Douglas Andrews / August 15, 2022

Why Salman Rushdie Matters

The world’s most notable champion of free speech was nearly assassinated on Friday in New York.

Let’s start with a backhanded compliment to our friends on the Left: When they’re hell-bent on silencing speech they don’t like, they tend to merely shame or censor it rather than try to stab the life out of it. And that’s the big difference between a 24-year-old assailant from New Jersey and the speech suppressors in Big Tech, Big Media, and the Democrat Party.

The knifeman (to borrow the Left’s formulation for guns), appears to have failed in his attempt to assassinate award-winning author and alleged blasphemer of Islam Salman Rushdie on Friday, but not for lack of effort. Rushdie, who’s long been the world’s most recognizable advocate of free speech and free expression, has been a marked man ever since the publication of his book The Satanic Verses in 1988. Indeed, a year after the novel’s release, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwah calling for Rushdie’s death — a fatwah that has never been lifted. His assailant is not Iranian but is reportedly “sympathetic to the Iranian government” and to “Shia extremism more broadly.” That’s how the borderless Jihadistan works.

Meanwhile, just last week, the Justice Department announced charges against Shahram Poursafi, a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for allegedly offering $300,000 to hire someone to murder former National Security Advisor John Bolton and another $1 million for a future “job,” which is believed to be a hit on former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

It’s hard to know how this Iran-caused mayhem will affect Joe Biden’s efforts to restore that disastrous Iran nuke deal from the Obama era. But the Iranians are clearly paying attention. “Iran denied any involvement Monday in last week’s attack,” reports The Washington Post. “In its first public reaction to the stabbing, Iran said Rushdie and his supporters were to blame for the attack, more than three decades after Tehran issued a directive for Muslims to kill Rushdie because of … ‘The Satanic Verses.’”

It’s difficult here in the West to fathom all this fuss over a work of fiction. Still, some Muslims believe Rushdie “insulted the Prophet Muhammad by naming a character Mahound, a medieval corruption of ‘Muhammad,’” as the AP reports. “Another sequence includes prostitutes that share names with some of Muhammad’s nine wives. The novel also implies that Muhammad, not Allah, may have been the Quran’s real author.”

Needless to say, religious tolerance isn’t a towering strength of radical Islam. Accordingly, one Iranian religious institution put a $2.8 million bounty on Rushdie’s head — a bounty that it increased to $3.3 million in 2012. We should recall, too, how deadly this fatwah has been, even if it hasn’t yet claimed Rushdie. As the Spectator’s Alexander Larman writes: “[The fatwah] began a tidal wave of violence that included Rushdie’s Japanese translator being murdered, his Italian translator being seriously injured and his Norwegian publisher being shot. There was even a massacre in Turkey, resulting in the deaths of 37 people, and the intended target, Rushdie’s translator Aziz Nesin, only escaped death because his would-be assailants were unable to recognize him.”

Ironically, Rushdie was at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York to speak on the topic of “the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers” when he was set upon by the assailant, who rushed the stage and stabbed him repeatedly before finally being subdued. It speaks poorly of the security posture there that an assailant was able to get to the author as easily as he did.

Rushdie was treated there on the blood-spattered stage before being airlifted to a hospital in nearby Jamestown. He was removed from a ventilator on Saturday and is now able to talk. Literary agent Andrew Wylie said that although Rushdie’s condition is “headed in the right direction,” the AP report notes that the 75-year-old author’s recovery “would be long” because he “suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and in an eye that he was likely to lose.”

We on the Right have very little in common with Rushdie politically. Or so we might think. Like most artists and literary personalities, he’s a committed liberal in every sense of the word. But our beliefs intersect in the most important area of all: free speech. And that makes Rushdie more of a classical liberal than the speech-suppressing progressives of today. “Free speech is the whole thing,” Rushdie once said, “the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.” Drilling down to its essence, he also said, “Without the freedom to offend, [free speech] ceases to exist.” Who can argue with him?

Could it be that Rushdie and other traditional liberals are actually more conservative than they’d care to admit? “Two things form the bedrock of any open society,” he once said, “freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.”

Here again, Rushdie is spot-on, although we’d add the right to defend oneself as part of that bedrock, that essence of Western civilization.

“Though his life changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty and defiant sense of humor remains intact,” said Rushdie’s son Zafar on behalf of the author’s family. The statement also expressed gratitude for the “audience members who bravely leapt to his defense,” as well as police, doctors, and “the outpouring of love and support.”

As the Spectator’s Larman concludes, the attack is “a salutary reminder that acts done out of extremism continue to plague the world, and that this latest high-profile outrage is both terrifying and deeply sad in what it portends.”

Now more than ever, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who support free speech, and those who attempt to suppress it. And that’s why Salman Rushdie matters.


*Updated to include some quotes from Rushdie on free speech and open societies.

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