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Rushdie, Not Martin, Deserves Respect

Column by Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate News Editor

In a column in the January issue of Counterpoint, editor in chief Samira Khan rightfully called for an end to censorship, particularly state- or institution-sponsored censorship of blasphemous or potentially insulting works. Following upon this idea, Khan correctly asserts that we should condemn the fatwa, or death threat, placed against author Salman Rushdie almost five years ago by then-Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. But Khan's arguments are fundamentally flawed when he extends his defense of unpopular thought to include the works of Wellesley College history professor Tony Martin. Khan declares that Martin, who teaches courses using his book The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, deserves the same respect and honor bestowed upon Rushdie, who received a citation and honorary visiting professorship from MIT last November.

The problem with Khan's argument and the principal distinction between the two authors lies in the fact that Rushdie wrote a novel, The Satanic Verses, a work of fiction that prompted the fatwa and the ensuing controversy, whereas Martin teaches a history course from his text. The Satanic Verses should not be seen as any more historical than Dante's Inferno or Swift's Gulliver's Travels -- it is an interesting, possibly inflammatory fictional account of debatable literary merit. As Khan points out, Rushdie's literary greatness stems mainly from his other works, including Midnight's Children, for which he won the prestigious Booker Award.

The works by Dante Alighieri or Jonathan Swift also contain insults like those attributed to The Satanic Verses -- Dante portrays a hell where unbelievers or Dante's rivals are tortured in infernal pits, and Swift is notorious for reaming Catholics. Yet no professor would teach Dante's Inferno or any work of Swift as an accurate historical account of realistic events, save for the references to setting and some of the characters. The same argument demonstrates the difference between Rushdie and Martin: Rushdie writes fiction, with a possibly historical setting, which should be appreciated and interpreted for its literary merit or inspiration, not for the truthfulness of its content. Any recognition of Rushdie should stem from the literary merits of his writing, not any controversial meaning.

If, however, Rushdie were to teach a course using The Satanic Verses as the definitive source on the Muslim world and the Qu'ran, he would be guilty of the same inexcusable bigotry afflicting Martin. Martin's works can be defended to the point where they are seen as presenting an alternative view. But when wrongful, false descriptions of history, misattributions to sources, and the other faults in Martin's writing are taught in a history class, they clearly represent prejudice, bigotry, and the indoctrination of hate.

Wellesley College, or any other institution, should no more defend Martin's teaching of his book as a source of historical fact than it should defend Bradley R. Smith or his Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. I am all for defending free speech and for allowing people to express their own opinions. In fact, I strongly agree with Counterpoint's motto, "I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to your death your right to say it," rightfully attributed to Voltaire (not Patrick Henry, as Khan asserts). However, when these opinions are masked in the guise of fact and are taught and incorporated into education as fact, they transgress free speech and approach brainwashing and thought control reminiscent of Orwell's 1984.

Lest anyone accuse me of being biased, I will acknowledge with pride that I am of Jewish background, and I have been brought up to be watchful for anti-Semitism, and in fact, prejudice of any kind. However, dislike of anti-Semitism does not make me at all prejudiced against Muslims or any other groups; quite the contrary. In earlier columns in The Tech, I have called for intervention to assist the Bosnian Muslims, likening their terrible plight to that of the Jews in the Holocaust, and I have always taken a stand against perceived racism or hatred of any kind.

Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) everywhere should remember the Holocaust, as Thomas Kennealy, an Australian non-Jew and author of the book "Schindler's List" wrote. "The Holocaust is the most extreme version of rootless race hate in European history," Kennealy said, and it is important for Jews and Gentiles alike to "retain the memory of the Holocaust and to receive the warnings inherent in it."

Salman Rushdie deserves recognition as a noteworthy author and a champion of the freedom of speech. Rushdie champions the right to express controversial opinions, but to indoctrinate opinions into education represents a blatant perversion of this right. Bigots like Tony Martin should not be granted the same respect and recognition as Rushdie and his colleagues.