When his telephone rang on February 14, 1989, Christopher Hitchens was thunderstruck. A newspaper reporter was on the line, asking for his reaction to a radio speech from Tehran earlier that day in which the theocratic ruler of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Komeini, called on Muslims around the world to murder his friend the novelist Salman Rushdie because of something Rushdie had written in his book The Satanic Verses. As Hitchens later wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22:
I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship–though I like to think that my reaction would have been the same if I hadn’t known Salman at all. To re-state the premise of the argument again: the theocratic head of a foreign despotism offers money in his own name in order to suborn the murder of a civilian citizen of another country, for the offense of writing a work of fiction. No more root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment (on the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille) or to the First Amendment to the Constitution, could be imagined.
Rushdie went into hiding, but his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered, and attempts were made against the lives of several other translators and a publisher. Bookstores in England and California were firebombed, and many more received threats of violence. The public reaction to all of this was a bitter disappointment to Hitchens. In his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he wrote:
One might have thought that such arrogant state-sponsored homicide, directed at a lonely and peaceful individual who pursued a life devoted to language, would have called forth a general condemnation. But such was not the case. In considered statements, the Vatican, the archbishop of Canterbury, the chief sephardic rabbi of Israel all took a stand in sympathy with–the ayatollah. So did the cardinal archbishop of New York and many other lesser religious figures. While they usually managed a few words in which to deplore the resort to violence, all these men stated that the main problem raised by the publication of The Satanic Verses was not murder by mercenaries, but blasphemy. Some public figures not in holy orders, such as the Marxist writer John Berger, the Tory historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, and the doyen of espionage authors John Le Carré, also pronounced that Rushdie was the author of his own troubles, and had brought them on himself by “offending” a great monotheistic religion. There seemed nothing fantastic, to these people, in the British police having to defend an Indian-born ex-Muslim citizen from a concerted campaign to take his life in the name of god.
This month Rushdie published Joseph Anton: A Memoir, describing his nine-years of life in hiding under the Ayotollah’s death order. The new book’s relevance could not be more obvious, given the Anti-American rioting that broke out in much of the Muslim world this month in reaction to a YouTube video called Innocence of Muslims. Hitchens died last December, and his voice in the matter is sorely missed. But it isn’t hard to imagine what he might have said. In a 2009 Vanity Fair essay, “Assassins of the Mind,” Hitchens wrote: “For our time and generation, the great conflict between the ironic mind and the literal mind, the experimental and the dogmatic, the tolerant and the fanatical, is the argument that was kindled by The Satanic Verses.”
For a recent discussion with Rushdie, listen to his September 21 interview with Studio360: