When I first read that the now late Ayatollah Khomeini had sentenced Salman Rushdie to death, I, like most of you, reacted with both horror and disgust. The leader of Iran sent out an order to kill a citizen of the United Kingdom for something he wrote about Mohammed. This was as clear a violation of freedom of speech as I knew of. But then I came to the realization that we have taboos and blasphemies in the West just as they do in the Muslim world. Our taboos and blasphemies are simply different from theirs. Let mc give you two examples that I know of from working in academe.

The first concerns mass murder. In this century, there have been five major (I better say “alleged” here) mass murders: one, the killing of Armenians by Turks around 1915; two, the deaths caused by Stalin in the period 1928-1939, and perhaps even later; three, the Jewish holocaust before and during World War II; four, the deaths of many Chinese under Mao during the Great Leap Forward around 1960; and five, the deaths caused by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the period 1975-1978. There have also been “smaller” killings: the slaughter of Bahutu in Burundi in 1972; the mass killings in East Timor by the Indonesian army in the mid-1970’s; and the mass killing of Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s army between 1988 and 1991, etc.

There is not much literature about the mass murder of the Armenians because the data kept by the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Turkey at the time, are not very good; because the mass murder occurred during World War I, when there was much turmoil and chaos in Turkey; and because Turkey has not opened up its archives to external scrutiny, to mv knowledge. We therefore do not have good statistics on the massacre of Armenians in Turkey and have not had much debate about this genocide in the scholarly literature. By contrast, you can find a lively scholarly debate on the deaths caused by Stalin as well as by Mao and the Khmer Rouge.

That leaves us with the Jewish holocaust. I have not been able to find anything about this in the statistical and demographic literatures, where you would most expect to find it. At the same time, everybody seems to know that six million Jews were killed by the National Socialists of Germany before and during World War II. Six million is a number like any other number; you would expect to find an exhaustive analysis of it in the statistical and demographic literatures, but you don’t. The reason for this is that it is a taboo subject in the West. If you try to find out about the number, your colleagues will shun you. Worse, you might lose your job.

Let me mention how I discovered that this was a taboo subject. I once proposed to an editor of a leading demographic journal that I write a review of mass murder in the 20th century. Mass murder, after all, is a leading cause of mortality among some populations in some countries, and therefore is a subject of demography. He thought that would be a good idea. Then, I mentioned the Jewish holocaust, which had to be treated in any review of mass murder in this century. He got very nervous and said that my research into that wouldn’t be such a good idea.

My second example concerns the genetic differences between individual human beings or groups of human beings (for example, males and females, blacks and whites, whites and Asians, the rich and the poor, the upper class and the lower class, etc.). There has not been much discussion of genetic differences between human beings in the scholarly literature. In fact, if you delve into these matters in print, you can be sure that your colleagues will shun you. A colleague of mine told me that if there were such differences, then the social sciences would be finished. A professor at the City College of New York was actually formally censured by his colleagues for writing something on group differences in a scholarly journal, an incident, by the way, which was not covered by the New York Times (though the Times did cover it later on when the Jeffries case rolled around). By contrast, the New York Times has always given extensive coverage to the Rushdie affair, and still does (Rushdie is still in hiding, and the death threat is still in force).

Several officers of PEN, such as Norman Mailer and Frances Fitzgerald, have come to this campus in the past decade. As you know, PEN has been much involved with the Rushdie affair. But when they come here, they never inquire about censorship or self-censorship in academe. I don’t think they would believe this kind of censorship exists. They wouldn’t believe that there is a lack of academic freedom in America.

There probably are good reasons for not saying or debating certain things in print. The Muslims also probably have good reasons for not wanting to see certain things in print. But until we have a real freedom of speech, that is, until we can conduct research and debate freely in the West without formal censure or ostracism by our colleagues, only then can we criticize the Muslims for their reaction to Rushdie’s book, though we should criticize them for putting a price on his head.