In a recent episode in the long battle of repressive powers against the free human spirit that questions the existing order, Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 against Salman Rushdie. Khomeini deemed the British author's "Satanic Verses" blasphemous and offensive and, brushing aside Rushdie's apology, called on every Muslim "to send him to Hell."
The call for Rushdie's assassination was issued against the backdrop of Iran's unrelenting harassment of its religious minorities, including fellow Muslims of the Sunni tradition. To this day, the 1 million-strong Sunni community of Tehran is denied the right to build a single mosque in the city.
This month, in an ironic twist that came on the 19th anniversary of the ayatollah's death on June 3, the late Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini's "Testament" was found subversive and banned in Russia. According to Russia's Islamic Committee, two young court experts concluded that the work, "addressed almost 30 years ago by a dying leader to the Iranian people" and translated into many languages and studied by Iranians and Iran specialists around the world, amounts to "an incitement to violence and reprisals, dangerous now for Russian citizens." On the basis of that ruling, "Testament" was added to the federal list of publications considered extremist and illegal under Russian law.
Leaving aside the quirks of fate, the ban is likely to infuriate many in Iran. The figure of Ayatollah Khomeini still commands respect across a wide spectrum of Iranian society. But more crucially, perhaps, the banning of "Testament" -- alongside some 150 other publications -- speaks volumes about the Russian state today. For years, the Kremlin has been accused of backsliding on democracy, resorting to indiscriminate violence in its domestic conflicts, rolling back the fundamental human rights of the Russian people. The list of banned materials is more tangible and irrefutable evidence of Russia's increasing encroachment on fundamental principles of democracy.
The growing list, moreover, reveals the innate fears and insecurity of the present leadership in Russia. Truly free and democratic states don't resort easily to restrictions on expression, however distasteful the material might seem to certain individuals, young or old, expert or layman.
Such lessons are not new. In 1821, reflecting on the burning of the Koran during the Spanish Inquisition, German poet Heinrich Heine wrote insightfully, "Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people."
In Germany a little over a century later, a massive bonfire raged in Berlin for the ceremonial burning of thousands of books that didn't jibe with Nazi views, including works by Heine but also those by Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Erich Maria Remarque, and even H.G. Wells, one of the fathers of modern science fiction.
The employment of banishment tactics in the Internet age is not only unwise, it is nearly impossible. Advances in digital technologies have empowered people enormously. There are hundreds of electronic libraries on the web in many languages, and anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can download almost any content -- text, video, photos, multimedia -- in a matter of a few minutes.
As one seasoned American academic put it: "Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost."
The authorities in Iran and Russia would be well advised to listen.
Aslan Doukaev is the director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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