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Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses.andersphoto / Shutterstock.com

May 19, 2020 (Turning Point Project) — Consider the following headline: “Mississippi: Atheist faces execution for insulting Jesus on Facebook”.

The alert reader will immediately recognize this as a piece of fake news. Which it is. I made it up myself.

But it’s based on a real headline. The recent headline reads as follows: “Nigeria: Atheist faces execution under sharia for insulting Muhammad on Facebook.”

Mubarak Bala, the President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, and an atheist, was arrested in Kaduna for “insulting Prophet Muhammad.”

Now, if it was true, the first headline would elicit universal outrage. It would be front-page news in all the major Western newspapers, and the lead story on the evening news. CNN, NBC, and the BBC would spin the story as a typical example of Christian bigotry. And commentators would call for the arrest of the responsible Mississippi authorities, and possibly for an investigation of Christian churches in the state.

The second headline, however, only elicits a ho-hum reaction. Even though it’s a true story, it’s not considered important enough to be carried by most Western news outlets.

There are two reasons for this response. One is that Western media shy away from such stories for fear of being branded “Islamophobic.” They tend to ignore news that puts Islam in an unflattering light. The other reason is that journalists prefer news that is unexpected and out of the ordinary: the “man bites dog” type of story. But the arrest of a man in a Muslim country who blasphemes Muhammad is the kind of thing we’ve all come to expect.

Actually, Nigeria is not officially a Muslim country. About half the population is Muslim and the other half is Christian. But the current president of Nigeria is a Muslim and Kaduna where Mr. Bala was arrested is in a Muslim area. So, fifty percent is close enough for some Muslims to think that they can impose sharia law on everyone. Indeed, in Europe which is less than 10 percent Muslim, Europeans who live in Muslim areas are expected to conform to certain aspects of sharia law. The writ of sharia has a long reach.

But I digress. The point about the fake headline and the real one is that we have a double standard for Islam and Christianity. We give Muslims a pass for behavior we would never countenance in Christians or Western citizens.

Here’s another recent headline: “Pakistan minister calls for beheading of blasphemers.”

Ali Muhammad Khan, who is Pakistan’s minister of state for parliamentary affairs, tweeted, “Beheading is the only punishment for those who mock Prophet Muhammad.”

Here is how a roughly equivalent story in the U.S. might be headlined: “Head of Senate Rules Committee demands death penalty for those who mock Jesus.”

It’s a headline we never expect to see. But we’re not surprised or particularly perturbed when a Pakistani authority say something similar. When it comes to Islam and its representatives, we’ve learned to apply a more lenient set of rules.

A classic example of this double standard for Muslims and non-Muslims was the Rushdie affair. When Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, was published in the United Kingdom in 1988, it provoked outrage and even violence among Muslims. Because it allegedly blasphemed Muhammad, the book was banned in numerous Muslim countries, and a number of bookstores in both the U.S. and England were bombed.

Then, in 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers. Shortly after, Iranian officials offered a $6 million reward for killing Rushdie. Although Rushdie himself benefited from police protection, others were not so lucky. The Japanese translator of the book was killed on July 11, 1991. The Italian translator was seriously injured in a stabbing attack on July 3, 1991. And the publisher of the Norwegian edition barely survived an attempted assassination in 1993. It’s also likely that the Turkish translator of the book was the intended target when a mob set fire to the Hotel Madmak in Sivas, Turkey. The 1993 massacre resulted in 37 deaths.

But, of course, none of this could have been known in 1989 when the world weighed in on Khomeini’s fatwa. At first, the West rallied to the defense of Rushdie. No Western government banned The Satanic Verses, and many politicians, particularly in Great Britain spoke up for Rushdie’s right to freedom of speech. So did many prominent authors and publishers. After the assassinations, however, the literary establishment changed its tune, and began a program of self-censorship. In the following years, numerous books that were deemed offensive to Islam were cancelled or else pulled from the shelves. And, particularly in Europe, the book banning continues to this day.

Many prominent Jewish and Christian leaders, however, gave Khomeini the benefit of the double standard right from the start. They seemed more concerned with Rushdie’s irreverent attitude toward Islam than with his freedom of expression. Robert Runcie, The Archbishop of Canterbury opined that Rushdie was guilty of blasphemy; and L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper criticized Rushdie for offending millions of Muslims. At the same time Christian leaders had little to say about the violent reaction of Muslims to the book such as the bombing of bookstores and the mob attack on the American Cultural Center in Islamabad which occurred two days before the fatwa was issued.

Many in the Church had already adopted the double standard toward Islam. No Christian or Jewish leader would have defended an archbishop or chief rabbi who did what Khomeini did, but somehow it seemed a less serious matter for a Muslim cleric to order another man’s death.

Indeed, some Catholics seemed envious. I remember reading some conservative Catholic columnists at the time who thought Rushdie was asking for it; and a couple of my acquaintances thought it too bad that the Church couldn’t handle the dissenters in its own ranks in the same way. Liberal Catholics were also upset by Rushdie — not because of the blasphemy (which didn’t bother them), but because of his insensitivity to diversity. By the late Eighties, liberals were already putting a higher priority on diversity than on freedom of speech.

In short, a number of Christians made excuses for behavior — Khomeini’s fatwa — that would have been entirely unacceptable in a Christian leader. We know it would be unacceptable because fifteen years after the publication of Rushdie’s veiled criticism of Islam, there appeared another extremely popular work of fiction, which was no less than an all-out attack on Christianity, and, in particular, on the Catholic Church.

By almost any measure, Dan Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code — which has sold some 80 million copies — presents a blasphemous portrayal of Jesus. Moreover, his challenge to Christian belief was a very effective one. A poll of Canadian readers found that fully one-third of them believed Brown’s manufactured version of Christian history to be the true one. Meanwhile, in contrast to the response to Rushdie’s book, very few in the secular world expressed any concern that The Da Vinci Code might be offensive to hundreds of millions of Christians.

The book certainly called for a strong response from the Catholic Church. And many Catholics did respond with vigorous criticism of Brown. Yet no one expected to open their morning paper and read: “Pope pronounces death sentence on Dan Brown for blasphemy.” And, of course, no such headline ever appeared.

If the pope had made such a pronouncement he would have been immediately and strongly condemned not only by secular leaders, but also by Christian leaders. In addition, it’s highly likely that prominent voices would have demanded that he be tried before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for incitement to murder (in fact, years later, Geoffrey Robinson, a high ranking UN jurist did ask the British government to detain Pope Benedict XVI when he visited England, and remand him to the ICC for “crimes against humanity;” but these supposed crimes had nothing to do with Dan Brown).

By contrast, when Ayatollah Khomeini actually did issue an incitement to murder, the world’s response was fairly restrained. Yet there can be little doubt that the fatwa was intended to result in Rushdie’s death. Here is an excerpt:

I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses…along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death. I call on valiant Muslim wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslim henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, God willing.

The West’s differing responses to The Satanic Verses and The Da Vinci Code are quite telling. Of the two books, The Da Vinci Code offered a much more sweeping, and far more widely read indictment of a major faith. Yet, aside from a handful of Catholics, few commentators seemed concerned that Catholics might be offended. By contrast, many Westerners expressed outrage over Rushdie’s offense to Muslims.

After Khomeini’s fatwa, Rushdie went into hiding for almost a decade. After the success of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown went on the celebrity circuit, and continued to write bestsellers, content in the knowledge that the Church would not be dispatching albino monks to track him down.

In the wake of bookstore bombings and attempted assassinations, Western publishers adopted a policy of self-censorship that had the effect of enforcing Islam’s blasphemy laws. But there was no corresponding censorship after The Da Vinci Code controversy. Indeed, publishers rushed to cash in on a spate of Da Vinci–like anti-Christian/pro-goddess books. No one, it seemed, was worried about the possibility of Vatican retribution.

I have been referring to the West’s disparate treatment of Islam and the West as a “double standard,” but, in a sense, it’s not. The double standard only comes into play when two parties who share the same standards are judged differently for the same behavior. But if the two parties have completely different standards, the issue becomes complicated. If you believe that there are universal standards which apply to all people of all cultures, then it’s fair to judge Islam harshly. On the other hand, if you’re a relativist who believes that there are no universal standards, then you have no right to criticize Islam when it violates Western/Christian norms.

Since relativism is the road most taken in the modern world, it’s easy to understand the reluctance to criticize Islam. After all, as is commonly said, “they have a different culture.”

The fact that we don’t hold Islam to the same standards is a tacit acknowledgment that they do, indeed, have different standards, and therefore — at least from a cultural relativist standpoint — they shouldn’t be held to ours.

The irony is that while we tacitly accept the reality that Islamic values are quite different from our own, many in the West, and particularly in the Church, still insist that we share the same values. Currently, the Vatican-backed Higher Committee of Human Fraternity seems to be working on the assumption that Islam and Christianity share the same humanistic values. One wishes that were so, but the fact that the West consistently judges Islam by a different, and lower standard, suggests that it is not. Increasingly, what we see is not a sharing of values, but a subordination of Western and Christian standards to those of Islam.

This article originally appeared in the May 16, 2020 edition of Catholic World Report. It is published here with permission from the Turning Point Project.