Azar Nafisi is an Iranian American writer whose book, “Read Dangerously” was the subject of an interview this week with Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio. They were well into the talk when I tuned in, but I heard enough to send me to the NPR website to hear all of it.
The discussion began with comments on the stabbing of author Salman Rushdie two weeks ago as he prepared to speak at an assembly in New York. He was stabbed 11 times, and the assailant was reported to be a 24-year-old Muslim inspired by an order given in 1989 by late Irianian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah for Muslims to kill Rushdie in response to depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the book “The Satanic Verses.”
The attacker must have been only about 4 years old at the time of the fatwa, but it still stands, calling for blood. Most Americans don’t get that, but some of us are beginning to act a lot like the religious zealots of other cultures or cults.
Nafasi is an Iranian by birth whose message is as relevant to American woman in these days of right-wing push in America as is the repression of extremist religious rules from Islamic traditions.
Testing the boundaries of conventional thought makes traditionalists uncomfortable in every culture, but even much common knowledge of today was once considered radical.
Nafasi urges thinking people to protect the right to free access to books and ideas that are outside the parameters of any one faith or political belief or risk losing their own voice. It isn’t the uncomfortable or the unconventional that is the enemy of any one value system; it is ignorance that breeds hatred.
Journalism speaks for truth, Nafasi said, and fiction can deliver essential truths that threaten the strongly held opinions of extremists with religious or political agendas. She did not single out the right wing as the only violators of freedom to speak, read, write and think. Left-wing totalitarians are just as dangerous.
The first line of attack by totalitarians from either the right or the left is to lie. Lie big, loudly, and persistently to drown out the voices of reason. Attack the motives and character of community leaders with good reputations and dismiss their leadership as misinformed or worse, selling out to the other side. Destroy faith in institutions and blame the resulting social decline on the other side. Create chaos and undermine paths to reconciliation. Divide and condemn.
Inskeep asked what parents should do if they have concerns about some of the books children may access in school libraries about homosexuality, sexual identity, and other issues that were around a generation ago, and before that, but less available than today.
Take the discussion to the schools, she said. The issues have been there, children are exposed to some version or another of them, but perhaps not the truth.
“Be more scared of not knowing truths,” she said.
Show the world as it is, history as it was, and reality as it will be. Arm the children of today with values along with awareness to prepare them for reality and the tools to make their way.
Both the left and right have extremists who are spouting ideological mindsets and hear only themselves. Better to be “reading dangerously” from a well-grounded and trustworthy platform of rationality and respectful of truth, education, informed discussion and listening to other enlightened voices.
It is a better alternative than total destruction of perceived enemies who are, in the real world, more like us than different from us. We will have change. Gradual and incremental change is better than none at all, and less destructive than speeding recklessly through mud puddles of radical actions and blinding us to the view ahead.
Dean Minnich retired from full-time newspaper work as the editorial page editor of the Carroll County Times.