The shameful attack on Salman Rushdie
(Credit: Getty images)
13 August 2022
We are all praying that Salman Rushdie will be okay. What happened in Chautauqua in New York today is indescribably appalling. An author, a man, stabbed in the neck just as he was about to speak on freedom of expression. This attack is a vile affront to liberty and to the principles of an open society.
Much remains unknown. We don’t know what condition Rushdie is in: he was last seen being carried on a stretcher to an air ambulance. And we don’t know anything about the attacker or the motivation. But there are things we do know. We know that for more than 30 years Rushdie has lived in the shadow of a despicable fatwa issued by Iran. We know that Rushdie became Public Enemy No. 1 for many radical Islamists following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. And we know that, far too often, intellectuals here in the West failed to make a full-throated defence of Rushdie’s freedom of expression. It is our pressing duty now to reflect on all of this.
It remains to be seen whether Rushdie’s attacker was inspired by the fatwa: whether they were simply crazy or deluded in a way that had nothing to do with religion. But it is the threat of precisely this kind of attack that has overshadowed Rushdie’s life since first becoming victim to the 1989 attempt to silence him. In a world in which many people, from Islamists to identitarians, assume they have a right not to be offended, it was only a matter of time before physical force was used against those who offend.
That was always the chilling thing about Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie. It actually chimed with developments here in the West. It looked and sounded like an alien edict – what kind of society calls on people to ‘kill without delay’ a man whose only crime was to write a novel? – and yet it sat creepily well with a growing conviction in Western society that it is unacceptable to offend minority groups and religions.
Iran’s issuing of the fatwa coincided with our own institutionalisation of the idea of ‘Islamophobia’ – the idea that criticising a religion should be ranked alongside racism as a form of bigotry. So from the East we had a severe religious elder issuing a death warrant for a writer who allegedly insulted Islam, while here at home we had respectable thinkers and activists telling us it is ‘phobic’ and maybe even socially destabilising to insult Islam.
Both old-world religious hotheads and Oxbridge-educated liberals ended up saying the same thing: don’t insult Islam. And if you do, we will punish you – either with death (Iran’s preferred outcome) or expulsion from campuses and social media and polite society (our own cancel culture’s preferred outcome).
This was always the strange pincer movement that Rushdie has been squeezed by. Intolerant Iranian officials on one side, cowardly Western intellectuals on the other, both failing, in different ways, to defend Rushdie’s fundamental right to use his creative imagination to whatever ends he wished. Rushdie may have been horribly menaced by Iranian extremists, but he was let down, far too frequently, by supposed liberals here in the West. The latter, in some ways, is more unforgivable than the former.
We will know soon whether today’s grim act of violence is related to the fatwa, but let us wait to find out. However, let us not wait before we assert, loudly and unapologetically, that freedom of expression is the most important right in a civilised society. That the right of the individual to think and say and write whatever he pleases must always take precedence over other people’s right not to be offended.
Salman, all good people wish you the speediest of recoveries. May you soon return to writing anything that you want to write. And let us hope that an army of freedom-lovers will defend you as you do so