Rushdie Controversy Spurs Protest Readings
The uproar over Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses has sparked protests in the past two weeks at both Princeton and Columbia, where readings were held in support of Rushdie's right to free speech.
Rushdie went into hiding after Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said he should die for writing the book, which many Muslims have found blasphemous.
As yet, no protests have been held on the Harvard campus. At its staff meeting last week, The Harvard Advocate tabled plans for a reading of The Satanic Verses and other controversial books.
At Princeton late last month, students and faculty gathered to oppose a local bookstore's removal of the novel from its shelves. About 65 faculty members, students and towns-people attended the protest, which was organized by faculty members who said they were concerned about the implications of the book's removal for freedom of speech.
"We were very upset that the book-stores had caved in to pressure," said Ulrich Knoepflmacher, a Princeton English professor who spoke at the protest.
The bookstore, located near the Princeton campus, is owned by Barnes and Noble, a national chain of booksellers which had removed Rushdie's book from the shelves of all its bookstores for security reasons. The books were returned on the day of the Princeton protest.
A week after the first protest, Princeton's creative writing faculty, including Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison, held a reading of passages from Rushdie's book.
The decision to resume sales of the book may have been influenced by similar demonstrations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Knoepflmacher said.
Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton, said the controversy over whether to remove the book from stores stems from changes that have taken place in the book industry over the past 20 years.
The people at the top of large chains "are not at all bookpeople, as it were, but are businessmen," he said. Independent booksellers, he added, are more likely to stock the book because they have more immediate ties to the literary world.
"Ideally, there is a community of interest between sellers, publishers and readers...based on a somewhat larger dedication to reading the printed word," Wilentz said. "The community thrives on good faith."
About a week after the first Princeton demonstration, Columbia University's Philolexian Society, a group that weekly debates controversial issues, held a public reading of passages from the book at the center of Columbia's campus.
The Muslim Students Association preceded the reading of the book with the reading of a prepared statement that condemned the book as offensive to Muslims.
Philolexian Society member Matthew Segal said Muslim students called University President Michael Sovern on the morning of the reading to ask that it be cancelled. But Sovern refused to deny the group's freedom of speech.
Members felt that "since the right had been challenged, it had to be exerted," said Segal. "It's not like we picked some random book out of Butler Library because it was offensive to Muslims. The book had been challenged," said Segal.
He added that the society's reading did not contain Chapter 14 of the novel, which he said is considered the most offensive. "It was a sufficient statement to read the book," Segal said, adding that the group wanted to make a symbolic statement rather than cause offense.