The Rushdie affair: a test of judgment

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Mafia-like contract

If ever there were a case where a principle should have been decisive, this was it

Salman Rushdie, writes Dalrymple, has lived under the shadow of the executioner for a very long time

— if Khomeini’s thuggish fatwa can properly be called a death sentence rather than a Mafia-like contract.

The Rushdie affair, Dalrymple points out, was a turning point.

In many countries, Islamism rushed in to fill the ideological vacuum left by a decomposing and self-evidently failed Marxism. The Ayatollah’s fatwa was one of the first gauntlets thrown down to the Western liberal democracies.

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Thuggish fatwa

Apart, Dalrymple says,

from the somewhat reluctant British decision to protect Rushdie at all costs, the West responded in a vacillating way.

  • Which was more important to us: our freedom or our trade? Sometimes the one, sometimes the other.
  • Were we prepared to stand up for our right to free speech, or did we prefer to censor ourselves for the sake of not offending a minority, or at any rate the rabble-rousing leaders of a minority, in our midst? Sometimes the one, sometimes the other.

The intellectual class, which

one might have hoped would see at once what was at stake, was divided, with prominent members in effect siding with the Ayatollah.

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Serious error of historical judgment: Trevor-Roper (seated, black jacket) authenticated the fraudulent Hitler diaries

For example, Hugh Trevor-Roper, authenticator of the fake Hitler diaries, said of Rushdie (Independent, 10 June 1989):

After all, he is well versed in Islamic ideas. He knew what he was doing and could foresee the consequences. I would not shed a tear if some British Moslems, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.

Dalrymple comments:

In the circumstances, this was an odious thing to have said, combining as it does sniggering schoolboy frivolity with a serious error of historical judgment.

Dalrymple is clear on the matter:

I am not myself a believer that politics can or should be nothing but the application of first principles by a process of syllogistic reasoning, but if ever there were a case where a principle should have been decisive, this was it.

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