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Salman Rushdie: The Antithesis to Moral Cowardice

(Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images)

Leading by example, Rushdie refuses to be intimidated into silence.”

No public figure alive today personifies the concept of freedom of speech quite like Salman Rushdie. This past Friday, the acclaimed author was stabbed multiple times while on stage exercising this fundamental liberal right in Chautauqua, New York. This was unequivocally an assault on free speech and, by extension, freedom itself. It serves as a reminder that an open society must defend its values.

A good place to start would be to insist that words never justify violence. But today we often hear that words are violence—literally. Thus, responding to words with violence becomes a matter of self-defense. Not only does this blur an important distinction in civil discourse; it also plays right into the hands of Muslim fanatics who believe that Rushdie deserves to die for writing a book they deem offensive.

Following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, Rushdie was forced into hiding due to credible threats on his life, most notably Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa, which called for his murder and the death of anyone involved in the publication of the book. The novel’s Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously wounded, and its Japanese translator was stabbed to death.

Although the fatwa was never formally rescinded, Rushdie emerged from hiding years ago. A staunch believer in—and defender of—free speech, he put his life on the line by appearing in public. He even mocked his murderous persecutors in an episode of the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. Playing himself, Rushdie instructs main protagonist Larry David (also playing himself) in the fatwa lifestyle, which, apparently, includes perks like “fatwa sex.”

Mockery can be an effective way to deal with fanatics of all persuasions. Whether they are Quran literalists or gung-ho transgender activists who believe that gender-critical discourse literally kills trans people, these groups have a sense of absolute certainty about the righteousness of their beliefs. Moreover, they insist that everyone abide by their rules. Transgressors are met with righteous indignation and, in extreme cases, violence. Their goal is to blackmail morally or intimidate dissenters into compliance. This makes it all the more important that we flout their rules and challenge their convictions with both argumentation and humor.

Leading by example, Rushdie refuses to be intimidated into silence. 

Following the attempt on Rushdie’s life, New York Governor Kathy Hochul commented: “He is an individual who has spent decades speaking truth to power. Someone who’s been out there unafraid despite the threats that have followed him his entire adult life.” And she vowed: “We are undeterred in our commitment to make sure that we call it out, we condemn what happened, we condemn all violence, and we want people to feel that freedom to speak and to write truth.”

We can only hope that this spirited and principled attitude becomes the norm whenever ideological censorship and violence threaten our right to freedom of expression. To quote comedian Andrew Doyle, “The horrific attack on Salman Rushdie is a reminder that we must never appease those who wish to deprive us of our freedoms.”.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch

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