June 2, 2023

An Evening for Salman Rushdie

We don’t have to speculate on the accuracy of his words, for we are living testimony to this disheartening reality.

Photograph by Asadour Guzelian / Shutterstock

It has been more than two months since the British-American writer and faculty member of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage during a literary event in New York by Hadi Matar at the Chautauqua Institution. On October 14th, 2022, I virtually joined an event, An Evening for Salman Rushdie, organized by PEN International at the British Library to celebrate his strength and dedication as a writer and a champion of free expression. In a way, it was also an evening of reflection. 

As horrifying as the assault on Rushdie was, it was 33 years in the making. Following the publication of The Satanic Verses, a wave of unrest surged throughout India, leading to the tragic loss of 12 lives during an anti-Rushdie riot in Mumbai, the birthplace of the esteemed author. The novel’s distribution faced severe opposition, and it resulted in widespread bans in countries like Pakistan and Egypt for its allegedly blasphemous content. Meanwhile, the distressing images of book burnings spread across global media channels. But the pinnacle of that moment came when the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against Rushdie, forcing him to go into hiding. 

It is difficult to think of another literary work that has left such a gory and sanguinary path in its wake. In July 1991, Ettore Capriolo, the translator of the Italian version of The Satanic Verses was impaled by a knife on his neck, chest, and hands in his apartment in Milan. In that same month, the body of Hitoshi Igarashi, an assistant professor of comparative Islamic culture at Tsukuba University, located in the northeast region of Tokyo, was discovered by a cleaning lady in the hallway of a campus building. The year 1993 saw the harrowing incident in Oslo, where Norwegian publisher William Nygaard fell victim to a hail of bullets outside his home, his transgression being the audacious act of publishing the Norwegian translation of the condemned book. And the list goes on.

Salman Rushdie in February 1989, when the fatwa was issued against him over The Satanic Verses
Photograph: Adam Butler/PA

Yet, I believe that we find ourselves at an even more critical juncture in our time—one that compels us to recognize that the attack on Rushdie is an attack on all writers everywhere. There is a saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. It is this notion that one can kill a writer but not their idea. But what actions should we take when we navigate this transformative period in our cultural history, where the very act of wielding a pen is met with condemnation as words are erroneously equated with violence? In this regard, we share disquieting parallels with the Islamists who ruthlessly sever the voices of those who dare to express opinions that are remotely associated with their religion because the right not to get offended is more paramount than the right to free speech. Rather than acknowledging the urgent need to resist these assaults on freedom of expression, we mistakenly believe that appeasement, compromise, and renunciation in the name of inclusion and acceptance will suffice.

What we can learn from Rushdie, a man who has endured half of his life shadowed by the constant threat of a bounty on his head, is that: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known,” as he shared with the French newspaper L’Express back in 2015. Curiously, we would have expected such a statement from Rushdie during a time of utmost turmoil. It wouldn’t have been in 2015 when he had already come out of hiding and enjoyed a semblance of security in his life. Hence, why on Earth did he perceive it was the “darkest time” he had ever known?

It is because what he witnessed was the decline of the relentless commitment to freedom of speech—the very commitment that had once saved his life. In the same interview with L’Express, he stated, “If the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

We don’t have to speculate on the accuracy of his words, for we are living testimony to this disheartening reality. When Salman Rushdie was under siege in the late 1980s, prominent figures from across the globe linked arms in a resolute display of solidarity. Writers of great stature—Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaney—stood unwaveringly by his side, protesting any encroachment on free speech. 

Leading this united front was Susan Sontag, who was then president of the premiere literary group PEN America. And she arranged for The Satanic Verses to be read in public. Hitchens fondly reminisced how she tirelessly urged and, if necessary, shamed people on her mailing list into signing their names or showing up to the reading. “A bit of civic fortitude is what is required here,” Sontag said. In that bleak week, she demonstrated that while cowardice may be horribly contagious, courage, too, can spread its infectious flame.

And that courage that Sontag called for was not an abstract concept, particularly for certain booksellers. Consider the valor exhibited by Andy Ross, the former owner of the now-closed Cody’s Books—a bookstore in Berkeley, California which carried Rushdie’s book and faced the brunt of a bombing soon after the fatwa was issued. In the aftermath, Ross gathered his entire staff for a pivotal meeting:

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values. So, we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. […] I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness. But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Berkeley bomb squad officers detonate a pipe bomb at Cody’s Books in February 1989 in the wake of the release of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, branded as blasphemous.
Photograph: Scott Sommerdorf / The Chronicle 1989

That was America back then. By 2015, America had undergone significant changes. When Rushdie made those comments to L’Express, it was in the wake of PEN’s decision to honor the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo with an award. Just a few months prior, two terrorists unleashed a brutal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, claiming the lives of 12 staff members and causing injuries to 11 others. It was a sobering moment that underscored the importance of uplifting a publication that had been through such adversity. 

Yet, the response from over 200 of the world’s most renowned writers, including Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, and Rachel Kushner, was to jointly sign a letter opposing PEN America’s choice of awarding the freedom of expression accolade to Charlie Hebdo. They claimed that the organization was not merely supporting free speech “but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

In his address to those who protested the award, Rushdie delivered a powerful message: “This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well-funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.”

How astonishing in its clarity. 

Yet, these writers’ conspicuous reluctance to uphold the essence of what Susan Sontag so eloquently referred to as “civic fortitude” is exactly what has engendered the climate in which we now find ourselves embroiled in. The kind of climate that is plagued by sheep-like conformity, wherein cowardice has regrettably emerged as the default response. And it is everywhere. 

The Fifth Estate‘s documentary of Salman Rushdie and his book

This is exemplified by a recent report I came across, FIRE’s 2022 College Free Speech Rankings, which scored NYU at 51.64 out of 100. Although it is somewhat reassuring that our score is considerably better than that of Columbia University which received only 9.91, it is also unsettling. Just a few points lower, and NYU would have failed. Looking at this report prompts me to ask some difficult questions about us—questions I fear we may have forgotten how to ask: How would we act if someone whose ideas we despise is shut out of public discourse? Would we possess the courage to stand by the values we profess and defend their fundamental right of a free society: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned? Or have we gotten so afraid, so coddled, so divided, and so removed from the world of flesh and blood, that we would let those dissenters with competing ideas be stifled?

There are hundreds of stories I could point to. Stories that are now whooshed away by us on our social media feeds daily. Perhaps you can probably think of a dozen more in your communities that have gone by unnoticed. Perhaps you experience firsthand what it is like to sit in classrooms and feel the weight to elevate an ideology you differ from. Perhaps instead of discussing and debating ideas forthrightly and sincerely, you have been advised to conform, toe the party line, or be quiet. Perhaps you have been urged to trade investigative fact-finding for recognition of a predetermined narrative. Perhaps instead of writing an essay with an argument you believe in, you are pressured—at the risk of a bad grade or the fear of riling your classmates—to write a paper reciting the argument you know your teacher or professor wants to hear.

Perhaps, you might remember some that happened in our very own NYU community. NYU Grossman School of Medicine, for instance, insisted that its faculty members—who served on the front lines of the coronavirus response in 2020—follow a restrictive media policy that required them to refrain from speaking to the press without advance permission from the university’s marketing and communications administrators. Or you might remember an incident when Professor Mark Crispin Miller, a tenured professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communications, was investigated by NYU after a student in his class called for his firing because he engaged in a controversial discussion about mask efficacy and COVID-19, which was both timely and pedagogically relevant to his course on propaganda. Or the one that happened in April this year when NYU School of Law investigated Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP) over their statement criticizing Zionists.

Now, to be clear, I don’t necessarily agree with the people I mentioned above. But anyone can defend a sympathetic person with a popular opinion. The true test of our commitment to free speech is unsheathed when we are willing to stand up for people whose ideas we hate, and this eagerness to purge and purify, to cancel and punish and tear down, is in no small part responsible for the score we got. In Rushdie’s words during his 2015 interview for NYU News, “To say that you only believe in free speech for people you don’t disapprove of is frankly…that’s what we call censorship if you only permit free speech of an approved nature.”

“I think that the idea that a university is a place where young people are cocooned and protected from things that will challenge and upset them seems to me is the exact opposite of what a university should be,” he continued. “A university precisely should be the place where young people are challenged and made to question what they’ve taken for granted and learn by doing so. That’s the kind of safe place a university needs to be—a safe place for ideas, not for sentiments.”

Some might argue that the First Amendment is only meant to forbid state action against free speech, not private entities. That the state’s power is vastly more influential than the punitive power of corporations. That Facebook can only delete their page while the government can fine and imprison them. That a corporation might be able to fire them from their job, and a university might be able to expel them, but the state can definitely take away their liberty.

However, these occurrences that happen on our social media, on our college campuses, and in our communities are not rare anomalies in the United States. They are acutely intertwined. They are the consequence of an ardent illiberal ideology that has permeated our biggest companies, our media, and our universities. Our longstanding preoccupation with safeguarding freedom of speech from political and legal encroachments has led us to this moment where we have neglected the cultural threats that are now more ubiquitous than ever before. We tend to forget that these entities play a crucial role in shaping the entirety of our culture. And as per the Breitbart Doctrine’s insight, politics is downstream from culture, which means the law is likely to flow from our everyday practices, and so this profound cultural shift that loathes free inquiry will inevitably erode the long-term preservation of the First Amendment.

Private universities and private corporations have a legal right to use their voices to cancel, intimidate, and punish their fellow citizens. They can utilize their rights to attempt to silence their rivals. But each time they do so, they deliberately undermine American cultural respect for the free exchange of ideas. Their insistence on cancellation and speech restriction signifies a future where authors like Salman Rushdie and others who are to come after him will be spending 33 years on societal death row because of offenses taken.

Those people who believe that words are violence are right about one thing. They are right that words can be powerful, repugnant, appalling, and dehumanizing. But to quote an unnamed writer in one of Sigmund Freud’s notes, “The man who first flung a word of abuse at his adversary instead of a spear was the founder of civilization.” This distinction serves as a definitive demarcation between a civilized society and savagery. There exists no justifiable reason to obscure this distinction, be it due to religious sectarianism or any other form of ideological orthodoxy. This is the excruciating lesson gleaned from centuries of human endeavor, yet today it is also a lesson that we—heirs to the Enlightenment and the American experiment—have not recently bothered to uphold.

My thoughts and prayers are with Salman Rushdie and his family. I wish that he will not only recuperate quickly but also live on to tell the world to never take a free and open society for granted. For all our sake.

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