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The Slippery Slope of Self-Censorship

As the violence over the cartoons expands, we are no closer to defining the boundaries of free speech in an age of growing religious fundamentalism.

| Wed Feb. 15, 2006 4:00 AM EST

This article first appeared on Alternet.

Earlier this month, even as the Danish and Norwegian embassy buildings were still ablaze, the New York Times noted a report that a "leader of Hezbollah" had declared that if Salman Rushdie had been killed, the Danes never would have dared to publish their cartoons.

Rushdie, of course, is the author of "The Satanic Verses," published in September 1988. Rushdie's novel contained no visual depictions of Mohammed; in one section of the work, however, a deranged man has a dream in which he mocks Mohammed and the Koran.

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"The Satanic Verses" was met with widespread critical acclaim, winning Britain's most lucrative book award, the Whitbread Prize. The Muslim community, however, expressed deep dissatisfaction.

In February 1989, the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious edict. He called for Rushdie's death, for blasphemy. His fatwa extended also to "those publishers who were aware of its contents … I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islam again …" Iran offered a $1 million reward to spur Rushdie's execution.

Rushdie went into hiding, protected by the British police. The Japanese translator of "The Satanic Verses" was stabbed to death. The Italian translator was also stabbed, although he survived. The Norwegian publisher was shot; he too survived.

By 2001, Rushdie had begun again to appear in public, although usually without advance notice. That fall, his publisher booked an extensive tour for his new, noncontroversial book. Rushdie had long since apologized for the offensive comments contained in "The Satanic Verses," although the book remained in print. Time seemed to have calmed the waters.

And then came Sept. 11.

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