In the February issue of Vanity Fair readers are again treated to the good Christopher Hitchens, the one writing powerful, fast-paced prose on worthy subjects, with hardly a slurry sneer in sight (and only a couple of lapses into weird crack-pottery). The piece is called "Assassins of the Mind," and its focal point is the fatwa issued on Salman Rushdie in 1989 by the Ayatollah Khomeini for The Satanic Verses. Rushdie is a friend of Hitchens' - and the act of reflecting on the whole nightmarish episode in the author's life (and, as Hitchens would have it, in the lives of every literate person, whether they knew or acknowledged it, at the time or since) brings out the best in Hitchens' own writing.
This is an angry little essay, a caustic look at what Hitchens calls the editorial cowardice that has taken root at publishing venues the world over as a result of the Ayatollah declaring war on one author twenty years ago, specifically:
We now live in a world where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal.
As Hitchens puts it:
Just to re-state the situation before I go any farther: two decades ago the theocratic head of a foreign state offered a large sum of money, in his own name, in public, to suborn the murder of a writer of fiction who was not himself an Iranian. In the event that some would-be assassin died in the attempt and failed to pick up the dough, an immediate passage to paradise was assured. (Again, this was the first time that many in the West found out about this now notorious Koranic promise.) I thought then, and I think now, that this was not just a warning of what was to come. It was the warning. The civil war in the Muslim world, between those who believed in jihad and Shari'a and those who did not, was coming to our streets and cities.
If Hitchens really did think such a thing back in 1989 (it would be neat to think so, and he's nothing if not neat), he's certainly been proven right. Islamic extremists have become a free-floating Hollywood movie-style evil in the modern world, lurking in the back of everybody's mind preciously because they represent not protests but bombs going off in your pizzeria, not argument but bullets in your back on your way home. Hitchens does a good job summoning the image of such an evil:
So there is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table. He never speaks. He doesn't have to. But he is very well understood.
Let's hope Hitchens himself doesn't get into any trouble for the writing of this piece. That, too, would be neat - but not at all desirable.