of the Muslim world. On November 2nd, 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri, a member of a jihadist terror cell, walked up to Van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam and shot him numerous times before cutting his throat. After completing his grisly task, Bouyeri then pinned a note to the body threatening the life of Van Gogh's collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Bouyeri was utterly unrepentant at his trial. As far as he was concerned, his actions were completely justified. After all, according to his radical Islamist worldview, he was obligated to kill anyone who "insults Allah and his prophet".

Based on their long and ignominious record of book burning, censorship, and even murder, it is no exaggeration to state that radical Islamists pose the greatest threat to intellectual freedom in the world today. There are those who would argue that this is not our problem, that what happens to writers and intellectuals in the Muslim world is none of our business. This attitude is profoundly mistaken, even ignoring the morally shameful aspect of seeking to buy our own peace at the expense of others.

Radical Islamists do not merely seek to destroy free thought and expression in predominantly Muslim societies. As the Rushdie and Van Gogh cases make clear, they reserve the right, and possess the ability, to engage in blood-stained acts of censorship anywhere in the world. If groups like al Qaeda are allowed to control the future of the Middle East, the effect on intellectual freedom will be felt not just in Baghdad and Cairo, but ultimately in London and New York as well.


Anonymous Ed Merwin, Jr. said...

Theme well taken, expressed, and supported. But, for your sake, I hope this particular blog is not picked up by some of the mid-east media.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Angel, librarian and educator said...

Point well written. While I don't always agree with your views (don't worry, I don't always agree with the other side either), this is one I surely agree with. I will admit to being tempted to saying "the heck with it, let them blow each other up and deal with whoever is left over." And yet, those people who embrace radicalism are a serious threat to intellectual freedom everywhere, and they have to be confronted. It's either that, or let them keep burning books and killing people. It is something to think about and stay vigilant and prepared. Best.

9:01 AM  

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