Did President Clinton do the right thing late last month by greeting Salman Rushdie at the White House? The answer would seem to depend on the extent to which the President's motives-to confront Iranian aggression and intimidation, and to show his support for freedom of speech-were served by meeting with the author of The Satanic Verses. Were they?
Unfortunately, they were not. While the President's intentions were noble, Mr. Clinton and his aides appear not to have understood how best to turn those good intentions into good results. In this affair, as in so many others, the President and his men still look like amateurs.
By meeting with Rushdie, the President seemed to state, with the neat economy of a deed, that Washington abominates the Iranian mullahs' methods and will not be initimidated by their threats. Reaching out to the novelist also confirmed and strengthened the president's consistent, tough policy toward Iran's militant leaders. George Bush wouldn't meet with Rushdie, risking the impression that Iranian clerics held a veto over the White House guest list. So didn't Clinton do right?
No. Unfortunately, hosting Rushdie in a place of great honor is far more than a symbol of standing up to the bullies in Tehran. Rushie is, deservedly or not, the paramount symbol of disrespect toward Islam. Even Muslims who disagree with Khomeini's death edict nonetheless view the author of The Satanic Verses-with its fantasy about prostitutes pretending to be wives of the Prophet Muhammad-as unsavory to the point of treason.
And even Muslims who stand by Rushdie's right to offend have a hard time stomaching a non-Muslim politician celebrating Rushdie. Why, they ask, does the president of the United States gratuitously associate with the man who most symbolizes the derogation of Islam? Viscerally, they cannot but feel his action as an attack on their faith. This is why, when the president subsequently claimed he meant no disrepect to Islam generally, his words did not convince. Clinton intended to send a message favoring free speech and to fire a show across the bow of the Iranian mullahs, but tens or maybe hundreds of millions of Muslims saw it simply as an anti-Islamic gesture. An Arab ambassador in Washington put it well: "Meeting with Rushdie is not a smart bomb, hitting just Tehran. It's a dumb bomb that causes a lot of collateral damage."
By meeting with Rushdie, too, the President meant to put the U.S. government squarely on the side of free speech, and none too soon. George Bush couldn't find his voice on this subject; his only public comment on Khomeini's edict sentencing Rushdie and his publishers to death came in February 1989. It was meek and inelegant: "However offensive that book may be, inciting murder and offering rewards for its perpetration are deeply offensive to the norms of civilized behavior." By dubbing both The Satanic Verses and the death edict as "offensive," Bush implied that he saw the two as equally repugnant. So for Bill Clinton to stand solidly with the beleaguered artist is a refreshing change, is it not?
Well, yes and no. The trouble is that Salman Rushdie is no poster boy for Western political values like free speech. Until his brush with the ayatollahs, he saw himself as "a writer in opposition" and took profoundly irresponsible positions. For example, he so lacked common sense that in 1987 he thought the Sandinistas offered more freedoms than Great Britain, his own country: "Nicaragua's constitution amounted to a Bill of Rights that I wouldn't have minded having on the statute book in Britain," he once wrote.
He also mouthed every bromide of the hard-left about "the great American fist" and "the American empire." Rushdie portrayed Great Britain as an effective colony of the United States. For example, he mused on Washington's reaction to a request by London to remove U.S. forces from British soil: "But would the Americans leave? It's a real question. If the British government were to order the American bases out, would they go? And if not, what's the difference between being a member of NATO and being occupied?... But would the Americans leave? I have serious doubts they would."
The Satanic Verses itself overflows with hatred of the United States. In it, Rushdie decried American influence as "the Coca-Colonization of the planet." New York City he called "that transatlantic New Rome with its Nazified architectural gigantism, which employed the oppressions of size to make its human occupants feel like worms." We of this country he called, in the typically nasty language of The Satanic Verses, "the motherfucking Americans."
It's not only ironic that this pungently anti-American writer now avidly seeks American political support; it's shameless of him neither to have recanted his past views, much less to have apologized for them. And, assuming for a moment, out of sense of generosity, that White House staffers had looked into Rushdie's views, it was a mistake for President Clinton to have met with him before apologies were forthcoming.
In short, while Salman Rushdie is a living symbol of two important American policies, the need to stanch the bellicosity coming out of Tehran and the sanctity of free speech, he is a symbol only despite himself. He carries too much other baggage to serve those causes effectively. His reputation as an enemy of Islam makes him a counterproductive instrument for confronting the mullahs. His unrepudiated history of anti-Americanism makes him a poor spokesman for free speech, an preeminently American value.
Clinton had the right motives; but in meeting with Rushdie, he picked the wrong vehicle to advance his aims. In the future, the president should have no more dealings with Rushdie; instead, he should make his views known in other, smarter ways.