Morgentaler v. Rushdie: A Tale of Two Public Trials

Both spent the better part of their lives in the limelight, and were recently adorned with the highest honor of the land. But among a transatlantic community of common roots, one courted controversy and faced government persecution, while the other wallowed in constant public praise and state adoration.

This month, Canadian physician and abortion advocate Henry Morgentaler won the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. One year ago, British novelist Salman Rushdie was accorded the U.K. equivalent, a knighthood. The public involvement of both men and the subject matter of their work or activism are quite distinct but their life trajectories share common features. If any lessons can be drawn from comparing the public perceptions that accompanied these trajectories, it is this: Winning a case in the court of public opinion may have little to do with one’s courage to change the status quo, and everything to do with whose status quo one is challenging.

1) Both Morgentaler and Rushdie challenged the status quo and offended the sentiments of a religious establishment and its followers. Rushdie incurred the wrath of devout Muslims when they learned of his blasphemous novel Satanic Verses. He was largely maligned in the press in the Muslim and Arab world. Morgentaler infuriated do-good Christians and was vilified among Christian conservative circles and the right-wing press.

2) Both went through personal trials and tribulations and at times, their lives were in immanent danger. Rushdie was “sentenced” to death by the head of the Iranian state Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and lived in hiding for many years fearing for his life. (The U.K. government spent an estimated 10 million pounds to protect him.) Meanwhile, Morgentaler was arrested and jailed by the Canadian authorities, was physically attacked by a disgruntled “pro-life” activist, and one of his abortion clinics was bombed in the early 90’s

3) Both men became household names in the course of their attempt to uphold what they believed in. The Ayatollah’s verdict against the Indian-born novelist catapulted Rushdie to fame and turned his works into international bestsellers. Morgentaler’s refusal to abide by Canadian law and his outspoken public appearances rallied millions to his cause and transformed him into the poster child of the pro-choice camp.

4) Finally, both men eventually won official recognition for their lifetime achievements. However, the apparent commonality between the legacies of both men does not seem to translate to the way their work is debated in public. Knighting Rushdie was reduced from an acknowledgement of a life-time of storytelling to an enlightened celebration of freedom of speech against the dark forces of a backward and intolerant religious doctrine. Reporting his knighthood was rarely mentioned without an immediate reference to the death “fatwa” against him. If there were any dissenting voices or critiques of the wisdom of the decision to knight him (while decrying that of calling for his death), they belonged outside the polity of rational discourse and tolerance of the other, to a place where rage easily supplants reason and anger replaces anxiety, in short, to that imagined community of a monolithic Islamic culture, where disputes are restricted to mob gatherings on the street or to declarations of jihad on obscure websites or by state-sponsored religious institutions. Meanwhile, the decision to anoint Morgentaler as a civil hero was rarely portrayed as a long overdue celebration of women’s rights without being cited as controversial. Opposition to granting him the order, even from religious groups, fell within the realm of freedom of opinion, not religious fanaticism or sexism and intolerance.

The stark gap between the framing of each debate is hard to reconcile with perceived notions of fair and balanced public discourse in the “free” world. But it is more understandable once we recognize that what matters is whose ideals each man was undermining. The doctor was in the beast’s belly while fighting to cure one of its ills, while the literary critic chose to point at the ills of the beast next door, while playing down the ills of those hailing him for speaking out. All of this is neither to rank the achievements of either man nor to incriminate them in the slightest way. They lived the life they believed in. It is simply to remind ourselves that double standards of judgment are alive and well amongst us and that in the court of public opinion, all too often, the real culprits may be none other than…the members of the jury.

The author wishes to thank Diana Younes for her helpful insights and valuable feedback on the subject.

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