What Rushdie understands, and what we should understand as well, is that the crucial issue wasn’t actually how the novelist had treated Islam’s prophet in the pages of “The Satanic Verses.” The real issue, instead, was the desire of Iran’s leaders to keep the flame of their revolution burning after the debacle of the Iran-Iraq War, the desire of Pakistan’s Islamists to test the religious bona fides of their country’s prime minister, and the desire of religious extremists in Britain to cast themselves as spokesmen for the Muslim community as a whole. (In this, some of them succeeded: Rushdie dryly notes that an activist who declared of the novelist that “death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him” would eventually be knighted “at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.”)…

Just as it was largely pointless, then, for the politicians of 1989 to behave as if an apology from Rushdie himself might make the protests subside (“It’s felt,” he recalls his handlers telling him, “that you should do something to lower the temperature”), it’s similarly pointless to behave as if a more restrictive YouTube policy or a more timely phone call from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the anti-Islam film’s promoters might have saved us from an autumn of unrest.

What we’re watching unfold in the post-Arab Spring Mideast is the kind of struggle for power that frequently takes place in a revolution’s wake: between secular and fundamentalist forces in Benghazi, between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals in Cairo, with similar forces contending for mastery from Tunisia to Yemen to the Muslim diaspora in Europe.