One of the first things I wrote after getting this job as a columnist was a defense of Muslim sensibilities in the Salman Rushdie case. That was in 1989. Rushdie, already a prominent novelist, had just published a devastating send-up of Islam in “The Satanic Verses”. The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s murder. The author has been in hiding ever since. Like everyone else, I was outraged and pointed out the obvious: in the west we don’t censor books or order hits on authors we don’t like.
Still, I thought a few words should be said for restraint when dealing with other people’s deep religious beliefs. I still believe that. So in the current uproar over the cartoons of Mohammed, printed in a Danish newspaper, and eventually in other European papers, I have some sympathy for Muslims, who believe it is blasphemous to create images of Mohammed. In one of the twelve cartoons, Mohammed tells dead suicide bombers he has run out of virgins to give them as their reward. Another showed him in a bomb-shaped turban. But the political barbs are almost beside the point. Even positive images of Mohammed are offensive to Muslims as too close to idolatry. It is not just extremists and street crazies who are complaining about these cartoons. Muslim moderates and professionals are upset too.
If millions of people think their faith is compromised by illustrations of a particular religious figure why not just drop the illustrations? Columnist Charles Krauthammer once wrote that in America “pluralism works because of a certain deference that sects accord each other. In a pluralistic society, it is a civic responsibility to take great care when talking publicly about things sacred to millions of fellow citizens.” Defending free speech in the 1989 Rushdie case, Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic took a different and harder line. He said, “It was blasphemy that made us free. Two cheers today for blasphemy.” That was a voice of the secular intelligentia that doesn’t hold much sacred, dismissing the concern of supposedly backward people who do.
This is why the cartoon controversy has some people talking about Andre Serrano’s alleged artwork, Piss Christ. In general, I support any artist’s attempt to turn his own urine into profitable commerce. But if it had been a different image in there-Martin Luther King Jr. or Anne Frank, let’s say, instead of Jesus- I think we might have heard less about free expression and more about pointless provocation.