By Walter Brasch
Iran is boycotting the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade convention for publishers and vendors.
The six-day convention, which ends Sunday, brought more than 7,400 exhibitors from 100 countries. Attendance is more than 300,000.
The reason for the boycott?
Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, was the keynote speaker.
In 1989, a year after its publication, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s religious and political leader, banned the book and issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death because the Ayatollah and millions of Muslims believe no one should insult Muslims, the religion Islam, or write against the prophet Mohammed. Although a new government a decade later cancelled the death threat, the fatwa still exists.
Militant Muslims aren’t the only ones who believe in suppressing literature and thought.
Nazi Germany banned books by Jews, and created fires where the people could throw their books. At the same time the Nazis were burning books, Hollywood was bowing to the self-imposed “film standards” of the Hays Commission, which was vigorously keeping American film “pure” of evil thoughts and sexual depictions.
A decade after World War II ended, and with Hollywood censorship still restricting script content, Americans threw rock and roll records, which they called the Devil’s Tool, into bonfires.
Two weeks before the Frankfurt Book Fair was Banned Book Week in the United States. The annual information campaign is sponsored by the American Library Association to highlight the problem with censorship. Most of the reasons why school boards and others want to ban books is because they challenge authority or present social and political issues that certain people don’t want to hear—and don’t want others to hear.
Among classics that Americans have banned have been The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Catch-22, Gone With the Wind, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Most book bans are led by conservatives who know—absolutely know—that they are the custodians of some kind of moral code, and that their own religion is the one true religion. But, conservatives aren’t the only ones who want to ban books.
A base of the liberal philosophy is that all views should be heard, but some liberals have tried to ban Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered by literature scholars as the best novel in American literature. These misguided liberals wrongly believe that Twain, a fierce abolitionist, was a racist because his novel used words, common at that time, that no one should hear or read. Some liberals, like some conservatives, have often led campaigns to ban speakers who don’t agree with their views from college campuses. But, holocaust deniers, those who claim 9/11 was a Jewish plot, or that Afro-Americans are mentally inferior also deserve to have their views be heard, even if those views are odious and those who believe it are obnoxious.
In 1644, before the English parliament, John Milton boldly spoke out against censorship, arguing that those who destroy books destroy reason itself, and that mankind is best served when there is a “free and open encounter” of all ideas. It was a revolutionary concept in an empire that required printers to get a license and be subjected to the whims not only of a monarch but the government as well. In the 18th century, Lord Blackstone, one of the kingdom’s most distinguished jurists, spoke out against prior restraint of free speech and of the press. The views of Milton and Blackstone became a basis of The First Amendment in the United States, one of the most liberal parts of the Constitution. It was this amendment that assured freedom of the press, speech, and religion; that amendment allows people to peacefully assemble and, if they wish, to protest government actions; it gives the people the right to petition the government for a “redress of grievances.” During the next two centuries, others cemented this belief into American law and culture. In the mid-19th century, philosopher John Stuart Mill stated, “We can never be sure that the opinion new are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion, and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” At the beginning of the 20th century, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that democracy is best served in “a marketplace of ideas.”
The theme of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair was Tolerance Through Literature. Let’s hope that all people, no matter their religion, culture, or political views, will embrace that belief.
[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist and author of 20 books, is a strong First Amendment advocate who frequently speaks out against government abuse of free speech and due process. His book, America’s Unpatriotic Acts (2002), was a major call to eliminate the unconstitutional parts of the PATRIOT Act. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]