Show caption ‘Although there were many who spoke out for Rushdie and defended him, there were others who failed to support him.’ Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters Opinion We internalised the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. This horrific attack is what follows Jo Glanville There has been terrible retreat from freedom of expression. We should ponder that as we condemn this outrage Sat 13 Aug 2022 15.30 BST Share on Facebook
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First there is shock and then despair at the news of the assault on Salman Rushdie. He had lived under the threat of the fatwa for decades. Even with the Iranian government’s retreat from the death sentence in 1998, he could never be sure that a lone individual would not attempt to kill him. And that may be what happened on Friday. It’s also possible that the attempt on Rushdie’s life may be linked to the US Department of Justice’s extraordinary announcement last week that it was charging a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with the use of interstate commerce facilities in a plot to murder former national security adviser John Bolton in 2021.
But that may just be a coincidence and it would be a desperate measure when there is now another chance for the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran to be revived.
After years in hiding, Rushdie appeared to be living a normal life. He was also generous in his support for other writers; as an active member of English PEN and former president of PEN America, he knew what it meant to have not only your right to speak and write curtailed, but liberty itself.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence against Rushdie was a turning point for freedom of expression, as Kenan Malik, the most outstanding analyst of this affair, has observed.
Although there were many who spoke out for Rushdie and defended him, there were others who failed to support him – Roald Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist”.
Many of the arguments were first made that we now see routinely rehearsed in favour of shutting up rather than speaking out. It was the beginning of the retreat from freedom of expression – self-censorship replaced tolerance as desirable behaviour in a society where free speech was still supposed to be a benchmark for human rights. And we’re all still suffering from that shift in all areas of public debate.
Few publishers today would have the courage of Rushdie’s publisher Peter Mayer, then CEO of Penguin, who received death threats and whose own child was threatened. When I asked him to write about it for Index on Censorship in 2008, for a special edition marking the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Satanic Verses, it was the first time he had publicly told the story of what happened. “The fate of the book affected the future of free inquiry,” he wrote, “without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.”
Since then, there have been multiple rows and horrifying murders: the brutal attack on the Charlie Hebdo staff, the killing of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty and, in Pakistan, the assassination of politician Salman Taseer, for speaking out for a woman convicted of blasphemy, whose conviction was ultimately overturned. Censorship is a political tool and its advocates may cite religious orthodoxy or any other dogmatic belief to claim the moral high ground and silence or even murder those they disagree with.
We can only hope that Salman Rushdie recovers and is able to continue his life and career as one of our foremost and bravest writers. But if there is a larger lesson to take from this it’s to examine how we have all, in the words of Kenan Malik, “internalised”’ the fatwa in the belief that it is better to be silent than to give offence.
Jo Glanville is former editor of Index on Censorship and former director of English PEN