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The Appalling Attack on Salman Rushdie Is an Attack on Free Speech

Salman Rushdie has spent decades campaigning for free speech. The attempt on his life came amid a crack down on freedom of expression around the world.

David Levenson/Getty Images
Salman Rushdie at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in England in October 2019

The appalling knife attack on Salman Rushdie while he was speaking in Chautauqua, New York is a throwback to the violence that followed the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and his book, The Satanic Verses, in 1989.  Rushdie was attacked and severely injured by a 24-year-old man from New Jersey. Little is publicly known about the assailant at this writing except that he was not even born until several years after the issuance of the fatwa. At that time, many people died in communal violence in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; bookstores in Britain and the United States were bombed and burned; and Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived, as did his Italian translator, who was stabbed. Rushdie’s Japanese translator was also stabbed, in 1991. He died.

Intimidated by the violence, the leading bookstore chains in the United States stopped carrying Rushdie’s book. The Satanic Verses is a comic novel that had been enthusiastically reviewed when it was first published in Britain in the fall of 1988. Some leading critics called it a masterpiece. On the other hand, the book caused offense among many groups. Seven thousand Muslims in Bolton in England staged a protest, followed by a book burning. They objected particularly to the use of the names of two of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives to identify two prostitutes and to Rushdie’s depiction of the removal of verses from the Quran because the Prophet considered that they came from the devil. Several countries, from India to Venezuela, banned the book over the following year. And in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, denouncing the book as blasphemous, issued the fatwa. Calling for the murder of Rushdie and others associated with publication of the book, the fatwa was accompanied by the offer of a multimillion dollar reward by a government-connected Iranian foundation.

Proponents of freedom of speech and the press were horrified. The fatwa threatened not only Rushdie and those associated with The Satanic Verses, but freedom of expression more broadly. If Khomeini and the government of Iran could suppress a book by threatening and carrying out violence against an author, publishers, translators and bookstores, what was to stop repressive regimes in different parts of the world from blocking more publications that offended them? Many leading authors took part in protests against the fatwa. I recall speaking at an event sponsored by PEN in New York a few days after issuance of the fatwa in which the other speakers included Susan Sontag, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and E.L. Doctorow. Many prominent writers in other parts of the world, including Nadine Gordimer, Günter Grass, and Wole Soyinka, also denounced the fatwa. Christopher Hitchens, who became a friend of Rushdie, denounced Islamic fundamentalism and made that an important theme of his writing in his later years.

Not everyone criticized the fatwa. Roald Dahl attacked Rushdie for insulting Muslims. John le Carré at first criticized Rushdie and then thought better of the matter. Former President Jimmy Carter, who had been known during his presidency as a champion of human rights, did not support the fatwa but berated Rushdie for his insensitivity.

I got a glimpse of the way that the fatwa affected Rushdie himself. He lived in London under heavy police guard for nine years until changes in the Iranian government, indicating that it was no longer so intent on carrying out the fatwa, enabled him to travel and to mingle with others more or less freely. During the period that he was guarded closely by the British police, one of those with whom he kept in contact was Frances D’Souza, then the Executive Director of Article 19—a London-based organization that promotes freedom of speech worldwide (it is named for the provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that is intended to protect freedom of speech). Frances, now Baroness D’Souza, also created and directed the Rushdie Defence Committee. The location and configuration of her London home made it one of the few places in the city that Rushdie’s police protectors thought he could visit safely. As a friend of Frances D’Souza, and as the Vice Chair of Article 19, I sometimes went there for dinner when I was in London. On two occasions that I remember, Rushdie was also a dinner guest. I recall that on one of the occasions that I went there, it seemed that the entire neighborhood was under close police guard. When we were having dinner, I was aware that there was a large police presence in the next room as we ate and there were probably also police outside the house. Salman Rushdie had no possibility of living anything like a normal life during that period. As the attack on him in Chautauqua indicates, of course, the danger to him has never gone away.

When the threat to Rushdie’s life seemed to ebb, he relocated to the United States, became an American citizen, and has lived here without visible protection. He has published several additional books and has been an active campaigner for freedom of speech. He served for a period as President of American PEN and, in that role, enhanced the reputation of the century-old writers’ organization as a defender of freedom of expression. In Chautauqua, he was to speak on providing refuge and support for exiled writers.

This is a bad time for advocates of freedom of speech, both globally and in the United States. Globally, autocratic and authoritarian governments have been on the rise; the longer they stay in power, the more they crack down on freedom of speech. An example is the recently adopted law in Russia providing prison sentences of up to 15 years for those who call the “special military operation” in Ukraine a war or an invasion. The country’s best known peaceful dissenter, Alexei Navalny, is serving a harsh prison sentence. And the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Dmitry Muratov, has had to shut down his newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

Unfortunately, Russia is far from alone among important governments that have become increasingly authoritarian. Here in the United States, many states and localities have adopted measures that limit what may be said in classrooms, and what publications may appear in school libraries. Discussion of race discrimination or of gender and sexuality are the main targets. Any suggestion that the country’s history is flawed is under attack in more than half the states.

The attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie is an ominous development. It will be difficult for him to recover from the ghastly wounds inflicted upon him. It will also be difficult for the rest of us to recover from this attack on a writer who has become the leading symbol and champion of freedom of expression.