If asked why 1989 was an important year, most would likely point to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the cascading collapse of Soviet satellite governments in Europe, culminating in the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. itself two years later. Yet the attack on Salman Rushdie last week is a reminder that perhaps 1989's most significant harbinger of today's world was the fatwa issued against the author by Iran’s leader and senior cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini.
Khomeini called for Rushdie's death in response to the publication of The Satanic Verses, a book many Muslims considered blasphemous for its presentation of Muhammad. At the time, the edict looked like an odd intrusion of medieval religious fanaticism into a liberal world order that was finally coming of age and winning the historical argument. But in retrospect, the ambivalence of reactions to it on both right and left seem to offer early signs of now dominant political pathologies.
Rushdie’s own memoir, Joseph Anton, outlines in painful and understandably bitter detail how many figures across the political spectrum failed to offer him full-throated support. To the British conservative establishment, he was the smug colonial beneficiary of tremendous cultural privileges—he had attended Rugby, one of England’s most elite and expensive public (i.e., very private and exclusive) schools, and went on to Cambridge—but he had then built his literary career on criticizing Britain, thereby biting the hand that had fed him so much better than many of its own. And the left was already descending into a myopic anti-Americanism that granted moral superiority to any nation or group—even fundamentalist Islam—that opposed the Great Satan (to borrow Khomeini’s own rhetoric). Of course, any Marxist with even a Wikipedia-level knowledge of his own political philosophy should know that he ought to back America over any fundamentalist Islamic country. The latter are, at least according to classical Marxist theory, at an earlier stage of historical and economic development than any capitalist society. But hatred of America tended then, as now, to trump all other concerns on the left. And across the West’s right-left divide, fear of offending anyone who could claim minority or victim status was emerging as a primary social value.
Today’s lukewarm responses of the British right and left to Saturday’s attack represent something of a rerun of 1989. But now the cause is much more clear. Brendan O’Neill identifies the category of “Islamophobia” as essentially crippling the political class on the issue. Once that concept became part of the unquestioned orthodoxy of political discourse, then any criticism of Islamic militancy became rhetorically difficult, if not impossible. The term simply became a catch-all under which any critique of any action done in the name of Islam could be categorized and thereby delegitimized. Indeed, raising any questions about such could also fall under the same condemnation, as could Rushdie’s original sin, his presentation of the Prophet in The Satanic Verses.
Yet this problem goes well beyond Islamic fundamentalism. The desire to paralyze public discourse by threats, nastiness, and all-round verbal thuggery is the preferred approach of radicals of all shades of opinion on social media, be it Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. These tactics have not simply made public interaction more stupid. They have also made it much, much nastier in tone and far easier to silence dissent. Indeed, that J. K. Rowling has earned the ire of both Islamic fundamentalists and trans activists is no coincidence.
To this one can add the proliferation of “phobias” (e.g., homophobia, transphobia) that deliberately refuse to see any difference between deranged bigotry and principled dissent from progressive orthodoxies. There are also ideologies that claim monopolies over both defining and solving real problems. Anyone who has ever expressed concerns about critical race or gender theories knows that the best he can hope for is to be accused of ignorance at best—at worst (and more typically), of violent racism or misogyny. And then there are those buzz terms that serve to demonize any dissent from either side. Believe that maybe there are real racists out there? You’re a cultural Marxist. Think that the Bill of Rights is a good thing, albeit imperfectly applied in real world America? You’re a white supremacist. All these linguistic constructions are designed to label any challenge as heresy. And when one side—in our case the progressives—has a virtual monopoly on cultural power, they can use their chosen vocabulary to silence dissent in the public square via threats of destroying reputations and careers. It’s the fatwa fear factor, Western-style.
Modernity’s most distinctive achievement was the creation of a public square in which dissent could take place, but which also allowed for pre-political and private spheres where such dissent did not preclude friendships nor disrupt community life. The distinction between these spheres is rapidly disappearing and with it the civility and tolerance they facilitated. In this context, it is more than merely ironic to see politicians in Britain and America offer sympathy to Salman Rushdie and his family when they themselves are presiding over cultures that will not offer robust protection, let alone whole-hearted and effective support, for those like J. K. Rowling, Graham Linehan, Kathleen Stock, Joshua Katz, and even Supreme Court justices simply doing their jobs. And those are only a few of the famous victims of social media fatwas. What about the many anonymous people facing punishment if they dissent from things such as pronoun policies in their own spheres of work and play?
The fatwa against Salman Rushdie, far from being a medieval intrusion into the age of Western modernity, was rather a sign of things to come. Public discourse in the West has since all but collapsed. Language that first congealed into the therapeutic pieties of postmodernism is now hardening into strident moral orthodoxies that tolerate no rivals. Heresy is once again punishable by the rage of both the rulers and the hashtag-wielding mob. And Saturday's violent attack on a talented writer should give our cultural elites pause to reflect upon the extent to which their lip-service to freedom of speech merely masks a Western culture that increasingly differs only in degree, not in kind, from that of the Ayatollah.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Image by CK, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.