Letter to the Editor: Salman Rushdie’s appearance does not foster tolerance

There are two factors that I would like to talk about concerning Whitman’s decision to bring Salman Rushdie to campus. First, the decision itself, and secondly the way it was advertised, at least online. Any educational infrastructure is a powerful institute, and Whitman is no exception. The money and resources available have tremendous power to do good. Educational institutes serve as places where independent thinking and creative questioning are fostered and respect for new ideas is encouraged.

The minds of the youth evolve in these institutes, and the leaders of tomorrow are influenced by the experiences of their college days. This opportunity to learn, to challenge oneself, and explore is seldom granted to an individual twice. Therefore, I feel educational institutes are an extremely important part of any society, and must embrace this position with responsibility.

Muslims today, especially in the West, have been continuously targeted ever since the tragic events of 9/11 by far right political forces both in Europe and the United States questioning the compatibility of Islam with Western values. The situation is actually much worse in Europe than in the United States. Historical prejudices and misunderstandings have led certain influential political forces to label Islam as a “backward culture,” in need of a reformation as one witnessed by the West, and the eligibility of a Muslim to full citizenship is increasingly coming at the cost of one’s religious beliefs.

Muslims in this country and in Europe are being targeted, and racist attitudes are being inculcated amongst the people. In these delicate times, I feel it is extremely imperative that dialogue serve as the basis of mutual respect and harmony. Ignorance and misinformation has led to divisions and false perceptions of differences. Therefore, voices that are sincere in achieving peace and promoting understanding should be amplified instead of those voices that spread fear, division, and insult. We need dialogue, not provocation; understanding, not prejudice. And most importantly, we need mutual respect.

After the publication of the controversial Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad, and the violent reaction by some Muslims, Salman Rushdie along with 12 other “writers, journalists, intellectuals” signed a manifesto warning the world of a new global threat: Islamism. The manifesto begins with the following statement:

“After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism.”

It is a deeply disturbing piece of literature that, I feel, perpetuates dangerous stereotypes and indicates cultural arrogance. A couple of weeks ago, events under the banner of Islamo-Fascism Week were organized in campuses all over the country. Such language and mixture of terms intimidates Muslims, creates fear, and serves no purpose towards reconciliation and honest dialogue.

Salman Rushdie has also called for an Islamic Reformation, as have many far right forces in Europe, in which the core concepts of Islam are brought into the modern age. That problems exist within the Muslim world cannot be denied, and that these issues need to be dealt with is a challenge to which an increasing number of people are rising. However, we cannot oversimplify history, nor can we impose cultural norms and historical events of one civilization upon another. We also cannot be degrading and provocative if we wish to respect ourselves and others. In the light of what Salman Rushdie has said, the current global situation, and the importance of campuses in shaping the future, I believe Whitman should have acted more responsibly. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of every individual, but freedom of speech in absolute terms is a foreign concept to all people.

I remember President Bridges once sent out on e-mail to the student body in which he wrote, “As an academic community, we strive to foster tolerance and understanding and to accord high priority to respecting and affirming others.” I feel by bringing Salman Rushdie to campus, Whitman has failed to live up to this commitment. Salman Rushdie has provoked the religious sentiments of Muslims by degrading and insulting their religious values, principles, and beliefs. His derogatory attitude and oversimplifications of history are extremely dangerous and disturbing. They serve to create division instead of unity; hatred instead of peace. They certainly do not foster tolerance and understanding, nor do they respect and affirm others.

Secondly, I was also disturbed by the way Salman Rushdie’s visit was advertised. The information available on Whitman’s Web site highlighted the violent Muslim reaction against his book, “The Satanic Verses,” and mentioned the fatwa that was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. I was disappointed that Whitman would resort to sensationalism to advertise a speaker visiting the campus. The people in the West have continuously been bombarded by the media with information concerning the fatwa and the violent Muslim reaction. Such selective picking of events alters reality and creates fabricated perceptions in people’s minds. It implies the disparity between Islamic and Western values and the angry, intolerant, oppressive nature of Islam. Especially in the case of Iran, which witnessed a revolution that brought clerics into power. The United States might very well be getting ready to invade Iran, and it fits well to portray the Iranian government as suppressive and functioning against the principles of democracy and freedom. What the media fails to mention is that the religious council of Saudi Arabia condemned the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, as did the al-Azhar University in Cairo and other Sunni and Shiite scholars representing more than 90 percent of all Muslims.

The propagation of voices like Salman Rushdie and resorting to sensationalism only serves to create divisions and misunderstandings. Boundaries are erected and bridges burned that foster animosity, hatred, and ill-will amongst people. What the world requires is peace, harmony, equality, understanding, dialogue, and respect. A renowned Muslim scholar, actually born in Walla Walla, once wrote, “We can enrich each other if we choose to embrace our essential humanity; we can destroy the world if we choose to stress our differences.” It is ultimately a choice that we must make, and I wish Whitman had chosen more responsibly.

-Shaheryar Akbar
Whitman ’07