On the political left, writers and intellectuals around the world have shown a chilling indifference to the recent attack on the author Salman Rushdie. But this is not the first time they have quietly taken the side of the enemies of freedom.
PRAGUE — Recently I recalled an observation made in 1979 by the Czech writer Milan Kundera when speaking at Mexico's National Autonomous University: He said Franz Kafka, another Czech and a defining figure of 20th-century literature, is unacceptable to the totalitarian world because his work is the very picture of that world.
The memory of this quote came to me in Prague, while attending an international symposium on Kafka and Latin American literature. Kundera cited a litany of prohibitions imposed on Kafka's work in authoritarian regimes, where the individual must submit to arbitrary instructions, the sources of which are, literally, mysteries.
The German thinker Max Weber said much the same of the early 20th century when dictatorships flourished, pointing out that the ideal for any bureaucracy is to become invisible. The bureaucracies of totalitarian and authoritarian states develop this trait to levels of pure folly.
Air of anxiety
Kafka may be the novelist who uncovered the darkest recesses of people's minds, whichever system they may have lived in. He died in 1924, and most of his work was published posthumously.
In Prague, I found the air filled with anxiety caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Each of symposium's organizers said that they or their relatives were personally housing Ukrainian refugees. These refugees were mostly women and children, as many of the men had stayed to fight the Russians.
It was all reminiscent of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, with its enduring images of Soviet tanks on the streets of this beautiful European city. Yet nobody boasted of their generosity, instead considering it more of a duty.
Activists and writers gather at a rally in support of Salman Rushdie at New York Public Library on Aug. 19, 2022, a week after he was stabbed.
While the Czech Republic does not border Ukraine, it would move to the front line in the increasingly remote case Putin could achieve his goal of annexing Ukraine. One might observe here that Kyiv was a cultural and historical center several centuries before the rise of Moscow. The religious and historical pretexts Putin has given to justify a bog-standard, old-fashioned invasion have, it seems, proven more convincing in countries that believe the only imperialism is from Europe and America.
He has effectively defied the fatwa by exercising his freedom of speech.
As it happens, it was in New York in the United States that the author Salman Rushdie was attacked. Like the terrorist assault some years ago on the Paris offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, Latin American colleagues could barely be heard condemning the outrage. For over 33 years now, the author of Midnight's Children and the autobiographical Joseph Anton: A Memoir has been the target of a fatwa by Iran's late clerical ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini. Europe hadn't seen a "ruling" like this since medieval times and the age of the Inquisition.
Ultimately, Rushdie could never be forgiven for continuing to write and for publicly defending his positions in spite of the fatwa. He has effectively defied the fatwa by exercising his freedom of speech and refusing to be paralyzed by fear of death. He has become one of a rare breed these days: a manifestation of our ethical conscience.
Price to pay
One of our poets, Antonio Porchia, wrote "what is paid with our lives is never costly." Iran's clerical regime may seek to hide its direct responsibility for this terrorist act, peddling conjectures, but there can be no excuse for its refusal to cancel the fatwa. Its executioner, a U.S. citizen of Lebanese descent, is a fool who never read a line by Rushdie, yet claimed to be "incensed" by his blasphemies against religion.
In 1965, another Argentine artist, León Ferrari, displayed his sculpture Western and Christian Civilization (La Civilización occidental y cristiana), showing Christ crucified on a jet plane typically used to bomb villages in Vietnam. Just imagine if Pope Paul VI had sentenced him and his workshop to death for blasphemy.
Argentina is still nursing its wounds from the actions of international terrorism with roots in Tehran. Beyond the evidence, it is fair to assume that the regime engineered the murderous bomb attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85 people. And the Iranians did a much more professional job with the chief investigator of the bombing, the state prosecutor Alberto Nisman, than with Rushdie. Before his sudden death, Nisman was about to present evidence that the government of President Cristina Kirchner had connived with Iran to help absolve it of ties to AMIA.