Salman Rushdie, that hypocritical anti-Westerner and trendy leftist, has these days taught us several lessons.

Our literary establishment believes in absolutes. At least in one absolute: "the absolute right of free expression and free inquiry."Self-evident (if not absolute) this truth may be to us, it is not self-evident to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Or to millions of Moslems.

Most places on earth do not believe in the absolute right of free expression and free inquiry. In historical perspective, the idea is a relatively new one. The Ayatollah is quite right: It is a Western idea.

And so, maybe the world does need the West after all. Certainly Rushdie does. And so do other writers and thinkers.

Which makes it odd that so many writers and professors have for some years preferred Third-Worldism to the West. One writer called the white race "the cancer of the human race." Others say the West should not "impose" its values on the Third World. But now, thanks to Rushdie, Western writers do want to impose their values on the Third World.

It is not enough to learn about the precious values that some Westerners forget, when speaking ill of the West. It is also necessary to learn why other cultures do not share these values.

Rushdie has taught us that, on some crucial matters, cultures are not equal. On some matters and in certain dimensions, some cultures are better than others. Those that protect free inquiry and free expression are better, for example.

Some differences are worth dying for. Free inquiry is one such. Free expression is another.

Already many Moslems have expressed shame at the Ayatollah's murderous threats. Powerful reasons exist for respecting free inquiry and free expression, and most of the world - even against the grain of native customs or ideologies - is coming to appreciate those reasons. Glasnost itself bows to them.

Here in America, at least, our framers conceived of an experiment in "ordered liberty," a liberty confirmed in law and self-control, and guided by temperance, justice, courage and wisdom.

The reason we believe in free inquiry and free expression is that the mind by its nature seeks the truth; therefore, it can be trusted, even though it often errs. Given more stimulation, it is more likely to sail straight as an arrow.

The reason for free expression and free inquiry is so that reflection and choice may be practiced in as wide a field as possible, and so that truth may be singled out amidst error. But truth, reflection and choice are to be served in a spirit of respect.

And that is the final lesson Rushdie teaches us. Yes, he has a right to free expression and free inquiry - at least among us he has that right. But for causing pain and embarrassment to millions of his fellow Moslems, for the outrage of mocking (even in a literary dream) the founder of their religion, he does not win our respect.

He is free to write what he believes. But we are also free to withhold from him our respect. Free expression invites freely given disappointment. Protect him, yes; respect what he wrote, no.