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The Salman Rushdie Attack and the Protection of Free Speech

The need for courage in the face of censoriousness, intolerance, and violence.
August 15, 2022
The Salman Rushdie Attack and the Protection of Free Speech
Salman Rushdie, writer, Milan, Italy, 11th July 2010. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

The horrific attack on British-American novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie, who was repeatedly stabbed and severely injured during an event on Friday at the famed cultural center in Chautauqua, New York, is all the more shocking because it stems from a death sentence issued by a religious fanatic more than thirty years ago and widely assumed to be obsolete. It’s as if a long-forgotten monster in a tale of horror awakened and emerged from its lair to make a deadly strike.

The Indian-born Rushdie became the target of a fatwa—or decree—by then-Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in February 1989 because of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, regarded as sacrilegious by some Muslims (mainly because of a section describing a schizophrenic character’s dream visions reimagining the life of Mohammed). The book was banned in several countries and sparked deadly riots in India and Pakistan, but the fatwa took the backlash to a new level: Labeling the book “blasphemous,” Khomeini called for the execution of Rushdie and anyone associated with the book’s publication and urged faithful Muslims everywhere to do what they could to help carry out the sentence. With a bounty of about $2 million on his head, Rushdie went into hiding and lived under police protection for nearly ten years, moving from place to place until he settled in a fortified safehouse. In July 1991, The Satanic Verses’ Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was fatally stabbed in Tokyo, while Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was beaten and attacked with a knife in Milan.

Later on, Iranian leadership sent ambiguous signals. In 1998, while pursuing the resumption of diplomatic ties with the UK, Iran’s relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami and foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi said that the government no longer supported the killing of Rushdie. But the fatwa was not revoked; in 2006, the Iranian state news agency confirmed that “the fatwa by Imam Khomeini in regards to the apostate Salman Rushdie will be in effect forever,” and in 2012 a quasi-official Iranian religious foundation increased the bounty to $3.3 million.

Nonetheless, Rushdie, now 75, resumed a public life—at first with armed bodyguards, then without. With characteristic dry wit, he referred to the fatwa, issued on February 14, as his “unfunny Valentine,” and to the annual notes he continued to receive from an Iranian foundation reminding him that the sentence was still in place as a “sort of Valentine’s card.” He also said that “it’s reached the point where it’s a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.” Everyone else made the same assumption. Three years ago when I went to a Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) event in New York where Rushdie was the keynote speaker, a friend brought up safety concerns and I thought she was being paranoid. I actually ended up riding in the elevator with Rushdie; there didn’t seem to be any security personnel. There were, apparently, none in Chautauqua close enough to protect Rushdie.

Whether the assailant, 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, had any connection to any Iranian organization or was acting alone is still unknown. However, Matar’s internet footprint apparently shows sympathies to the Shia radicalism represented by Khomeini, and on Sunday Vice reported that intelligence officials in Europe and the Middle East say that he had been “in direct contact with members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on social media.” Matar, who was born in the United States but whose family hails from Lebanon, may also have been in contact with the pro-Iran militant group Hezbollah.

Matar has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and assault. Meanwhile, Rushdie remains in critical condition; while he is no longer on a ventilator, is able to speak, and reportedly has not lost his sense of humor, his road to recovery is likely to be an arduous one, and he is likely to suffer some permanent damage, perhaps including the loss of an eye. And, while the government in Iran has remained quiet, many pro-regime media outlets have praised the attack.

Whatever the specific facts turn out to be, Rushdie’s attempted assassination brings to the fore the threat of militant Islamism, as well as more general threats to freedom of expression.

In recent years, Islamist terror has receded somewhat from the spotlight in the United States, overshadowed by far-right domestic extremism (and, to some extent, less deadly but still dangerous and disruptive violence on the far left) and by the emergence of Russia as a military threat and arguably a sponsor of terrorism. But the fact is that, as the Rushdie stabbing amply demonstrates, violent Islamist militancy hasn’t gone away.

It’s an uncomfortable subject for many people because it can easily lend itself to blanket attacks on Islam and general Muslim-bashing of the kind propagated by far-right figures like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, or David Horowitz, embraced by many mainstream conservatives during the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy in 2010, relentlessly flogged by Breitbart News, and championed by Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election (and beyond). It should be noted, by the way, that it’s a stance Rushdie has never embraced, despite having a far more valid grievance against Islamist extremism than any of the Muslim-bashers.

There is no question that militant anti-Islamists are purveyors of a repulsive bigotry that threatens religious liberty (some of its adherents, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Trump strategist Steve Bannon, have openly argued that Islam is not a “real” religion and thus presumably doesn’t deserve First Amendment protections), smears Muslims en masse, and in some cases has led to terror attacks such as the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand. “Anti-jihadist” websites have espoused the idea that even perfectly peaceful and moderate Muslims are a potential threat because either they or their children could always turn extremist. These sites also peddle paranoid conspiracy theories that detect “creeping sharia” in the West and blame various mass shootings and other violent acts on Islamist terror attacks supposedly covered up by the FBI.

And yet one can condemn the paranoia and hate while recognizing that violent Islamist militancy is a real issue. Of course, religious fanaticism is hardly unique to Islam; we have all seen ample evidence of Christian extremism in recent years, and one can also point to examples in Hinduism and Judaism. But, aside from complicated arguments about whether Islam is more susceptible to violent extremism than other religions because of scripture and history, the reality is that today, for whatever reason, extreme views (e.g., that blasphemers and apostates should be put to death) are far closer to the mainstream in many majority-Muslim cultures than in any majority-Christian society. The reality is also that Islamist extremism is connected to a terror network spread across a number of countries and can be appealing to disaffected young people; Matar may have been one such recruit. Being aware of the threat of violence from the far right doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down regarding the threat from militant Islamists.

The question of Islamist extremism also intersects with that of free speech vs. religious and cultural sensitivities. At the time of the initial Rushdie fatwa, a few liberals, notably including former President Jimmy Carter, made noises about the need to acknowledge The Satanic Verses’ “direct insult” to the sacred beliefs of millions of Muslims while defending Rushdie’s First Amendment rights and abhorring the fatwa. They were joined, incidentally, by Pat Buchanan, the granddaddy of “national conservatism,” who slammed Rushdie as a “trendy leftist” who had penned “a blasphemous assault on the faith of hundreds of millions.” (Fifteen years later, Buchanan was still on Rushdie’s case, arguing that we have no business exporting a notion of freedom that upholds Rushdie’s right to publish a blasphemous book.)

The same questions flared up most recently in discussions of the violent backlash against the Mohammed cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2006 and of the 2015 attack on the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris—also in response to Mohammed cartoons—in which twelve people were killed and eleven injured. By 2015, the progressive left was much more vocally in the “yes, murder is bad, but offensive cartoons are also bad” camp, with a particular emphasis on the idea that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical irreverence was wrong because it supposedly targeted a vulnerable and “marginalized” group (i.e., French Muslims).

Vox’s Max Fisher, who initially penned a warm defense of the magazine for its defense of progressive cultural values, quickly reversed himself and declared that Charlie Hebdo was enabling racism even if it didn’t mean to (because its cartoons intended to mock racist stereotypes could be misread as endorsements of those stereotypes) and that its jabs at religious intolerance in conservative Islam amounted to “punching down” by privileged white men. Similar views were expressed by, among others, science fiction writer Saladin Ahmed in the New York Times and Jeopardy champion-turned-social justice pundit Arthur Chu in the Daily Beast. Several month later, venerable liberal cartoonist Gary Trudeau gave a talk railing against “free speech absolutists” and accusing Charlie Hebdo of “wandering into the realm of hate speech” by “attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” When the PEN American Center gave its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the anti-Charlie faction was out in force: The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi withdrew from the PEN gala.

Salman Rushdie had something to say about that:

Of course, the debate about freedom of speech, “punching down,” and claims of harm to marginalized people is not limited to the religious sensitivities of Muslims or other believers. In the wake of the Rushdie stabbing, Greg Lukianoff and Robert Shibley, the president and executive director of FIRE (recently rebranded as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), wrote in the Daily Beast that the Rushdie stabbing illustrated the danger of the view that offensive speech constitutes a form of “violence” or “harm,” which implicitly validates a violent response. (As Lukianoff and Shibley point out, close to one in four college students  surveyed last year believe it is at least sometimes acceptable to use violence to shut down a campus speech.) Bari Weiss made a similar point: “Words are not violence. Violence is violence.”

Of course, the overwhelming majority of progressives who talk about the “harms” of what they regard as hateful or bigoted speech would say that they absolutely condemn and reject violence; indeed, the writers who victim-blamed the Charlie Hebdo attack stressed that they regarded it as wrong and even “hideous.” To defend deplatforming, firing, or ostracizing people with “bad” opinions is (obviously!) not the same as to defend shooting or stabbing them. One could even argue that turning the Rushdie attack into an occasion to denounce “cancel culture” or to criticize non-violent speech regulation by private entities smacks of exploiting a tragedy for political point-scoring.

But here’s the thing: Rushdie himself has always seen such speech policing as intrinsically connected to his own battles, as his appearance at the 2019 FIRE gala made clear. (“The only safe space that is needed at university,” Rushdie said at the time, “is the space in which all ideas can be discussed, because if you can’t do that, then there is no such thing as a university.”) In July 2020, Rushdie was among the co-signers of the controversial Harper’s magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which warned that the demands for racial and social justice, however laudable, were intensifying a climate of left-wing “censoriousness” to complement right-wing Trumpian illiberalism: “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” This climate, the letter warned, was detrimental to “free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society.” (Full disclosure: I was also among the signers.)

In response, numerous critics on the left offered variations on the argument by Bloomberg opinion columnist Pankaj Mishra that the prominent writers who signed the letter were simply defending “the prerogative of famous and powerful people to speak at length on all sorts of things without interruption or disagreement”—a rather bizarre suggestion to make about Rushdie, or fellow signers Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, and Garry Kasparov. In the Atlantic, culture writer Hannah Giorgis wrote that Harper’s letter-style “defenses of ‘free speech’ have often been wielded by people in positions of power in response to critics who want to hold them accountable for the real-life harm their words might cause.” (It’s worth noting that the concept of “harm” implicit in such statements is by no meant limited to fairly clear-cut cases, such as incitement or justification of violence, slander, or objectively dangerous misinformation.) On Twitter, those associated with the letter were accused of wanting to have free speech without “consequences,” or, as New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb put it in a since-deleted tweet, “with impunity.” Such wording implies that “bad” opinions deserve not just disagreement or criticism, but punishment.

No, of course the people offering such critiques do not mean violent punishment. But they are still expressing an intolerant, speech-suppressing view deeply inimical to Rushdie’s defense of free speech, and they are often cavalier about threats of violence in response to supposedly “harmful” words. A number of critics of the Harper’s letter, for instance, derided the idea that Jeanine Cummins, the author of the 2020 novel American Dirt (vilified for supposed cultural insensitivities in a deeply sympathetic depiction of Mexican migrants) was a “cancellation” victim, since the novel was published and sold briskly; but they omitted the fact that Cummins’s book tour was canceled due to threats and safety concerns.

Rushdie, it should be noted, has been merciless in his excoriation of Trump-era far-right authoritarianism as the preeminent threat to democracy. But, just as he has been able to condemn both Islamist fanaticism and Muslim-bashing, he has been able to condemn left-wing illiberalism along with the right-wing kind. The best we can do is follow his example—by emulating his intellectual integrity—and hope that his voice of moral clarity will be with us for a long time.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.