Salman Rushide and our cowardly times

Most of all and most depressingly, Joseph Anton is an account of how comfortable people in Western democracies react to the threat of political violence.

Not well is the politest available answer. The Rushdie Affair became the Dreyfus Affair of our age because it revealed how, when faced with such extreme provocation, ordinary political categories collapse. Whatever your opinions, if you supported Rushdie, you supported the freedom to write, read and publish what you liked, even when (I would say especially when) books were being burned and death threats issued not in some far away and forgettable dictatorship but in your own land. You supported the rule of law, for Rushdie had committed no crime, and placed the right of the individual to express him or herself above the rights of the collective. The enemies of Dreyfus said that they must keep an innocent man in prison to protect the collective honour of the French army and French state. The enemies of Rushdie said that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s incitement to murder was understandable or excusable because it protected the collective honour of Muslims. No one who professed a belief in freedom of conscience and thought could hesitate for a moment before taking Rushdie’s side. As it turned out, those who shouted the loudest hesitated the longest.

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