I got to know the poet Allen Ginsberg towards the end of his life. Not very well, just a nodding acquaintance, but after he died I attended a memorial in his honor at the City University Graduate School. At that service, his personal assistant related a story about Ginsberg’s reaction to the death sentence pronounced on the novelist Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Rushdie’s “crime,” you’ll recall, was writing a provocative, perhaps even blasphemous novel inspired by the life of Muhammad called The Satanic Verses.
Though I might be screwing up a few details, the gist of the story was as follows: Soon after news of the fatwa broke, Ginsberg and his assistant climbed into the back seat of a taxi in Manhattan. After a glance at the cab driver’s name, Ginsberg politely inquired if he was a Muslim. When the cabbie replied that he was, Ginsberg asked him what he thought about the death sentence on Rushdie. The cabbie answered that he thought that Rushdie’s book was disrespectful of Islam, and that the Ayatollah had every right to do what he had done. At this point, according to his assistant, Ginsberg, one of the gentlest men ever to walk the planet, flew into a rage, screaming at the cabbie as he continued to drive, “Then I shit on your religion! Do you hear me? I shit on Islam! I shit on Muhammad! Do you hear? I shit on Muhammad!” Ginsberg demanded that the cabbie pull over. The cabbie complied, and, without paying the fare, Ginsberg and his assistant climbed out. He was still screaming at the cabbie as the car drove off.
I’ve had a couple of weeks now to think about Ginsberg cursing out that cabbie, and cursing out Islam and Muhammad. You see, I live in Manhattan, three blocks from Times Square. As near as I can determine, I was walking with a friend about thirty feet from the car bomb on May 1st right around the time it was supposed to detonate. Except for the technical incompetence of a Muslim dirtbag named Faisal Shahzad, I and my friend would likely be dead now. Note the phrase: “Muslim dirtbag.” Neither term by itself accounts for the terrorist act he attempted to perpetrate; both terms, however, are equally complicit in it. It might have been a crapshoot of nature and nurture that wrought a specimen like Shahzad, but it was Islam that inspired him, that gave his fecal stain of a life its depth and its justification. Why is that so difficult to admit?
Let me ask the question another way: Where’s the rage? Why won’t anyone say in public what Ginsberg said in the back seat of that cab? If Islam justifies, or is understood by millions of Muslims to justify, setting off a bomb in Times Square, then I shit on Islam.
There are times for interfaith dialogue, for mutual respect and compassion. This isn’t one of them. Shahzad’s car bomb was parked in front of the offices of Viacom, the parent company of the Comedy Central, which airs the program South Park. Last month, the creators of South Park decided to poke fun at the Prophet Muhammad-just as they’d poked fun at Moses and Jesus many times in the past. Death threats followed. It’s too early to connect the Times Square bomb plot to the South Park blasphemy, but police have not ruled it out.
If Shahzad was offended by an animated cartoon and decided to defend the Prophet’s name by killing hundreds of civilians-mothers with their babies in strollers, wide-eyed teenagers in tour groups, husbands and wives out for a night on the town-then I’ll say, along with the poet, I shit on Muhammad.
Americans characterize our collective deference towards the feelings of Muslims as “political correctness.” The phrase may be apt with respect to certain ethnic and religious minorities, but our tip-toeing around Islamic sensibilities is nothing more than plain, old-fashioned cowardice. MSNBC stooge Lawrence O’Donnell, for example, repeatedly slandered Mormonism during the 2008 presidential campaign as a sidebar to his creepily obsessive verbal jihad against then-candidate Mitt Romney. But when asked by radio host Hugh Hewitt whether he would insult Muhammad the way he’d insulted Joseph Smith, O’Donnell replied with rare candor: “Oh, well, I’m afraid of what the… that’s where I’m really afraid. I would like to criticize Islam much more than I do publicly, but I’m afraid for my life if I do…. Mormons are the nicest people in the world. They’ll never take a shot at me. Those other people, I’m not going to say a word about them.”
That’s the problem in a nutshell. But it’s not just O’Donnell’s problem. It’s our problem. America’s problem. The West’s problem. We lack the moral courage to walk the walk, to put our individual lives on the line in order to defend the principles of free thought and free expression-the very principles that allowed the Judeo-Christian West to leave the Islamic East in the dust, literally and figuratively, three centuries ago.
When Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered for producing a short movie critical of Islam’s treatment of women in 2004, where were the public screenings of the film? When Muslims in several countries rioted against pen and ink images of Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper in 2005, where were the public billboards of those sketches? And when the creators of South Park trotted out the Prophet in a ridiculous bear costume, and received death threats in return, where were the mass-produced tee shirts of that image?
I’ll take a size-medium, cotton if possible, and I’ll wear it in Times Square.
Since 2001, many Americans have asked how they can contribute in a direct way to the war against totalitarian Islam. Now we have an answer. If it’s legal, and likely to offend the radicals, just do it. That seems straightforward enough. But how many of us will have the nerve to stand up to a million or so Muslim dirtbags, and to scores of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of their fellow travelers and psychic enablers, and say in unison, “You want to kill the Enlightenment, you’re going to have to come through me.”
Mark Goldblatt’s new novel, Sloth, has nothing to do with Islam, but he is pleased to announce that the cover image of a cockroach is in fact Muhammad. You can tell because his antennae form the letter “M.” This column first appeared at Reason.com.