The horrific attack on Salman Rushdie demonstrated to me the need for love—and anger—in defense of literature and liberty.
On the afternoon of August 12, I opened my phone to absent-mindedly scroll through the endless drivel of Facebook. But almost as soon as I began, I stopped. A post containing “Salman Rushdie stabbed,” or words to that effect, quite simply floored me. I rarely react to the news in this way, however shocking it may be. But this felt…personal.
Salman Rushdie, you see, is my favorite writer in the world. I make no qualification to or apology for that statement: what follows is an unabashed love letter to the man.
I have long been a follower of his and over the past year or so I have, intermittently, been on a kind of odyssey through his oeuvre. I have been reading or re-reading all his books and essays, from his first, somewhat unjustly neglected publication Grimus (1975) to his latest published novel, Quichotte (2019). I am currently more than halfway through my re-read of Quichotte, an epic, heart-warming, mind-twisting meta masterpiece and examination of, among other things, America in the age of Trump, the meaning of life, and the end of the world.
And so, when I saw the news, I felt like someone close to me had been attacked. And, in a way, that was true. Authors who touch their readers’ hearts and enrich their minds are intimates of a kind. Even when we are unable to speak to family and friends about our anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams, the writers we love speak to us from afar about these and many other things.
They whisper to us through stories in the middle of the night, when we should be asleep but instead are reading by the light of a bedside lamp, or in the middle of a hot summer day as we lounge by the pool or the beach, or under a tree in a beautiful park, or on a threadbare sofa in a sparsely furnished room, or on a rattling, clanging bus as we ride to or from work, or anywhere else we might find ourselves, transporting us, challenging us, expanding our narrow understandings of the range of human possibility with their words and fancies.
And, for me, no other living writer is more exciting or challenging than Salman Rushdie. His Technicolor, kaleidoscopic, world-encompassing novels deal with the most essential and enduring questions—”How did we get here? And, now that we are here, how shall we live?” He always wrestles with the nature of reality and takes on the vexing problem of just what exactly we mere humans are meant to do in this terrifyingly chaotic and intensely, maddeningly, absurdly beautiful world. And all the while he deals with the most contemporary of issues, from the postcolonial experience and beyond in Midnight’s Children (1981) to the age of Obama, Trump, social media, cancel culture, and disinformation in The Golden House (2017) and Quichotte. He has lost none of his frenzied, brilliant intelligence and creativity; his most recent novels are as energetic and compelling as his earlier ones. He continues to innovate, most recently releasing a novel in installments on Substack.
And then there is his nonfiction—his essays, reportage, and excellent memoir Joseph Anton (2012)—all as enlightening and probing as his dazzling, magical tall tales. Rushdie has always been a radical, championing universal humanism, love, and literature over the narrow bigotries of identity politics, racism, and religious dogmatism. He has always been a perceptive critic and satirizer of folly, stupidity, and cruelty, from Thatcher’s London to the disappointments of the Obama years and the sheer idiotic corruption of the Trump era.
From Bombay (never, never Mumbai) to London to New York; from East to West and back again; from the origins of Islam to the rise of vacuous celebrity, Rushdie has never failed to promote cosmopolitanism, art, and liberty, and is constantly navigating the waters of this brave new globalized, interconnected world of migration and hybridity and conflict.
It is for another day to reflect more deeply on Rushdie’s magnificent output. Right now, I only wish to express my horror and anger at what has happened. Details on the attacker are still scarce, but it would be surprising if he wasn’t motivated by Islamic fanaticism given that his Facebook page was filled with images of the late Khomeini and the current ayatollah. And, of course, Rushdie has lived under threat of death for blasphemy ever since 1989. Though the threat seemed to have receded by the early 2000s, Khomeini’s fatwa was never rescinded, while a multimillion-dollar bounty is still being offered for Rushdie’s head.
No doubt the truth of the matter will come out eventually. But as I write, Rushdie is in hospital, on a ventilator, his fate uncertain. His agent and friend Andrew Wylie reports that “The news is not good. Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”
As yet, I have been unable to entirely process my feelings.
As I write this in Scotland, it is approaching 6 am on the morning of August 13. I haven’t been to bed yet. Ever since I read the news in the late afternoon of what I suppose I must call yesterday, I have been, well, out of sorts. There was shock at first, and then sadness and grief, and then…anger.
Driving down the back roads on a chore this (yesterday?) evening, my mind was aflame. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And yes, there was deep, intense rage in me. I remember gripping the steering wheel tightly and letting out my emotion by screaming something along the lines of “THE EVIL BASTARDS!” Who exactly these evil bastards were, I didn’t (and don’t) know. I just meant whoever was behind the attack.
More precisely, I meant: Fuck the fuckers who did this.
And ever since, I’ve been tweeting furiously, constantly on my phone searching for updates, fearing that the worst possible outcome is about to come to pass. So far, thankfully, it hasn’t. And I am still upset and furious and desperate for Rushdie to pull through, to defy the bastard who stabbed him whether he was motivated by lunacy or faith (the same thing, you might say), to survive and recover and to go on writing his wonderful novels and penetrating essays; to, in short, rise up once more and continue his work as the world’s greatest writer and one of its foremost champions of liberty and literature.
I think my anger is reasonable. Some things demand fury. So, let’s not equivocate or blame the victim. Let’s not repeat the failures of 1989, when an endless list of cowards and ideologues and opportunists, spanning all the major religions and the whole political spectrum, refused to stand up for free speech in the face of a murderous, theocratic assault.
And, yes, let’s be angry about this attack. But that doesn’t mean we should fall into the trap of reactive, undiscriminating hatred. Reserve the fury for those who deserve it. Even now, Hindu nationalists are using this horrific assault as a pretext to advance their anti-Muslim agenda (apparently they don’t care that Rushdie has long been an opponent of their vile sectarian politics), while yet other Muslims have bravely counted themselves among the ranks of those who value liberty. Ignore the opportunists and the gleeful Muslims who think what has happened is divine vengeance. Instead, look to those who stand unequivocally for human rights, for free speech, for liberty. Among them are people of all faiths and none. Yes, let us blame who and what should be blamed, but let’s not lose sight of what we value, of what we are for.
Above all, and despite everything, let us, as a dying Christopher Hitchens advised a young girl all too long ago, “remember the love bit.” Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, freedom from tyranny, literature, truth, and love—most of all love: these are the noblest among the things that truly matter.
Rushdie wrote in 1991 that “Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.” And, in 1999, on the tenth anniversary of the fatwa, he wrote that “love feels more and more like the only subject.” Let us champion these ideals, the ideals of liberty—love and free speech foremost. Anger is necessary, but not sufficient. Define the enemy, yes, but define what you stand for, too.
One could do no better in this task than standing with Rushdie by reading or re-reading his books. If I might recommend one in particular: The Satanic Verses (1988), I have often thought, is far too overshadowed as the triumph of literature that it is by the horrid events surrounding it. So, go and read The Satanic Verses or any of Rushdie’s other books and look forward to his forthcoming novel Victory City (to be published in February 2023). In doing so you will be defying bigotry and theocracy and championing love and literature and liberty.
Pull through, Salman. Pull through.