In light of the continuing Muslim protests and violence in opposition to a YouTube video, it is worth looking back to the first time the United States encountered the reaction of Muslims, at home and abroad, to speech they deem blasphemous: the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, and the reaction in 1989.
This may have been the very first sketch I saw on “Saturday Night Live.” (You may have to endure an Obama ad on Hulu before the sketch starts.)
It inspired quite a few chuckles in my house; at that time, my father worked in New York City in an office around the corner from one of the largest Barnes & Noble bookstores in Manhattan, and he told me about the roaring crowds of protesters, chanting about Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
Some may find the sketch prophetic. The late Phil Hartman as one war-scarred bookseller begins the sketch by lamenting, “In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have caved on that first book. But I don’t think it would have made a difference. This was inevitable!”
“Maybe not,” says a young Glenn Close as the other. “Maybe if we had defied the Ayatollah’s threats right from the start, the right to lifers, the Colombians, and the IRA wouldn’t have gotten the same idea!”
At the conclusion of the sketch, showcasing how buying a book requires running past furious gunfire, Hartman contemplates what they would have to do to end the onslaught: “Maybe we sell only Muslim books! Ayatollah birthday sale!” (People may prefer Hartman’s earlier rallying cry, “READ IT IN LEAD, YOU BOOK-BURNING BASTARDS!”)
We’ve forgotten a lot of the details about the reaction to Rushdie’s book, including the instances of what we would now call Islamist violence or terrorism on American soil:
Molotov cocktails were thrown through the windows of Cody’s, a Berkeley institution that helped nurture the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, and a Berkeley outlet of the Waldenbooks chain. Neither store was badly damaged. A firebomb seriously damaged offices of The Riverdale Press, a Bronx weekly newspaper that published an editorial last week defending The Satanic Verses.
A film critical of Khomeini was withdrawn from the Los Angeles Film Festival after concerns about security. Waldenbooks pulled the book from its stores, and Barnes & Noble capitulated as well.
Attacks on American institutions in Pakistan over alleged blasphemy are a longstanding tradition, it seems:
February 12, 1989: Police open fire on anti-Rushdie demonstrators storming the American cultural center in Islamabad, Pakistan. Five are killed and 100 wounded. Later in the day, the American Express office is sacked.
And if you think our embassy in Pakistan is being apologetic about the YouTube tape, maybe things weren’t that much better in 1989:
The American Embassy in Islamabad issues a statement: “The U.S. government in no way supports or associates itself with any activity that is in any way offensive or insulting to Islam or any other religion.” [There is no mention of the fact that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech — "any" speech.]
President George H. W. Bush, however, did eventually give a straightforward statement:
However offensive that book may be, inciting murder and offering rewards for its perpetration are deeply offensive to the norms of civilized behavior. And our position on terrorism is well known. In the light of Iran’s incitement, should any action be taken against American interests, the Government of Iran can expect to be held accountable.
Secretary of State James Baker said in congressional testimony:
We have made our views known with respect to how we feel without endorsing the book. We haven’t read the book, and we’re not, in expressing our displeasure, endorsing some of the statements that might be contained in the book. We, of course, endorse the right of anyone to make those statements and to write such. We endorse the freedom of speech rights.
Is our government handling today’s outbursts better or worse than it did 1989?