The Terror of Censorship and the Censorship of Terror

Libraries and The Satanic Verses

Copyright 1998, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

On February 14 of this year Iran's religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a proclamation calling for all Muslims to "send to Hell" a certain author by the name of Salman Rushdie for having written The Satanic Verses, a book that the Islamic cleric found blasphemous. Suddenly the entire literary community was in an uproar, astonished that anyone would go to such extremes to respond to a book they found objectionable. Writers and librarians had faced censorship by religious groups for ages, but never like this. Here was a religious leader placing a death sentence on a man who was a citizen of another country, simply for having written a book that was objectionable to the religious standards of what was admittidly a small Fundamentalist extreme within that religion. It made all the furor over the film The Last Temptation of Christ which had been raised by Fundamentalist Christians all over America the previous fall seem like a minor disagreement by comparison. Clearly it was not the sort of thing that could simply be brushed under the rug and ignored in hopes that it would simply go away.

Fortunately for everyone, the library community did not simply try to ignore it. Librarians have long been dedicated to the cause of intellectual freedom, and while many booksellers were taking the cowardly way out and pulling the book from their shelves, librarians were making sure that their patrons could get a copy. Many libraries even went to the length of ordering additional copies in order that their patrons would not have to put their names on lenghty waiting lists in order to read the book.

How did this whole horrible mess come to be? And what exactly did the literary community, and in particular the librarians, do in response to this? And perhaps most importantly, how could they have responded better?

To begin with, we must understand the central role of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic faith in this. Iran is a very different sort of nation than the Western world, almost an entirely different world from us. In fact, Iran is still in a Medivial sort of realm where terror is widespread, even worse than it was under the reign of the more Westernized Shah, who was vilified for the abuses of his secret police forces.1 The Ayatollah's personality was a very powerful force in the political life of Iran, and his own merciless interpretation of the Qu'ran formed the basis of law in that country, to the extent that anyone whom he regarded as being too Westernized could be put to death, simply for the crime of being too liberal. However Khomeini's influence had been considerably eroded by the beginning of this year, particularly by his having accepted a peace with Iraq under less than completely favorable terms to Iran. This has led some to speculate that Khomeini may well have been looking for some rallying point around which to raise a new fervor among Muslims and thus create support for the position of the radicals around himself.2 After all, his implacable hatred of liberals within his own power structure has long been well known, and shows through in almost every action the man ever took. To lend credence to this theory of political motivation being behind his denunciation of Rushdie, Khomeini himself boasted that the business over Rushdie and his novel had saved Iran "from a naive foriegn policy."3 Thus it would seem all the more likely that Khomeini saw the Rushdie affair as a chance to regain control of the political fervor of his people and stir them up into a frenzy the way they had been back in the "good old days" when the radical students were holding fifty-two Americans hostage and there were regular mass anti- Western demonstrations in the streets, demonstrations so massive that they filled whole avenues with a sea of people so overwhelming that the television screens of the world seemed filled to overflowing with them.

Also Khomeini's own personality has to be taken into account in this whole affair. Khomeini was well known for his viciously hot temper, and once nearly executed a group of radio executives for allowing a broadcast in which someone suggested that Mohammed's daughter might not be the best role model for modern Islamic women. Only when Khomeini's family interceeded was the old man persuaded to commute the sentence to a public flogging.4 And when one considers that there is a character in The Satanic Verses who bears a strong resemblance to Khomeini, and who is represented in the most unfavorable of terms, one can easily imagine that Khomeini, with his notable lack of anything resembling a sense of humor, may well have decided that he was going to avenge this personal slight with all the considerable forces at his disposal.

However one simply cannot disregard the vast cultural difference between the East and the West, which also plays a role in this matter. The Moslem world operates on an entirely different value system from that of the secularized Western world, a system in which the freedom of expression which we take for granted is not considered to be an immutable right. The Islamic view on the place of their sacred book, the Qu'ran, is much like the view of some of the more extreme Fundamentalist Christians on the Bible. For instance, Islam is hostile to textual criticism of the Qu'ran, and thus deals very harshly with anyone who tries to raise any doubts about the absolute authenticity of it, no matter how devout they may be in their devotion outside their scholarship.5 Thus one can easily see how Islam cannot tolerate the fictionalization of any part of the faith, considering it a transgression of hodud (the limits of propriety).6 Also many Moslems consider Rushdie's novel to be an act of fitnah, which is defined as "causing disorder in Islam," and is considered one of the worst crimes in Islamic thought. Because Rushdie's book could bring doubt in the minds of believing Moslems, this is seen as being the same thing as disorder.7 One must remember that people like the Ayatollah Khomeini and those who follow him cannot deal with the thought of uncertainty, or of reality being a constant redefinition of problems. Rather they demand a sealed and sacred text, which gives refuge to them in their insecurities and allows them to persecute those who seek the truth through open-minded inquiry into the heart of uncertainty.8 Also one must remember that allegory as a literary device has never really been part of the Islamic literary tradition, and thus any allegory that impinges upon the tradition of the founder of their religion is almost guaranteed to offend many Muslims, particularly when the allegory is intended to question the uncritical acceptance of religious authority that so many Moslems consider to be a central article of their faith.9 Thusly offended, a large number of Muslims begin to seriously consider Rushdie's novel to be blasphemous, and begin to demand some kind of retribution against the author. And the death penalty for blasphemy does indeed have some basis in the Qu'ran.10

So now we find ourselves dealing with the question of how blasphemy should be appropriately dealt with. Many individuals have pointed out the positive role which blasphemy played in creating modern democracy and breaking the West out of the stifling bands of the Middle Ages and the theocracy that condemned Galaleo for publishing his descrption of a heliocentric universe.11 However other individuals pointed out that there had to be some place beyond which blasphemy of traditions held sacred by a significant portion of the populace could not be considered acceptable. For instance some suggested a sort of eucemenical rule of blasphemy, which would forbid the reviling of anybody's god or gods by anyone else, believer or unbeliever. Also suggested was the idea of secular blasphemy, which might be defined as slurs against the traditions of freedom which the West holds dear, and which might include such things as flag-burning.12 Almost everybody agreed that there was a line beyond which were offenses that were really intolerable, such as cracking jokes about the Holocaust, which should be dealt with quite severely in order to send the message to bigots everywhere that this sort of attitude and behavior were unacceptable in civilized society.13

However the distinction was made between our defense of the freedoms we hold to be sacred and Khomeini's response to what he regards as the defamation of the Qu'ran. We defend the Bill of Rights only when it is directly threatened by the specific action of an individual, and only in magnitude appropriate to that of the offense. By contrast, Khomeini calls the death penalty down upon anyone who threatens his personal interpretation of propriety, wherever that individual may be.14 By this extension of his jurisdiction to reach anyone, anywhere, Khomeini becomes a frightening specter to everyone involved in the creative process. In fact, Khomeini is not just attacking Salman Rushdie, but freedom itself. Thus the Rushdie case may well be the first worldwide intellectual freedom case.15

Yet even in the Moslem world, not everybody agrees with what Khomeini did. Although even many of the more moderate Sunnis are up in arms about the novel being offensive to Moslem morality, many of them do not believe that Khomeini was right in sentencing Rushdie to death.16 Many consider him to have gone too far, and fear that he is giving Islam a reputation for bloodthirstiness that it really doesn't deserve.17

Many people consider Khomeini to the real blasphemer in this business for having arrogated to himself God's perogative of passing the final judgement on offenders.18 And certainly Khomeini's hubris does not compare well with the more restrained behavior of the outraged Christians who protested against the screening of the film The Last Temptation of Christ, which many of them found offensive to their beliefs.19 While Moslems incited to riot by Khomeini's proclamations became so disorderly that several of their number were killed in the crush, the Christians remained calm in their demonstrations, and even went so far as to offer money to cover the losses that the film company would incur if they were to withdraw the film in accordance with the requests of the faithful.20 Thus while the spirituality of the Christians protesting The Last Temptation of Christ shined through even to sceptics, the protests of the Moslems against The Satanic Verses started looking more and more like a political show for the benifit of Khomeini and his cronies.

Yet even as the West starts to take pride in the maturity of its reactions, it is reminded that even in the recent past, the Christian world has been just as intolerant as Khomeini of things that it found heretical. As recently as in the colonial era here in America, Cotton Mather of Massechussetts called for the enslavement of Quakers to halt the spread of their "heresy."21 Thus it may not come as such a surprise that many leading westerners buckled under the pressure from the Ayatollah. Britian quickly agreed that Rushdie's book was offensive to Moslems.22 Canada started to ban The Satanic Verses as being hate literature, and only lifted the ban when they saw that the book didn't meet the criteria for the ban on hate literature. And here in America, Vice President Dan Quayle called The Satanic Verses "obviously not only offensive, but I think most of us would agree, in bad taste." However he did concede Rushdie's right to publish it.23 But perhaps most unsettling for the defenders of intellectual freedom was the number of people in the West, including such leaders as the Pope and former President Jimmy Carter, who said that The Satanic Verses was insulting and blasphemous, and should be banned.

All of this only serves to underscore the fragility of intellectual freedom in our world. Rushdie treated his material in a literary manner, and thus deserves to have it treated as literature, not a religious treatise. Yet because he was once a Moslem, he is considered to be an apostate, and thus deserving of a far harsher treatment than a non-believer would.24

So what does this say for intellectual freedom, and particularly for the library world? Although the case of The Satanic Verses is quite shocking to our sensabilities, we must remember that it is really just an extreme case of something that librarians are all too familiar with. The business over The Last Temptation of Christ isn't all that far in the past, and librarians are forever facing outraged parents who want one book or another pulled from the shelves for fear that it may taint the purity of their child's precious young mind. Thus we can see that librarians regularly face many challenges to intellectual freedom and on the whole are at the forefront of the battle against those who would restrict it.25

And it certainly was true in this case. While booksellers were compromising the integrity of the First Amendment for fear of their safety, librarians were holding firm against demands that The Satanic Verses be pulled from the shelves. It was bad enough that England's main bookseller, W.H. Smith, decided to withdraw the book from two stores in Bradford after a ritual bookburning by Moslems in that area, although many people in Britain were horrified simply by the sight of a bookburining, which struck them as a "iconic image of barbarism."26 But it was worse that here in America the two biggest bookselling chains, Waldenbook and B. Dalton/Barnes and Noble pulled the book, also citing fears of possible terrorism. But after a brief period while everybody was struggling to figure out just what was going on here, the literary community finally got its act together in support of Rushdie, loathing the ayatollah and the cowardice of the booksellers.27 And once a few people started standing up in favor of Rushdie, almost everybody who felt for intellectual freedom found the courage to get into the act. Authors met to criticize the way in which the booksellers had caved in when faced with censorship.28 And perhaps most importantly, the American Library Association (ALA) and librarians across the country joined in protesting Khomeini's death threat on Rushdie, and the removal of the book from the shelves by booksellers. The ALA wrote a letter to the Iranian ambassador, calling for the withdrawal of the death threat and underlining the importance of the freedom to read.29

Many public libraries were buying large numbers of copies in order to make sure that patrons would be able to read it. The New York Public Library's Research Libraries Rare Book Division was tracking the first British imprint through cataloging so that they could put it in the safe environment of their collection in order to preserve it for posterity against the possible predations of self- appointed censors. And the ALA joined in an ad in the New York Times stating very clearly that people have the right to read.30

However there was some pressure for librarians to pull the book from the shelves. Even so, by mid-March the ALA had received only one report of any library actually pulling The Satanic Verses from their collection. Most of the libraries were more than willing to provide the book to interested patrons, but simply didn't have enough copies to meet the demand, even though distributers were stretching their resources to meet the demand. However many libraries did feel the pressure to pull the book from their collections. At Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, the Moslem Student Union requested the university president to have it pulled from the library. But the librarians then gave him a copy of the ALA's Library Bill of Rights, and he held firm against pulling it.31 At Wichita Kansas Public Library, thirty-three Moslems called for a ban on The Satanic Verses, but after a ten-member board that voted to have the book reviewed by three staff librarians, the librarians decided to keep it. And at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, a student government proposal to ban the book was soundly defeated.32 There was only one reported threat of violence against a library. At the University of Louisville's Ekstron Library there was a call made on February 21 warning that there could be violence if the book was not removed, but it was so vague that library officials refuse to let it change anything.33

Some libraries have removed the book to a "preservation area" where it must be retrieved by a page, apparently to prevent patrons who object to it from destroying it on their own without going through procedures. But many public libraries have decided not to play that sort of game with their patrons, and have instead stated that they will simply replace any copies that are stolen or destroyed.

What is the lesson of this whole horrible business for the library community, and for the reading community at large? One commentator has pointed out that we cannot rely upon the marketplace to guarantee the freedom to read, while the libraries did circulate The Satanic Verses even when the bookstores were refusing to stock it, and that many even went so far as to order additional copies to meet patron demand.34 Yet this only underscores the fact that librarians have had a long history of committment to intellectual freedom, even when it was not in their own personal interests. The ALA's Library Bill of Rights, which guarantees the right of all patrons to equal access to information, was adopted as early as 1939, and has since then stood as a central pillar of the library profession's dedication to intellectual freedom.35 On the basis of this committment to intellectual freedom by the national professional library organization, individual librarians throughout the nation were able to find the courage to stand firm in the face of strong opposition by people who even picketed the library and in one case actually threatened violence against the library.

Yet even though we cannot fault the librarians for their conduct in the face of what was clearly an unreasonable and uncivilized action on the part of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers, we must also criticially examine the actions taken by the various librarians and seek to determine how they might have better responded to the crisis, in order that the library community may take more effective action should a similar incident ever face us. First and foremost, the incident underscores the necessity of every library to have a clearly-stated written policy on dealing with demands for censorship, so that everyone who may be involved can know exactly where they stand in the situation and there are no gray areas left where confusion may arise and hasty actions be taken that will be regretted later for having tarnished the library's image. Also every library should have clearly-stated written procedures for how to deal with any sort of threats of violence against the institution or the collection, so that any necessary security measures can be taken quickly and without creating panic that could lead to greater harm than the original threat. Also, the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom should seek to publicize its role more so that every librarian knows that there is someone to turn to when faced with demands to remove materials from the collection.

Yet on the whole we must commend the library community for their sincere dedication to the principles of intellectual freedom, even in the face of threats of the magnitude that this ugly affair over The Satanic Verses has raised. The behavior both of individual librarians and of the ALA reflected the highest of standards of professional integrity in their firm adherance to the principle that every reader should have access to library materials.



"A Shattered Deal" Newsweek volume 113 March 13, 1989 p5

Berry, John N. "You Can't have Free Enterprise Without Freedom! Rushdie: a Lesson for the Marketplace"

Buckley, William F., "On Protecting the Honor of the Koran" National Review volume 41, April 17, 1989 pp 62-63

Carter, Susan, et al. "Why the Ayatollah is Whipping Up a New Wave of Fanaticism," Business Week March 6, 1989, page 47

"Censorship Dateline" Newsletter of Intellectual Freedom volume 23, issue 3, March, 1989, pp 47-48

Crozier, Brian "Islamic Wasteland" National Review volume 41 March 24, 1989, p 17

Flagg, Gordon, "Library Community Responds Quickly, Actively to Rushdie Events; Determined to Stock Novel" American Libraries, volume 20, April 1989 pp 288-289+

_________, "The Ayatollah's Lesson for Libraries" American Libraries volume 20, April 1989 pp 277

Fuentes, Carlos, "Sacred Truth, Novelistic Truths" Harper's volume 278, May 89 pp 17-18

Garvey, John, "Offensive Defenders: Rushdie's Rights and Wrongs" Commonweal volume 116, March 24, 1989 pp 116-118

Goetz Ronald, "On Blasphemy: Advice for the Ayatollah" The Christian Century volume 106 March 8, 1989 pp 253-255

Hertzberg, Hendrik, "Secular Sermon" The New Republic volume 200, March 20, 1989 pp 4+

Intelectual Freedom Manual 3rd ed. Chicago:ALA 1989

Iyer, Pico, "Prosaic Justice All Around" Time volume 113 March 6, 1989 p 84

Kerr, David A, "The Satanic Verses and Beyond" The Christian Century volume 106 April 5, 1989 pp 354-358

"Librarians Holding the Line" Wilson Library Bulletin volume 63, March 1989 pp 9-10

"More on Satanic Verses" Newsletter of Intellectual Freedom volume 38, issue 4, July 1989, pp 125-126

Ostling, Richard L, "Why Believers are Outraged" Time volume 33, February 27, 1989 pp 30-31

Peretz, Martin, "Embroiled Salman" The New Republic volume 200, March 20, 1989 p 50

"Rushdie's Furor Highlights the Nature of Islamic Faith" Christianity Today volume 33, April 7, 1989 pp 38-39

"Rushdie's Satanic Verses focus of Terror Tactics" Library Journal volume 114, March 15, 1989 p 14

Ruthven, Malies, "Islam and the Book" The Times Literary Supplement issue 4469, November 25-December1, 1988

"Satanic Censorship" Newsletter of Intellectual Freedom volume 38 issue 3, May 1989, p 63, 106-114

Shapiro, Laura, "At Stake: the Freedom to Imagine" Newsweek volume 113 February 27, 1989 pp36-37

__________, "Thanks to Protesters, a Runaway Best Seller" Newsweek, volume 113, March 6, 1989 pp 32-33

Smith, William E, "Hunted by an Angry Faith" Time volume 133, February 27, 1989 pp 28-33

___________, "The New Satans" Time volume 113, March 6, 1989 pp 36-38

"Two Cheers for Blasphemy" The New Republic volume 200, March 13, 1989 pp 7-9

"Unrighteous Indignation" Christianity Today volume 33 April 7, 1989 p 14

Walzer, Michael, "The Sins of Salman" The New Republic volume 20 April 10, 1989 pp 13-15

"War of the Words" Commonweal volume 116, March 10, 1989 pp 131-132

Watson, Russel, "A 'Satanic' Fury" Newsweek volume 113, February 27, 1989, pp 34-36+

__________, "The West Gets Tough with Iran -- Sort Of" Newsweek volume 113 March 6, 1989 pages 32-33

Copyright 1989, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This paper was originally written for a class in Introduction to Library and Information Science, taught by Assistant Professor Bryce Allen, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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