From the moment in February 1989 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced his edict against Salman Rushdie and his novel, "The Satanic Verses," Christian and Islamic civilizations entered into a confrontation the likes of which had not been seen in centuries.
In the West, the Rushdie case confirmed some hoary stereotypes. In calling Khomeini "a joyless, glowering fanatic," editorial writers in The New York Times invoked old notions about Muslims behaving like maniacs; the normally calm Independent of London dubbed Khomeini "a bloodthirsty medieval bigot." For the first time in memory, the western press described Europe and America as the "civilized world" and Muslims were perceived as living outside the borders of that world.
But excluding Muslims from the civilized world is, of course, flat wrong. Even if freedom of speech is the ticket of admission, a good number of Muslims, some of them in positions of authority or prominence, have the credentials to enter.
In Turkey, Erdal Inonu, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats said that "killing somebody for what he has written is simply murder." Writing in the Turkish daily Amhunyet, Ali Sirmen called Khomeini "a nearly 90-year-old man who still thirsts for blood," termed his edict an invitation for "terrorist activities" and waxed nostalgic for the shah. The Turkish Writers Union spoke out forcefully against the edict.
Voices from the Arab countries also criticized Khomeini. An impressive number of Muslim intellectuals signed petitions, subsequently published in support of Rushdie. Perhaps the most remarkable statement came from Abdelwahah Meddeh, a Tunisian writer: "I feel welling up in me a real need to blaspheme, to try out for myself all the negative clichés about the prophet and Islam." In an act of singular bravery, Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in literature called Khomeini a "terrorist." Mahfouz also joined 80 other Arab intellectuals in declaring that "no blasphemy harms Islam and the Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer." Mahfouz received a host of death threats of his own, which the Egyptian police deemed serious enough to warrant his protection.
From Yugoslavia, Sloman Selenic, president of the Yugoslav Writer's Association, announced that Khomeini belongs to the "family of messiahs — historic lunatics — who make mankind happy only by killing people." In India, a prominent scholar of the Koran, Rafiq Zakaria, deemed the edict "totally illegal."
Understandably, Muslims residing in the West felt freest to speak out. Muslim students at the University of Iowa staged a reading of "The Satanic Verses" to demonstrate that not everyone from Islamic countries supported the ayatollah. "That's madness, that's not Islam," said Siraj Wahhaj, head of a mosque in Brooklyn, to the edict. A Palestinian journalist in Israel, Abdullatif Younis, wrote that "The Satanic Verses rendered Moslems all over the world a great service."
Muslim writers living in France signed a petition declaring "Against fanaticism and intolerance, we are all Salman Rushdie." Rachid Mechidi of the reformist Institut Alif in Drancy, France called the edict "pure demagoguery." Yousif Ashouri, living in West Germany, wrote perhaps the strongest public statement of all: If Islam is so fragile and sensitive that it cannot withstand fair questioning and discussion by ordinary people, then it is worthless as a religion and does not deserve survival. Rushdie should be praised for his brave stand on such a totalitarian issue."
As these powerful statements suggest, an educated Muslim elite joins Rushdie in doubting the central verities of Islam. Indeed, just a few Catholic intellectuals accept the literal truth of the virgin birth, so are the universities full of Muslims who do not believe that Muhammad received the Koran from God. But most dare not express their thoughts. When asked whether he could have written "The Satanic Verses," Shaker Laibi, a secular Muslim living in Western Europe, replied: "Yes I could have written it. But I would not have signed it with my own name." His point was confirmed in a remarkable letter from Karachi, Pakistan, published in The Observer of London at the peak of "The Satanic Verses" controversy.
It said: "Someone who does not live in an Islamic society cannot imagine the sanctions, both self imposed and external, that militate against expressing religious disbelief. ‘I don't believe in God' is an impossible public utterance even among family and friends … So we hold our tongues, those of us who doubt… Then, along comes Rushdie and speaks for us. Tells the world that we exist — that we are not simply a mere fabrication of some Jewish conspiracy. He ends our isolation. He ends it and simultaneously deepens it; frees us only to imprison us anew."
For all the battering they have taken, liberal ideas remain alive in the Muslim world; not all is submerged under the darkness of fundamentalism. Admittedly, it is easy to forget this, given the impoverished leadership, political turmoil and violence that prevail in the Middle East. In terms of perceptions by the outside world, perhaps the key problem is that the most prominent representatives of Islam—the Khomeinists, the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya—are all extremists. In western eyes, their eccentric and distasteful behavior overwhelms the religion as it is practiced daily by hundreds of millions of the faithful. Little wonder that westerners, watching such outlandish leaders, find it hard to appreciate Islam's many attractive qualities.
Some Muslims recognized this problem at the time of the Rushdie affair and fretted over it. According to Coskum Kirca, a retired Turkish diplomat, "Iran is behaving barbarically, and its behavior has belittled all." But Kirca and the anti-fundamentalists found themselves nearly powerless to challenge the unholy trinity in Tehran, Riyadh and Tripoli; a combination of oil wealth and ideology fervor endowed those regimes with an unrivaled might in Islamic affairs.
In short, westerners surrendered all too easily to the simplifications that seized their imagination, and assumed that all Muslims endorsed Khomeini's intolerance and bigotry. Even when dimly aware that this was not the case, they were tempted to forget this fact. This left nonfundamentalist Muslims not only with their radical brethren to combat, but also the prejudices of westerners, which unfairly lumped them together with their rivals.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and editor of its quarterly journal Orbis. This is adapted from his new book, "The Rushdie Affair" (Birch Lane Press).