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MIT Award to Rushdie Hypocritical

With the lauding of free speech that has surrounded the recent lecture given by Salman Rushdie at MIT, we would like to offer our perspective as Muslim students.

Rushdie wrote a book in which he used the names (or variants of the names) of several pious figures in Islam, but then he twisted their characters to portray them as lecherous and opportunistic. In doing so, he encourages disrespect for Islam itself and such disrespect, as any minority knows, has a dehumanizing effect.

Of course, this isn't the whole story. Rushdie lives under the threat of assassination. It is clear that much of the support for Rushdie comes from those who believe that he should be able to write whatever he wishes without facing threats. This is where we feel that MIT's award to Rushdie displays hypocrisy or confusion. We can see why a gay-basher or anti-Semite who receives death threats from aggrieved groups might be defended with regard to his right to speak. But would that person be honored with an award? If not, it appears that Muslims have been singled out as a group whose grievances are deemed unimportant, or who are judged to deserve the offense.

During the Nuremberg trials Julius Streicher was hung for "crimes against humanity." His crime was to print derogatory depictions of Jews in the 1930's which were judged to have dehumanized the Jews and contributed to their subsequent persecution. We view ourselves as being dehumanized by the current campaign against Islam. Consider the following examples from the U.S. media. Time magazine entitles a story, "The dark side of Islam." Mortimer Zuckerman, the editor in chief of US News and World Report, says, "We will need to nurture our own faith and resolution [against `Islamic fundamentalism']." William F. Buckley Jr. says, "We need to organize our immigration laws with some reference to this problem [of the `fundamentalists Muhammadan']." The common denominator is demonization of Muslims and misrepresentation of Islam.

The consequences for Muslims are not merely psychological. Comments by non-Muslim colleagues at the Institute confirm that the media and government presentation of our faith is having a pronounced effect on their perception of Muslims. In an extreme case, the casting of Islam as a danger to the civilized world has been used by Serbian authorities to motivate their soldiers to commit the most heinous atrocities against the Bosnian Muslims. At a different level, the campaign helps to explain the West's (governments and press) approval of the military's cancellation of democratic elections in Algeria when an Islamic party stood to control the government.

What is even worse, from our point of view, than the victimization or discrimination is that the original religion given to mankind from God through all the prophets (e.g., Adam, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad) is being actively distorted. Muslims bear some responsibility for this state of affairs due to their neglect of Islam as well as their laxity in educating others. Nevertheless, we do not feel that MIT should contribute to the distortion of our faith by honoring an author who has used the notion of free speech to vilify it.

Syed Arif Khalid G

and 15 others