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. 7000 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 Koran 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, Dimitry 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.

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