The price of political courage is well known in the Middle East. Both Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin were murdered by native extremists in their own countries. Less well remembered is a religious fanatic’s near fatal stabbing of Naguib Mahfouz, to date the only Arabic writer to be honored with a Nobel Prize. Mahfouz and Rushdie are both novelists, but generalizing beyond this would be to force a comparison, except to point out that the gentle and stately Mahfouz and the rollicking and protean Rushdie share a sacred commitment to their art and their individual visions. It is a measure of the complexity of their world-views that the more traditional Mahfouz showed little sympathy for the more secular Rushdie’s plight.
Individual vision and artistic integrity form a kind of threat that is hard for us in the United States to grasp. We know that acting on that threat is common in nations such as China, North Korea, and Cuba. It is growing in Venezuela and is again resurgent in Russia. Among our putative allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it is, respectively, soft but widespread and hard and all-inclusive. But whatever form such oppressive action takes, it is an affront to the human spirit.
In the weeks and months to come, it will most likely become apparent that Prime Minister Brown plans to withdraw support (read: troops) from President Bush’s disastrous Iraq War. If — or when — that time comes, Rushdie’s knighthood might offer a fig leaf of protection for Brown’s exit plans. We suspect that withdrawing from Iraq is something that Rushdie, a man of the left, would applaud.
Little remarked upon in the wake of Rushdie’s knighthood is the fact that he was born a Muslim. Therein lies an irony that should remind chauvinists in the West that no culture has a monopoly on art, which is, by its very nature, pluralistic. At the same time, it should remind those who seek to minimize the vast and growing intolerance in international Islam that the clash of civilizations is very real.
The Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his death sentence on Rushdie 12 years before terrorists attacked Manhattan and Washington with hijacked planes. The interval between these events is insignificant; they sprang from a perniciously common impulse. Rushdie deserves our thanks for allowing himself to become, this time consciously, the embodiment of a precious ideal that soars above intolerance.
: The Editorial Page
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