Seeking the Heckler's Veto in Tehran

In this photo released by an official website of the Iranian supreme leader's office and taken on Tuesday, July 24, 2012, Ira
In this photo released by an official website of the Iranian supreme leader's office and taken on Tuesday, July 24, 2012, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech, in Tehran, Iran. Iran's Supreme Leader says Western-led sanctions and pressure will not force Iran to change its policies, voicing confidence that the country can beat the latest moves to block its vital oil and banking industries. (AP Photo/Office of the Supreme Leader)

As we watch the demonstrations currently roiling the Muslim world, many of us can't help but scratch our heads and wonder: "How does this happen? How can something like a YouTube clip, no matter how offensive, cause such violent reactions?" On the face of it, it's baffling. Four Americans are dead, at least three embassies have been held under siege, and almost two-dozen other flashpoints have developed across the Muslim world -- all because a crude, bigoted video was circulated on the Internet.

In one sense, yes, this is absurd. But let's not be naïve. These shocking responses did not arise in a vacuum; they are the outgrowths of political environments that effectively suppress unpopular ideas, sometimes through the threat of violence against those who hold them. And few contemporary regimes are as culpable for this dynamic as the one in Tehran. So it was perhaps predictable that the Iranian government would take advantage of this moment of unrest to renew their attack on both new and old heretical foes, promising to pursue those behind the Innocence of Muslims, while simultaneously increasing the bounty on Salman Rushdie's head by almost half-a-million dollars.

The announcement of the newest target, the hapless "filmmaker" behind the crude Youtube video, seems sadly predictable. I mean, of course, Tehran couldn't be outdone in this regard. They started this game. That they also took the crisis of the moment to return to their favorite target brings everything full circle. Simply put no other event has had a greater role in establishing the standard operating procedure for channeling religious outrage -- and chilling any form of religious dissent or satire -- than Tehran's original exploitation of the 1989 "Rushdie affair." During that outrageous episode, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the British writer's death because of controversial elements in his book, The Satanic Verses. And thousands across the globe appeared willing to deliver the prize.

Since then, the Iranian government appears to have developed a Rushdie-centric theory as to the origins of any insult against Islam. According to a recent statement offered by the 15 of Khordad Foundation, the Iranian government believes that unless Rushdie is killed, "the movie offending the prophet will not be the last contemptuous attempt." So amongst the Iran's religious hardliners, it is assumed that the original sin of Salman has been the cause of every humiliation, or perceived humiliation, since 1989.

Yet, even in the minds of the deluded there is little reason to believe that killing Rushdie -- or anyone else whose ideas cause a degree of consternation -- will prevent any of the offenses that so rile the Iranian regime. And this only goes to show that Tehran, and all radicals who seek to inflict violence for thought "crimes," are either deeply cynical or deeply disturbed. Whichever is the case, their totalitarian inclinations need to be resisted.

So what is the appropriate response, you ask? It is to do what American diplomats and the Obama administration have done, and what the George W. Bush administration did before them whenever threats are levied against free speech: to deny religious radicals the heckler's veto, and to affirm the principle of the universal right of free speech -- even when exercises of that right are offensive. It is imperative that we honor those who work (and sometimes perish) to advance those values, and to unflinchingly protect those who are the targets of misguided fanaticism, no matter how wrong-headed their expressed beliefs may be.

Ultimately, the appropriate response is to stand up and second Voltaire's statement that "we have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard." Yes, that peril, risk and hazard can be created by vile speech, the content of which cannot be defended on its merits, but that speech's right to exist must be. In our world, we must remember that the real peril, risk, and hazard is in allowing the threat of violence to constrain our discourse, our art, and our thinking. Because of this last point, we must commit ourselves to defending the speech and the physical safety of our greatest and crudest controversialists, Nobel Prize winners and vile videographers, alike.