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Technology's impact on similar crises, two decades apart

The current anti-American tensions in the Middle East shows how much digital media impacts such crises when compared to the time of Salman Rushdie's Iranian fatwa in 1989.

Sree Sreenivasan
Sree, who teaches digital media at Columbia, is the university's first chief digital officer.
Sree Sreenivasan
4 min read
A screen grab of Libyan Alhurra TV, as collected on Buzzfeed, shows Libyans using the media to show that not all of them are involved in the anti-American attacks.

Technology and everyday tools that millions use are being blamed, in part, for the recent spate of attacks against U.S. embassies in the Middle East.

Social media and a YouTube video of an obscure, crudely-made trailer of an anti-Islam film have helped fan the flames of anti-American hatred that's always looking for an excuse to bubble up in some parts of the world.

It's these same tools, of course, that played such a critical role in helping the anti-dictator forces in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya over the last 20 months or so. Now we are seeing, again, how small ideas can spread far beyond where they may have gone in previous decades. [Be sure to read Charles Cooper's CNET News post on YouTube's dilemma in dealing with this controversy.]

All the negative and positive aspects of current media and technology shows how much has changed since a similar free-speech crisis involving Islam 24 years ago. But in making this comparison, I want to be clear that the only reason I am doing so is because of the free-speech issue and not to remotely suggest that this ridiculous trailer in any way is in the same league as the piece of literature I am bringing up now.

It was in September 1988 that the British edition of Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" was first published. Over the following few weeks, criticism from various people who claimed to speak for all Muslims started to come in (though it was clear most of them hadn't actually read the book). It wasn't until February of 1989 when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death that this story caught the world's attention.

In a coincidental parallel to the events in the Middle East now, Rushdie published a detailed account last week of the time he spent in hiding after the fatwa using the made-up name of Joseph Anton. He came up with the name by combining the first names of two writers he loved, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. The New Yorker magazine piece, an excerpt from his new book, "Joseph Anton: A Memoir," which is out this week, shows how much technology has changed.

For example, after the fatwa, he tells his ex-wife, Clarissa, and his nine-year-old son, Zafar, about a plan to communicate during the crisis:

"Will I see you tomorrow, Dad?"
He shook his head. "But I'll call you," he said. "I'll call you every evening at seven. If you're not going to be here," he told Clarissa, "please leave me a message on the answering machine at home and say when I should call."
This was early 1989. The terms "P.C.," "laptop," "mobile phone," "Internet," "WiFi," "SMS," and "e-mail" were either uncoined or very new. He did not own a computer or a mobile phone. But he did own a house, and in the house there was an answering machine, and he could call in and interrogate it, a new use of an old word, and get, no, retrieve, his messages. "Seven o'clock," he repeated. "Every night, O.K.?"
Zafar nodded gravely. "O.K., Dad."

This convoluted system, it turned out, worked fine, until it one day it didn't. Here's Rushdie, writing again in this unusual third-person voice:

He had his daily routine with Clarissa: At seven o'clock every evening, he would call to say hello to Zafar. If Clarissa couldn't be at home with Zafar at seven, she would leave a message on the St. Peter's Street answering machine telling him when they would be back. He called the Burma Road house. There was no reply. He left a message on Clarissa's machine and then interrogated his own. She had not left a message. Oh, well, he thought, they're a little late.
Fifteen minutes later, he called again. Nobody picked up. He called his own machine again: nothing there. Ten minutes later, he made a third call. Still nothing. It was almost seven-forty-five on a school night. It wasn't normal for them to be out so late. He called twice more in the next ten minutes. No response. Now he began to panic.

To see what happens next, you'll have to read the full piece or get the book.

Meanwhile, these two stories, two decades apart, have been brought together by the news that a foundation in Iran has revived the fatwa and increased the bounty on killing Rushdie to $3.3 million from $2.8 million.

I didn't see a response from Rushdie on Twitter (@SalmanRushdie), but he's one of the most compelling authors on the platform, often answering, retweeting and engaging with his followers. One can imagine how interesting it would have been for him to have Twitter at his disposal during his days in hiding.

Screenshot of @SalmanRushdie's Twitter feed, September 13, 2012.

Note to readers: Please post your thoughts in the comments below or e-mail me or tweet me at @sree or #sreetips on Twitter. If you've been reading my posts here, you know that one of the things I am trying to do is learn what works and what doesn't on social media. It's such a fast-evolving, confusing world that I believe we can all learn together. Thanks for reading.