Déjà vu: A War Between Ideas & Terrorism
The firebombing of a New York City weekly newspaper office and the religious death sentence for the author of “The Satanic Verses,” was the first time that this paper experienced the terror of fanatical Muslims trying to silence freedom of expression.
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
“Déjà vu, all over again,” as Yogi Berra so aptly said.
Only this is a different time and a different place.
Muslim violence and threats over content appearing in print in the West is impacting newspapers the world over.
We, at the Trib, were in the center of such a storm 17 years ago.
Today, violent uprisings in protest over the printing of cartoons initially in a Danish newspaper — then elsewhere in the West — depicting the prophet Mohammed has been perceived as a direct threat against freedom of the press by many in our open society.
We immediately considered reprinting the cartoons which were at the center of the controversy. We went online; we looked at them and didn’t really see the big deal. We have poked fun at God, Jesus, Moses, Buddha and just about anything else we can get our minds around. Ridicule, commentary, perhaps even blasphemy are accepted forms of commentary in our society. There are no sacred cows, not even in India.
However, we just don’t quite know what the Muslim culture is all about. We just don’t understand Muslim fanaticism. We can’t fathom suicide bombers, the Muslim society’s treatment of women, the kidnapping and murder of innocents, the street mob-like violence in response to ideas.
We just don’t get it. We, in this open society, still don’t understand them. We have no idea what goes on in the heads of the people in the streets in the nations of Islam.
Yes, we have the right to print the cartoons of Mohammed. But we are uncertain as to the statement we are making to Muslims. We believe in freedom of the press. We also believe in responsible journalism.
And in the end, two weeks ago, when this story broke, it just wasn’t our fight. There was no local angle. There was no Queens angle. Our decision to throw the Trib into the center of the storm may have made a freedom of the press statement, but we have not chosen to participate in many debates worldwide, about which we feel very strongly – because those debates are not here in our home Queens.
Then everyone started talking about it. A former Trib reporter quit his job on the Manhattan-based NYPress because management pulled the cartoons. My staff raised the question. The water cooler talk in every Queens office became the cartoons, the burning of embassies and the freedom of the press.
The cartoons, in case you haven’t heard, ran in the Danish paper in September of 2005 – 5 months ago. It wasn’t until a radical Muslim cleric made it his cause to inflame many to violence, that the Muslim streets became enraged.
The exchange isn’t an intellectual one. This is not a debate between East and West, Muslim and Judeo Christian, them and us. It is more of what we’ve been experiencing over the past decade: Muslim fanatics driving Muslim mobs to violence in order to achieve fear and terror.
We are not afraid; however, we are uncertain whether reprinting the cartoons serves any purpose but to inflame. We just don’t know at this moment.
SATANIC VERSES FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
Seventeen years ago, we knew. This writer, and the Tribune, led a statewide fight in defense of The Riverdale Press, a Bronx newspaper which was firebombed for defending the right of Salman Rushdie to express his allegorical tales of good and evil found offensive by some leaders of his Muslim religion.
Rushdie, a Western raised Muslim, was condemned to death – a death fatwa was decreed — by the former fanatic Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Feb. 14, 1989. After the publication of “Satanic Verses,” Khomeini responded to the book by threatening violence.
On Feb 23, the Riverdale Press wrote an editorial titled “The tyrant and his chains,” responding to the cowardly pulling of “Satanic Verses” from the shelves of major American bookstore chains -- Waldenbooks, B. Dalton and Barnes and Noble -- citing the well-being of their employees as the reason.
“The bookstore chains have enormous power. Their decisions can determine what thoughts are disseminated in what form. With that power should go responsibility. Selling books is not the same as selling socks or sundries. Book stores sell ideas and visions; they feed the mind and the spirit.
They have an obligation to safeguard the freedom of expression,” avowed Bernard Stein, editorial writer and co-publisher of the paper.
Days later, the offices of the Riverdale Press were firebombed.
In our next issue (Mar. 2, 1989) we wrote in a front page editorial:
Words which appeared in an editorial of the weekly newspaper The Riverdale Press may have caused their offices to be firebombed this week.
Words which appeared in books may have caused two California book stores to be firebombed the same day.
Words which represent ideas.
The freedom to write, print and read words, a principle which is fundamental to the very foundation of our nation, is under siege and the press is at war with those who would decide by force and terror what you may read.”
We went on to call upon all weekly newspapers to join the Tribune in reprinting the Riverdale Press editorial and for our elected officials to declare the following week as “Freedom of the Press” week in support of a celebration of a free exchange of ideas.
We invited all to stand up in defense of our rights of expression.
In response to our call, State Assemblyman Alan Hevesi and State Senator Serf Maltese introduced resolutions in the State Legislature declaring “Freedom of the Press” week in New York. Both houses passed the resolutions unanimously. A similar resolution, introduced by Councilman Sheldon Leffler, passed the New York City Council. Congressman Gary Ackerman read the Riverdale Press editorial into the Congressional Record.
This writer called upon the State’s 300 weekly papers and the New York Press Association to, “demonstrate their solidarity to the principle of freedom of the press” by reprinting the Riverdale Press editorial during the week.
Many of the state’s papers joined the Tribune and celebrated Freedom of the Press week and reprinted the Riverdale Press editorial.
WE ARE AT WAR
I remember that period well.
For a time, there was a police officer placed outside of my office. The authorities had contacted me and suggested that my strong advocacy in defense of Rushdie and the press and a condemnation of anyone who would resort to violence to suppress freedom might make me or the Tribune a target of fanatics.
So, in 1989, I had a police officer protecting me from Muslim fanatics.
Until now, I really never made the connection between that moment in Tribune and weekly newspaper history and the events that have terrorized the Western world in the last decade.
Words and cartoons are ideas.
Firebombs and threats, suicide bombers, and planes exploding into towers will never suppress the instinct of man to freely think and express.
We are at war.
Ideas, thoughts and the freedom to express them are being challenged by violence and terror.
This is a war worth dying for.
Over the past several years, this writer and this paper have been highly critical of the performance (make that non-performance) of the New York State Legislature. Long after our continual shouting started, the Brennen Center of the NYU Law School declared New York’s the worst legislature in the nation.
It’s now about a year later and the need for reform has been acknowledged by just about everyone in the game; but the process is slow – woefully slow.
We’ve communicated with some dozen and a half legislators who all readily admit that the not-so-august body must change in order to adequately serve the people.
All but one.
Jackson Heights Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette continues to attack us for our criticism and maintain that the State Legislature does a fine job. He even has written us a letter that we published, lauding the fine work of his cherished legislature.
Boshwobble! The New York State legislature is pathetic and everyone knows it but Ivan.
Quietly, or not so quietly, most of the members acknowledge reform is needed – still very badly needed badly.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced recently that Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette was promoted to the position of Deputy Speaker of the Assembly. During last session, Lafayette, senior member of the Queens delegation, served as Speaker Pro Tempore.
We’re not sure if the newest appointment by the Speaker really amounts to a promotion as Lafayette’s release describes it. We do know it continues to reward Lafayette for his loyalty to the Speaker and his defense of the legislature’s pathetic performance.
We view Ivan’s new appointment as a declaration that the body needs reform now, more than ever.
Not4Publication.com by Dom Nunziato