In 2016, months before the election, and long before today’s attack, Salman Rushdie appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and explained why he supported Hillary Clinton.
It wasn’t just because he shared many of her policy positions (though that was surely part of it). It was because he understood what it was like to face decades of irrational attacks by critics.
There’s a thing that I kind of love about Hillary… there’s a thing that I know a little bit about, which is what it is like to spend decades of your life being vilified and demonized by… another culture’s equivalent of FOX News… The Ayatollah Network…
But I know in a kind of little personal way what it takes to have to stand up against that non-stop, cartoonizing, demonizing, creating a lie about you which you are powerless to resist because the people putting out the lie have a megaphone louder than you do, you know?
And if that’s me, if you would then magnify that to the national scale… and have somebody facing that in America every day for decades, and that she comes through as strong and tough as she does? I mean, respect.
Rushdie knew what unwarranted demonization was like because he’s been the subject of a fatwa since 1989 for his perceived criticism of Islam in The Satanic Verses. Earlier today, during what was supposed to be a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, the 75-year-old Rushdie was stabbed in the neck and torso by an assailant.
The culprit, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, was arrested. His motivation is currently unknown. It’s hard not to jump to conclusions, though, about what that motivation might be. The 1989 fatwa against Rushdie came with a multi-million dollar bounty on his head. The reward has only gone up since then. Despite the death of the man who initiated the fatwa, it’s never been rescinded. In 2019, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, doubled down on it, calling it “solid and irrevocable.” That sentiment was echoed by Khamenei’s supporters today.
As of this writing, Rushdie’s condition isn’t clear, except to say he’s alive. There’s been an outpouring of support from politicians, atheist groups, defenders of free speech, and many more.
Today’s incident comes at a time when libraries themselves are under attack, simply for offering books that challenge conservative Christian beliefs. We’ve seen Drag Queen Story Hours met with potentially violent resistance. At what point does the pro-censorship crowd admit that it’s them, and not the books, that are the problem?
Whether or not this attack was motivated by religious extremism, the events should remind all of us that blasphemy is a victimless crime and that free speech, especially when it challenges tradition, must be defended at all costs. There are plenty of outlets for criticism, too. Reacting with censorship or violence should be condemned by all decent people.