For a great many people, myself included, the engagement between open society and violent Islamic theo-cratism began not on September 11, 2001, but on February 14, 1989. On that day the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa—or, to phrase the matter in secular terms, offered a bounty in his own name as a reward for murder. The announced murder victim was to be Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses had attempted with high success to employ holy writ for literary purposes. The Ayatollah had not—indeed, could not have—read the book, but he believed the report that it contained a profane and obscene reference to the prophet Muhammad. (In one passage a man clearly depicted as a deluded loser fantasizes luridly about the prophet's many wives.) As a consequence of the fatwa, inflamed mobs burned the book and called for Rushdie's death, and teams of assassins (promised the reward of paradise if they pulled off the job or died in the attempt) managed to slay or injure Rushdie's translators and publishers in Italy, Japan, and Norway. An underplayed aspect of this gruesome development was the appearance for the first time of fanatical Muslim crowds on European streets.
This was a fairly blunt and frontal challenge to the ideas of liberty and pluralism on which the West likes to pride itself. But the responses to it only partially anticipated those to September 11. Invested as they were and are in the concepts of literary autonomy and abhorrence of censorship, most liberals reacted with particular shock to this literally fundamental assault. But there were those—most notably John Berger and John le Carré—who declared that Rushdie was the author of his own victimhood. He had offended the adherents of a great religion that was a voice of the poor and downtrodden. He had done so, numerous critics uttered darkly, "knowing what he was doing." His book was the root cause of the fatwa. The Cardinal of New York, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano united in defining the problem as one more of blasphemy than of terrorism. President George H.W. Bush, invited to comment when barely recovered from the Iran arms-for-hostages racket, said that his response would depend on any threat to "American interests." And the neoconservative school of columnists was almost unanimous in jeering at Rushdie for being hoist by his own petard. His sympathy for "Third World" causes, it was loftily said, should help him to appreciate the irony. And the irony was at his expense, so it served him right. Thus wrote Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, A. M. Rosenthal, and others.