Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence of February 14, 1989 continues to affect the lives of people far removed from its original target — author Salman Rushdie. More than a year later, in Dearborn, Michigan, local sympathizers of the ayatollah within the Arab American community disrupted a talk on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses by Nabeel Abraham, an Arab American activist and member of the MERIP board of directors. Abraham talked about his experience with journalist Jonathan Scott.
Why were the protesters so fiercely opposed to your lecture?
They were opposed to the very mention of the title of Rushdie’s book, unless, of course, my intention was to unequivocally denounce it. I am told some of the protesters later debated among themselves whether Ayatollah Khomeini’s death decree against Salman Rushdie also applied to people like me who defended the book or, at least in my case, Rushdie’s right to free speech. Fortunately, the majority felt that the death sentence was limited only to Rushdie and his publisher.
You did receive a death threat just the same.
Two days before the lecture, I found a handwritten note under my office door at the college. The note, written in pseudo-legalistic Arabic, “reminded” me of Khomeini’s death sentence and warned me not to proceed with my “dastardly project.” It ended with something to the effect that “victory is attained with the blood of the martyrs.”
So, they expected your talk to be pro-Rushdie?
Yes, they feared I was going to denounce Khomeini’s death decree, which in fact I do vehemently oppose. Rumors spread that I intended to attack the Prophet, Islam, the Qu’ran — all nonsense, of course. In a way they were getting back at me for my part in bringing Christopher Hitchens to speak on campus last year. Hitchens was quite forceful in denouncing Khomeini’s death sentence. Several “moderate” Muslim students offered me a “deal” whereby I would promise not to condemn Khomeini’s death sentence in return for their not opposing my presentation. I rejected this, and they proceeded with a petition drive to block my presentation. The petition was rejected by the college administration.
What happened at the lecture?
I had hardly read half a page of the paper when hecklers denounced me as an atheist and an enemy of Islam. For nearly two hours I was repeatedly interrupted by about 30 to 40 hecklers, who shouted and chanted verses in Arabic. Someone pulled a fire alarm. By the end of the talk campus police recorded seven bomb threats. The first bomb threat forced the college to relocate the lecture to another auditorium. Eventually, the disruption inside the auditorium threatened to disintegrate into an endless shouting match between the hecklers and other members of the audience. I was able to finish an abbreviated form of my lecture only after campus security escorted about six of the protesters off campus.
From the standpoint of the audience, the demonstrators seemed to be confirming through their behavior exactly what you set out to disprove, namely that dissent is an intolerable offense in Islam.
The paradox is that there were Muslims trying to silence me while I was trying to convince an American audience that Islam is not any more fanatical and intolerant than any other religion, including American secular ideology. That a discussion of the Rushdie affair could involve an analysis of American cultural perceptions of Islam, and how those perceptions reinforce a largely self-congratulatory view, never seemed to cross the protesters’ minds. In fact, in the question-and-answer period several Muslims asked why there wasn’t someone from the “other side” to defend or explain the Muslim position.
The audience only saw the side of Islam that reinforced their stereotypes. What most of the non-Muslim audience did not see were the other segments of Muslim opinion represented in the auditorium. There were the hecklers; there were those who applauded them but did not disrupt; there were those who were uncomfortable with my enterprise but did not heckle or applaud the hecklers; and there were those who gritted their teeth in opposition to what the hecklers were doing. But it was the hecklers who monopolized Muslim identity on that day.
What proportion of the Arab community in Dearborn/Detroit did the hecklers represent?
Those who are critical of Salman Rushdie I think are in the majority. As for those who attempted to scuttle my talk, I think they are a minority in the sense that most of the Muslim community would not approve of that tactic.
You have said that your talk was ultimately about American perceptions of themselves against the backdrop of Islam. What do you mean?
What I tried to show was that Americans not only selectively understood the Muslim reaction against Rushdie (e.g., there was nothing automatic in Khomeini’s fatwa, and many Shi’i and Sunni clerics disapproved of it), but also that the affair served as a facile foil for American self-congratulation. Our perceptions of others tell us something about ourselves.
If ever there were “proof” that Islam was fanatical, intolerant and bloodthirsty, the response to Rushdie was it, or so it seemed. But Americans, in a perverse way, derived comfort from the conclusion that they were not like Muslims; they are tolerant, open-minded, pluralistic, rational and secular.
One can speak of secular religion in American culture, whose tenets are sacrosanct. Questioning these tenets can provoke an intolerant, zealot, fanatical reaction from the core of American society. This intolerance in many ways resembles the intolerance that Americans see in the Muslim world.
At the height of the furor around Khomeini’s death decree, there were major controversies over the funding of the Mapplethorpe and Serrano exhibits: Shows were canceled; a curator was arrested and tried. While Americans shook their heads in dismay at Muslim intolerance, George Bush led a chorus against flag burning as a form of protest. Just recently death threats against an author deterred him from returning to Odessa, Texas — all because he exposed a football scandal at a local high school. When Irish singer Sinead O’Connor refused to perform if the American national anthem were played at her concert, her records were banned on radio stations across the country. Yet the image of America as a tolerant and democratic society persists.
Instead of evoking self-congratulation on the part of Americans, the Satanic Verses affair should have been an invitation to critically assess our own level of tolerance toward cultural and political dissent.
No American secular or religious leader of Khomeini’s stature has called for the death of a dissident.
True enough. The American equivalent to Khomeini’s fatwa is the projection of state violence against foreign opponents, like Castro, Qaddafi, Lumumba, Allende.
Do tensions felt by Muslims toward the West become accentuated when they immigrate to the US?
A good number of Muslim immigrants, particularly Arab Muslim immigrants, feel that American society and culture are hostile to them and to Islam.
Could you have delivered your lecture in the Middle East?
It might have been possible at a university or cultural center in Beirut or Cairo before 1979 — before the Iranian revolution and before the Lebanese civil war. There were many works available in the Middle East in the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s that might not be tolerated today. I tried to make this point in the lecture. The circle of tolerance in the Middle East has shrunk over the last decade.
How far does the range of opinion extend in the Middle East?
If one looks at what passes for the left in the Middle East and the secular nationalist forces generally, tolerance of dissidents is rather narrow and in many cases non-existent. This attitude is unfortunately not only limited to governments but affects opposition groups as well. There is a tendency for consensus and unanimity. The Palestinian movements have exhibited more tolerance than others. This was primarily due to the circumstances of dispersal that the Palestinians continue to face and the need to balance conflicting political influences from the Arab regimes. But even this modicum of tolerance has diminished somewhat in recent years.
In many of the so-called progressive Arab states, one finds intolerance accompanied by a lack of political imagination when it comes to ideas that conflict with the prevailing political orthodoxy. There is a lesson here. Without an open and democratic debate, Arab political thought will continue to be undermined by its own rigidity.