Salman Rushdie was knighted recently in Great Britain, setting off reactions from the Muslim community. In retaliation, the fatwa was renewed. Rushdie's life is now in danger because he dared to write a novel about the nature of religion and happened to use Islam as his target.
In this article, the Muslims come off as big whiners--after all, religions are often the target of authors. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy attacks Christianity in a very pointed way, as does Towing Jehovah. I'm sure there have been lots of angry people who condemned those books. But nobody wants to kill them.
The death threat is similar to the fundamentalists who want to bomb abortion clinics and the like--they feel that if they can remove the source of that which is to their beliefs (Salman Rushdie, doctors who preform abortions), then their belief systems will be in some way validated as the one true belief system.
In his talk on the role of the writer (which I attended), Rushdie described writers as people who push the establishment, which always pushes back. Depending on the skill of the writer and what they are pushing, it can be a big push with a big reaction, or merely a small push. I wondered at the time if this was merely a romantic notion of authorship--my jaded, postmodern self didn't think that a writer could make that big of a difference. But then I was struck by what Rushdie has endured for writing The Satanic Verses--persecution, death threats, forced hiding, and when honored with knighthood for his contribution to art the leaders of Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc call for its revocation--I realized that he is living this idea. Because he dared to push the establishment, many Muslims around the world hate him, and many want him dead.
Art isn't tame. It's a dangerous creature, capable of sparking debate, controversy, and anger to those who are willing to use their art to push politically, socially, or culturally. I use this site to keep track of literary censorship in schools, and it's amazing how much art can anger and upset parents and school administrators.
So perhaps artists (and maybe comedians too: see John Stewart and Steven Colbert) can keep pushing the establishment toward change. Rushdie is willing to risk his life to push, and even if he is honored in the attempt, he still has a violent and upset group of people after him.