06/21/2007 03:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sigh, Defending Salman Rushdie...Again

Man, this has been going on since I was a kid in Pakistan. Salman Rushdie does something; fundamentalist Muslims start burning stuff; start agitating for strikes; collecting money for the big pot that will go to the guy who cuts off his head.

When I was but a wee boy, seeing grown men hop around big bonfires, their eyelashes and beards singed from the flying embers, all agitated over a book that they hadn't even seen, much less read, was embarrassing. Now, 20 years later (the first Salman Rushdie riots were in 1987), it's just downright pathetic. This time Rushdie didn't even do anything; he just got knighted by the Queen (who herself doesn't choose the people who get knighted). As a result, Iranians and Pakistanis are getting worked up, this time demanding apologies from the British, reconfirming their desire to kill Rushdie, and organizing strikes.

So, once again, the response has to be direct and straight forward: no compromise on freedom of conscience; no compromise on freedom of expression; no compromise on freedom of speech. Forget if people's religious sensibilities are hurt. They will have to get over it and live with it like all the rest of us whose sensibilities are assailed by burning tires, burning cars, strikes, and demagoguery.

Furthermore, the one Islamic premise that is relied upon by Muslims to justify killing Rushdie, is crock. There is no death penalty for apostasy in the Quran, and even within traditional jurisprudence, the question is at least arguable.

The one difference between the Rushdie riots this time, and those of 20 years ago, is that today's are not being sanctioned by the governments of major Muslim nations. Khomeini, and Pakistani Islamist Tyrant General Zia are not around any more.

Instead, this time the regimes are sitting back, letting the frothing fundaloons make a big mess of things all on their own. And why wouldn't they sit back? Every time the populace of their countries can be made to be caught up in meaningless, stupid protests over a book no one has read and no one plans on reading, it is vacation time for the oligarchs and tyrants. The ayatollahs and the generals sit down, have a hooka or a cigar, and let their countries burn for a little bit. They know that eventually people will get bored and go home -- which is indeed what happens.

Trouble is, there are some in the West who start to wonder whether they should have been more sensitive. The answer is no. If artists cannot make art, then there is something wrong with the society that tries to suppress it. When it comes to protecting art -- no matter how distasteful some might find it -- there can be no sensitivity. When Giuliani tried to shut down the Piss Christ exhibit in Brooklyn, what did we say? Hell no, that's what. Same needs to be said to those on the Islamic right who want apologies and revocation of honors. Hell no. In fact, someone give Rushdie a Nobel. (And why not? Midnight's Children, a far superior book to Satanic Verses, and the fable Haroun and the Sea of Stories, make him more than eminently deserving).

Then of course, there are those in the West who take the images of the protesting fundamentalists and use them as an example of the apparent backwardness or savagery of entire Muslim cultures or nations. In Pakistan we call that buqwas (translation: bullshit). There are plenty of arts and cultural enterprises in the Muslim world. Book fairs and cultural events in Karachi. Satires that mock the burqa in Lahore. The incredibly rich cinema in Iran.

There is also no paucity of artists who don't really toe the theological line. The Syrian poet Adonis. Here from a 14th century artist, is a Persian miniatures depicting the angel Gabriel. Here is a more recent, very "Jesus-y," artistic rendering of the Prophet (even as most people believe that Muslims don't depict the Prophet). Those that want to learn more about the way how historically Muslim artists flaunted and challenged the theological imperative might do well to read Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. They might also read Children of the Alley by Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz in which Allah is depicted as a grandfather and the devil is his son (which led the fundamentalists to stab Mahfouz in the face).

Ultimately, the notion that Muslim cultures are devoid of the intellectual or artistic imperative is a narrative the Western right wing needs to create in order to perpetuate their discourse of hate and their clash of civilizations. That discourse needs to be mocked. Similarly, the Islamic right that tries to portray Islam as being completely inimical to artistic and literary license needs to be challenged as well. One way to do so is to honor the artists the Islamic right dislikes.

I leave you with the Sufi poetry of Baba Bulleh Shah, an eighteenth century literary genius from modern day Pakistan, and far more challenging of the Islamic Right than Rushdie ever was.

I am free, my mind is free,
I am neither a sick person nor a physician
Neither a believer nor an infidel
Nor a mullah or syed
In the fourteen spheres I walk in freedom
I can be imprisoned nowhere.


Tear down the Mosque, tear down the temple
Tear down every thing in sight
But don't break anyone's heart
Because God lives there.

Today Bulleh Shah is revered as a saint. Here is a video of his poetry with subtitles sung by the magisterial Abida Parveen.