So now a key figure in Iran’s Islamic hierarchy has said that the reason that the film Innocence of Muslims was even produced was because Ayatollah Khomeini’s order to execute novelist Salman Rushdie was never carried out, thus emboldening critics of Islam. Yes, he seems to feel that the fear of summary execution is a worthy threat to hold over anyone who even thinks of offending his sensibilities.
Note that Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses did not have pictorial representations of Mohammed or god, which is supposedly what is severely forbidden by Islam. I have read the book and it portrayed a fictional version of events surrounding Mohammed and the writing of the Koran, similar to the fictional alternatives written about Jesus.
NPR had an interview this morning with Rushdie and while he said many good things, pointing out that within his lifetime there was a time when cities like Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Teheran were cosmopolitan and modern, but lately have been sliding backwards into a state of thin-skinned paranoid medievalism. I was disturbed that he said that it was wrong for these violent people to injure and kill innocent people who had nothing to do with the film that offended them. This left open the implication that it would be acceptable to exact retribution on the filmmakers themselves. I doubt that he actually thinks that (since that is what made him a target at one time) and he has been quite outspoken in his belief that nothing should be off limits, but we should be careful to make clear that the filmmakers were well within their rights to make it.
You will never be able to satisfy religious people’s prickly sensitivities. If you give in to their threats on films, they will threaten cartoons. If you give in to threats on cartoons, they will threaten novels. If you give in to threats on novels, they will threaten documentaries. If you give in to threats on documentaries, they will threaten histories. They will never be satisfied until you do and say exactly what they allow you to do and say.
Free speech must be defended even when the speech itself is of poor quality. As much as we would like to defend free speech in cases where it is high-minded and noble, to defend the likes of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, the reality is that it often requires taking the side of those with whom we would normally have nothing to do with, like Nazis or the KKK, because on those occasions the fair-weather defenders of free speech will often take cover and either stay silent or even call for censorship.
As hard as it may be for people to work up the enthusiasm to defend the rights of people to produce such an atrocious piece of filmmaking as this latest film, it may turn out to be a watershed event in determining who gets to decide what can and cannot be said in the public sphere when it comes to religion.