The Rushdie Rules, 25 Years Later
By: Daniel Pipes
Danish Free Press Society Conference
November 2, 2014
[N.B. (1) Two transcripts follow, corresponding to the two videos. The first contains Mr. Pipes’ introductory remarks, slightly edited for style. The second contains the give-and-take between him and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. (2) The event took place in the Danish parliament building. (3) By way of explanation of the fourth paragraph of the introductory talk: Mr. Pipes referred specifically to Wilders, Robert Redeker, Lars Vilks, Kurt Westergaard, and Lars Hedegaard because they were all present and addressing the event. Indeed, Mr. Pipes was the only one of the six panelists who does not live under police protection.]
Thank you so much; it’s a great pleasure to be here.
Let me start by remembering the 2nd of November 2004. It happened to be an election day in the United States, when George Bush beat John Kerry, it was a very exciting day. I was in California and I was awoken about six o’clock in the morning by a friend who announced to me this murder. I then went on to Al-Jazeera where I debated an Islamist who was justifying this action because of the provocation that Theo Van Gogh had engaged in. It was a very memorable and awful day.
What I would like to do is survey, not justs the ten years since that horrible day, but the twenty five years years since Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. There has been a pattern that began that year, that has repeated itself over and over again.
First in 1989, it was Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. In 2004 there was the murder of Theo Van Gogh and Geert Wilders came under protection. In 2006 Robert Redeker had to go into hiding. In 2007, Lars Vilks, had to do the same. Kurt Westergaard was attacked in 2010, Lars Hedegaard was attacked in 2013. The same happened to many others not in this room.
Over and over again when these attacks take place we see a pattern. First Westerners say or do something critical of Islam, then Muslims respond with name calling and outrage, demands for retraction, threats of lawsuits and violence, and actual violence. Finally the Westerners, hem and haw, prevaricate, debate and finally give in.
I shall argue two points, first, that this is really ultimately not about free speech: yes the battleground is free speech, but the issue is Western civilization, free speech is but the battleground, the issue is whether Western civilization will survive or not. Secondly, due to what I call the Rushdie Rules, the right of Westerners to say critical, provocative things about Islam has declined in the last 25 years.
By “Rushdie Rules,” I refer to the edict of Ayatollah Khomeini of February 14 1989, when the supreme leader of Iran watched on television as Pakistanis responded with violence to the publication of Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. Outraged by what he saw, Khomeini put out an edict against Rushdie’s life.
This act was unprecedented, as no one had ever done anything remotely like this – the head of one government calling for the execution of a novelist living in an other country. This surprised everyone, from the Iranian governing officials to Rushdie himself. No one imagined that a magical realist novel, with people falling out of planes and surviving, animals that talk, and so forth, might incur the wrath of the ruler of Iran. No one expected this.
This edict led to physical attacks on bookstores in Italy, Norway and the United States; and on translators of The Satanic Verses in several countries. The greatest violence was in Turkey where 36 people were killed, including an attack on the translator. Other violence in Muslim countries led to 20 deaths.
The Khomeini edict contains four different elements.
First and most important, by taking offense to Rushdie’s description of Muhammad, in what he called “Rushdie’s opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the Koran,” Khomeini delineated a wide range of sacred topics that may not be discussed without invoking a death sentence.
Secondly he targeted “all those involved in the publication who are aware of its contents,” and by doing this he said he’s not just attacking Rushdie, but everyone in the cultural establishment, editors, advertisors, distributors and others who had some engagement with this. So it’s not just one person, but a whole body of cultural activity.
Third, by ordering Rushdie’s execution, “so that no one else will dare insult the Muslims’ sanctities”, Khomeini made clear that his purpose was not just to punish one writer, but to prevent future such insults or ridicule.
And finally, by demanding that those unable to execute Rushdie themselves, “report him” Khomeini called on every Muslim world wide to become part of informal network of intelligence and potentially of attack dedicated to upholding Islamic values.
So there are four features: don’t touch certain subjects, everyone involved in the production will be harmed, this should never happen again, and there’s an informal network of Muslims. These are the Rushdie Rules. They have since then been applied over and over again.
Now I said that I have two main points to make; the first is that Westerners generally percieve Rushdie Rules violence as a challenge to their right of self expression – and indeed it is that. But the current pattern of Islamist uproar exists to achieve deeper goals, not always articulated, that go well beyond prohibiting the criticism of Islam.
The first goal is to establish the superior status of Islam. You may criticize any other religion but you may not criticize Islam. The free market of ideas exist for every other religion, say what you will, you can have plays, operas, books, novels critical of them, but not about Islam. There are no free market of ideas about Islam.
Secondly, Muslims are superior and Westerners, or kafirs, are inferior. Islamists routinely do and say things that are offensive to Westerners, and that’s okay, but not the other way around. If you look at the kind of cartoons in Muslim publications you’ll find egregious insults to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Bhuddism; that’s fine, but not the other way.
Should this imbalance, of Muslim on top and non-Muslim below continue, one reaches what’s called the dhimmi status, and this allows People of the Book, particularily Jews and Christians, to continue the practice of their religion under Muslim rule, subject to many restrictions. In turn, establishing the dhimmi status leads to a third and final ambition of the Rushdie Rules, which is to establish Sharia, the Islamic law, that Lars Hedegaard was just talking about.
The Sharia regulates both private and public life. The private dimension includes intensly personal matters, bodily cleanliness, sexuality, child bearing, family relations, clothing, and diet. In the public realm, Sharia regulates social relations, commercial transactions, criminal penalties, the staus of minorities, slavery, the nature of rule, the judiciary, taxation, and warfare. In brief, it includes everything from toilet etiquette to the conduct of warfare.
As Lars pointed out, Sharia deeply contradicts the deepest premises of Western civilization. The unequal relations between male and female, between Muslim and non-Muslim, between owner and slave cannot be reconciled with equality with rights that are precious and intrinsic to our civilization. The harem cannot be reconciled with mogonomy, Islamic supremacism contradicts freedom of religion and a sovereign god cannot allow democracy.
Were Islamists to achieve a Sharia order, they would effectively replace civilization with Islamic civilization. Closing down discussion of Islam paves the way towards this end conversely, retaining free speech about Islam represents a critical defense against the imposition of an Islamic order.
In short, keeping our civilization requires an open discussion of Islam; Islamists want to close this down because they want to close down our civilization. So it’s not just about freedom of expression, but about something much much larger.
My final point is about what’s happened since 1989. In retrospect, responses to the Ruhdie edict among intellectuals and politicians in 1989 were noteworthy for the support they gave the imperiled novelist, especially on the Left. Leftist intellectuals were more likely to stand by Rushdie than intellectuals on the right, in part, becuase Rushdie was a self defined man of the Left.
Nor was it just intellectuals. François Mitterrand, the socialist president of France at the time, called the threat to Rushdie an “absolute evil.” The Green Party in Germany sought to break all economic agreements with Iran. A European Union resolution supported Rushdie as “a signal to assure the preservation of civilization and human values.” The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution that declared its commitment “to protect the right of any person to write, publish, sell, buy, and read books without fear of intimidation and violence.”
Times have changed. A recent book by an American intellectual named, Paul Berman, called, The Flight of The Intellectuals, excoriates his fellow liberals for “fumbling badly in their effort to grapple with Islamist ideas and violence”. In short, the Left has it wrong about Islamism.
For every exercise in free speech since 1989, such as the Danish Muhammad cartoons, uncountable legions of writers, publishers, and illustrators have shied away from expressing themselves. I could give you example after example of artists, playwrights, authors, novelists who say, “I don’t want to get near the subject of Islam.”
Changes since 1989 result mainly from the growth of three isms, three new political forces: multiculturalism, left-fascism, and Islamism.
The multicultural impulse regards no particular way of life, belief system, or political philosophy as better or worse than any other. It reminds me of a discussion of what shall we do for dinner tonight, shall we go to Japanese or Italian? They’re both very nice, both very tasty, it doesn’t really make a difference does it? Well that’s how the multiculturalists see much more profound things than dinner, it doesn’t really make a difference.
There’s no real difference between environmentalism or Wiccism; they’re prefectly valid alternatives to the Judeo-Christian civilization. Why fight for one’s way of life when it has no claim to superiority over any other?
Second is Left-Fascism, which says, if you look closely Western civilization, actually, you see it is worse than any other. A combination of Western racism, imperialism, and fascism has made life terrible for non-Westerners. Led by such figures such as the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, this Left-Fascist movement sees Western power, which they call Empire, as the world’s main threat, with the United States and Israel seen as the chief offenders.
And finally, of course, there is Islamism, the radical Islamic impulse to apply Sharia which has grown enormously since 1989. Look around and note how ISIS, Mohamed Morsi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other such phenomenon dominate today’s headlines. Wherever you look in Muslim-majority countries, the Islamist surge is underway. Worldwide, it has become the most powerful form of radical utopianism. Fascism and Communism are hardly to be seen, Islamism is nearly everywhere.
It forms an alliance with the left, dominating civil societies, challenging many governments and taking over others; it has established a beachhead in the West, and is advancing its agenda in international institutions.The United Nations, for example, has passed resolutions against the defamations of religions, i.e. the defamation of Islam.
The yin of Western weakness, in short, and in clonclusion, has met with the yang of Islamist assertion. Defenders of Western civilization must fight not only the Islamists but also the multiculturalists who enable them and the leftists who ally with them.
Discussion of Islam by Daniel Pipes and Geert Wilders
Daniel Pipes: As you know, [Geert,] I admire your courage and your clear analysis. But I also disagree, as you know, with one thing you’re saying. You said there will never be a moderate Islam. I don’t know how you know that. Islam has changed — I’m a historian, and a historian studies change over time. Everything human changes over time. I took up the study of Islam in 1969, 45 years ago. Islam is very different and much worse than it was in 1969. If it can get worse, it can get better. Islam changes. I could spend an — we could have a summit on it. I’ll tell you about how Islam has changed. How do you know it can’t get better? How do you know there can’t be a moderate Islam? Why are you rejecting this possibility beforehand? Lars is skeptical. I accept that. But you’re saying, “Absolutely, no, it can’t happen.”
Geert Wilders: Well, Daniel and I have known each other for a long time. We do respect each other and we have had the discussion many times before, and sometimes we can agree to disagree. But, indeed, I don’t believe that Islam will ever change. Islam is the word — look at the Koran. The Koran is, together with the Hadith and the Life of Mohammed (the Sira), the Koran is the way, the basis of Islam. And the Koran, Muslims believe, is the word of God. It cannot be changed. And of course people change, Daniel. I believe that. I don’t believe that Islam has ever changed in the past. When it got worse — and indeed it did, it’s worse every day — then it’s because people changed. And people changed unfortunately for the worse, not for the better. So yes, I believe that even though today, it gets worse every second — look at the Islamic State, look at what is happening in your country, my country — and that will not change. But the people can change. And I’m not a theologian. I believe that once again, why people, and why people believe in Islam is none of my business. But I am a politician. I’m a lawmaker. And I’ll tell you I just told you before, that I’m not interested in changing [them] or not. I’m interested in the people. And if you adhere to our values, you are welcome and if you do not adhere to our values, you have to go. You have to leave. I don’t care if it will change, or it will not. I care about the people in my society: Will women in Copenhagen, in Amsterdam be free to walk the streets or will they be harassed? Will children be free to walk our streets? Will homosexuals be beaten up in Amsterdam by Moroccan youths or not? This is the question we should answer, and if the [answer] is “no”, we should send them away and stop the immigration [from] countries where we have this aggression. That is the only question that I want to answer.
Moderator: Daniel, do you want to comment on that?
Daniel Pipes: Yes, we have argued this for decades and more. And I agree with your point about the actions being unacceptable and people changing, so we agree on that. Still, you made very clear in your opening remarks that Islam, moderate Islam can — there’ll never be a moderate Islam. So let’s put aside the actions of people. Why can there not be a moderate Islam? It’s — the Koran remains the same, but interpretations of it change. Let me give you one example. There’s a short phrase in the Koran, la ikraha fi’d-din, meaning “there should be no compulsion in religion.” This is a phrase which over the millennia has changed in its understanding, its interpretation. I wrote an article in which I showed some dozen different historical understandings of what this term means, from the most rigid and limited to the most liberal. Now, every aspect of the Koran can be dealt with in this same way. For example, the contradictions in the Koran. As it is now, it tends to be the more severe that are accepted and the less severe which are rejected. That could change. This is human. This is not divine; this is interpretation of the Koran. Interpretation of the Koran has changed and is changing, and it has changed for the worse and the more severe. Why don’t you admit the possibility of a change for the better?
Geert Wilders: Well, you know, the Koran, in Islam there is a rule called “abrogation.” And abrogation means that the latest verse in the Koran is valid and invalidates everything that was written before. That’s a rule that even moderates in Islam agree with. So indeed, yes, there are passages in the Koran that were saying maybe not the harshest things but they were, at the end of the day, replaced through abrogation by many parts of the Koran, which I don’t believe but many Muslims believe in, that this the fact today. Second point: it’s the word of God. It’s the word of God [that] there are not interpretations today about; there are no Arab or Islamic yeshivas being active today, but where people study and interpret the parts of the Koran, they are non-existent. So please, let us once again agree to disagree; just let us not focus on something that I believe will never happen, and you believe that it might happen in five thousand years. But I am interested in what will happen today, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and our countries should be safe, and safe from the brutality of Islam.