In the immediate aftermath of Ayatollah Khomeini's edict against Salman Rushdie, it was widely assumed that Islam, Iran, and The Satanic Verses would be rendered off bounds as subjects for critical discussion. Susan Sontag, for example, predicted "a globalization of fear and vulnerability." Half a year after the edict, how do things look? It is now clear that while Sontag and others may have overstated the problem, they did not do so by too much. Besides Salman Rushdie-whose life and career remain upended by the edict - free speech remains imperiled in a host of ways, large and small, in distant places and at home.
Writers and artists in Muslim countries have felt the chilling effect most severely. In Egypt, for example, the prominent feminist Nawal as-Sa'dawi has abandoned a novel-in-progress titled "The Book of Satan," which gave purported to give Satan's views on issues in the Bible and Qur'an. Not unreasonably, Sa'dawi decided that 1989 was not an auspicious moment for such a book. To make matters worse, even after her back-tracking, Sa'dawi received so many death threats, the police had to provide her with around-the-clock protection.
The new atmosphere is even more obvious in Pakistan. Fearful of more riots, deaths, and anti-government sentiment, Interior Minister Atzez Ahsan summarily banned two books on the Prophet Muhammad. Then Nazia Hassan, the exceedingly demure female star of a television show, Music 89, became the center of a major controversy. Although Hassan always covered her hair and showed only her face and hands, fundamentalist Muslims so harassed her and the television authorities, the program was eventually gutted. As a weary Hassan explained "Everything in Pakistan, even the way you sing a song, is highly politicised now."
This change in climate caused more than a few Muslim writers and artists to resent Rushdie for bringing fundamentalist Muslim scrutiny to bear on their activities. As Dahmane Abderahmane, a young French Muslim, explained: "We condemn Rushdie because he was the man who permitted Khomeini to regain his breath."
And what about the West? To begin with, The Satanic Verses incident itself remains uniquely delicate for publishers. William Collins Sons (a London-based division of Rupert Murdoch's publishing empire) commissioned Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland to assemble a collection of documents on the Rushdie affair. Then, just three weeks later, Collins got cold feet and decided not to go ahead with the book. Coming up with one explanation after another (Collins did not want to exacerbate problems for Viking, publisher of The Satanic Verses; the book was commercially not viable; the book was not objective), the company did whatever it had to renege on its contract.
Shortly after, I had a similar experience with Harper & Row (another division of the Murdoch empire). On May 8, the publisher and I signed a contract for a book on the Rushdie affair; the manuscript was submitted on May 31 and accepted for publication. But then, on June 23, I was informed that the book was discovered to be commercially not viable. (Sound familiar?)
Self-censorship, though unmeasurable, was widespread. Bookers for American television shows such as the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and Nightline complained that prominent authors refused to discuss The Satanic Verses issue in the days immediately following Khomeini's threat. Nor were the famous alone in their fear of reprisals. When the campus bookstore at Wayne State University in Detroit refused to stock The Satanic Verses, faculty members drew up a petition calling for a boycott of the store. A good number of professors refused to sign, however, fearful of becoming targets for fundamentalist Muslims.
In West Berlin, the Akademie der Künste refused to allow a reading on its premises for security reasons. In Vienna, the Austrian Students Association had to hold its reading from The Satanic Verses in a tent because professors refused to allow the event to take place on university grounds.
More broadly, a number of works critical of Iran or Islam were withdrawn or altered. Véronique Sanson, a French singer, announced that threats against her life forced her to retract her song "Allah," a protest against intolerance and religious fanaticism. By this time, anyway, many record stores had already pulled the song.
These and many other incidents make it clear that a chilling effect exists and is not abating. Though small matters, in themselves, they raise the critically important fact that a petty tyrant can censor works internationally. It also confirms, once again, the fragility of free speech - even here.