The attack on Salman Rushdie is the latest clash in the battle of the ages: peaceful speech versus those who want to control everyone's thoughts with violence.
They didn’t kill Salman Rushdie. Good. The bastards can’t have him.
These days, the “War on Terror” seems like a distant memory. Children born after 9/11 are old enough to vote. The U.S. is finally out of Iraq and Afghanistan. American politics has moved on from the days when radical Islam was the chief enemy, and the culture war is fought over new causes du jour.
However, the threat of murderous extremism isn’t past. The world had a brutal reminder of that last week, when Salman Rushdie was gravely wounded and almost murdered by a violent fanatic.
The shocking attack took place at a literary festival in Chautauqua, New York. In a black irony, Rushdie had been just about to deliver a talk about the US as a safe haven for writers, when a knife-wielding man rushed the stage and assaulted him. Rushdie was stabbed multiple times before the attacker was subdued. He was severely injured and airlifted to a hospital, but according to his son Zafar Rushdie, he’s out of danger and able to speak, although he has a long recovery ahead.
Rushdie’s accused attacker, Hadi Matar, has pled not guilty and hasn’t made any statement, but it’s not hard to guess what the motive might have been. Matar’s mother, who’s culturally Muslim but not strictly religious, said her son was radicalized after a trip to the Middle East, becoming reclusive and angry.
‘One time he argued with me asking why I encouraged him to get an education instead of focusing on religion. He was angry that I did not introduce him to Islam from a young age,’ Silvana added.“Distraught mother of alleged Iranian sympathizer accused of trying to murder Salman Rushdie says her son returned home as religious zealot after a month-long trip to the Middle East and says he is ‘responsible for his actions’.” Ben Ashford, Daily Mail, 16 August 2022.
Rushdie has had a price on his head since 1988, when his novel The Satanic Verses infuriated Islamic fundamentalists. The book retells an episode from the life of the Prophet Mohammed, attested to by several early biographies, in which he gave Muslims permission to worship pagan goddesses, then revoked it with the excuse that he was duped by false revelations from Satan.
Islamic clerics were enraged by the suggestion that their prophet was human and not infallible, and violent riots and book burnings erupted throughout the Muslim world. Two translators of the book were stabbed, one fatally. Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill Rushdie and offered a $3 million bounty for his assassination.
Rushdie lived in hiding for years, but as time passed and there was no more violence, the danger seemed to recede. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that religious fanatics are good at, it’s holding on to their hatred. Although Iran downplays it somewhat, Khomeini’s fatwa has never been revoked (according to them, a fatwa can only be canceled by the person who issued it, and Khomeini died without taking it back), and it only takes one person to act on it.
Although Rushdie survived the attack, and so the fatwa remains technically unfulfilled, the reaction from certain quarters of the Islamic world was joyous. Hezbollah hailed the “holy stabbing“. The reaction from Iranian media was likewise celebratory:
Iran, the semi-official newspaper of the regime… rejoiced that “the devil’s neck” was “struck with a razor”… [and] the ultraconservative newspaper Kayhan pronounc[ed] a blessing… on “the hand of the man who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife.”“The Immortal Salman Rushdie.” Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Atlantic, 17 August 2022.
It’s not a coincidence that these Islamic media offer what’s almost a hymn of praise for edged weapons. That’s what this contest always comes down to.
This isn’t a conflict of the West versus Islam. There are countless people in the West who cheer for bigotry, colonialism and violence, just as there are countless people in the Islamic world who bravely speak out for democracy and free expression.
Instead, it’s a conflict between two ideologies. One is the belief that human beings can think whatever they wish, say whatever they wish, write and publish whatever they wish. It’s the belief that ideas are supreme, that they should flourish in limitless diversity, and that change comes about by peacefully persuading people to expand their horizons.
The other is the belief that minds should be kept in line with violence. It’s an ideology which holds that people can’t be trusted to think for ourselves; that certain authorities have the right to tell the rest of us what to believe and what to say, and if we utter forbidden thoughts, we deserve to be swiftly and brutally punished. It’s the bloody knife in all its forms through the ages: the dagger stabbed through the tongue of blasphemers, the headsman’s ax, the guillotine’s blade and the crusader’s sword.
When these two ideologies are set side by side—ideas versus violence, words versus blades, peaceful persuasion versus brute force—it seems like a hopelessly unfair fight. And it is… but the word is winning.
The knife wielders’ power has been steadily declining over the ages, as new technologies open up the floodgates of information. It turns out that we humans want to tell our stories, to share our minds with the world and to connect with others. That natural curiosity, that drive to express ourselves, is a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle once it’s unleashed. And it’s anathema to the narrow-minded and dogmatic religions which insist that there’s only one story worth telling.
Worse for the knife wielders, when they lash out, they only make competing ideas more appealing. Witness how Salman Rushdie’s book sales are surging, and how other authors are planning a public reading of his works in solidarity.
The thug who attacked Rushdie didn’t succeed in silencing his voice. On the contrary, he only ignited more curiosity and more sympathy for Rushdie’s cause. He made more people want to know what ideas are so dangerous that someone would kill to stop them from being heard. That’s what always happens—and it’s why the word will win over the knife in the end.