The Moral Courage of Salman Rushdie

The celebrity author fought for imperiled free speech, and now fights for his life

Novelist, short-story writer, and critic Salman Rushdie sat with his host on a stage at the Chautauqua Institution, in western New York State, when a black-clad 24-year-old attacker, identified in reports as Hadi Matar of New Jersey, rushed onto the stage and stabbed the author many times until horrified onlookers subdued the aggressor and a state trooper arrested him. The talk was over before it began. Even with Rushdie’s well-known history, security at the event was close to nil, and it reportedly took the audience a bit of time to realize that they were watching a murder attempt in progress. At the time of this writing, Rushdie is in the ICU with wounds to his liver and one arm and may end up losing an eye.

Young people today might not have much sense of Rushdie. He’s that middle-aged writer you see standing around in a scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary, explicating theories of the novella before asking the clueless heroine what she thinks. They may vaguely recall a controversial novel and a fatwa, way back in the 1980s, a distant age without email or the internet.

Salman Rushdie in ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary.’

But for those with longer memories, the Chautauqua attack is at least the partial fulfillment of an awful threat made upon the publication of Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, whose portrayal of Mohammad crossed the line into blasphemy in the eyes of Iran’s rulers. The supreme leader of that nation, Ayatollah Khomeini, urged Muslims to kill Rushdie, who went into hiding for years and escaped physical harm, though not a slew of bad jokes about “Iranian literary critics.”

Others were not so lucky. A Japanese translator paid with his life, while an Italian translator fought off his attacker and a Norwegian publisher survived getting shot three times. Riots killed dozens in India and Pakistan and firebombings gutted bookstores in Berkeley and New York as well as the offices of a Bronx paper that dared to editorialize against the decision of chain bookstores not to carry the novel. People who worked in publishing in Manhattan  became concerned about their physical safety as a result of decisions to sell or endorse the book.

We still have much to learn about the events in Chautauqua on Friday, but early reports indicate that the attacker sympathized with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and acted in keeping with the spirit of the fatwa, which Iran’s current leader, Ali Khamenei, has not bothered to revoke in all the time since succeeding Khomeini in 1989.

Clash of Cultures

Joshua Goodman’s report on the attack states that Rushdie and host Henry Reese, who suffered minor injuries, “were due to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and others in exile.”

Goodman has hit on one of the most darkly ironic aspects of the incident. Rushdie’s fiction manifests an interest in those cultural and political factors that differentiate one society or hemisphere from another. The varying degrees of freedoms that exist in the societies of the East and West, and the sometimes deceptive or exaggerated claims that sociopolitical entities tend to make on their own behalf, are the subject of what may be his richest exploration of cultural contrast, the 1994 short-story collection ‘East, West’.

Rushdie lectures Larry David about free speech in Season 9 of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’

Here no one can accuse Rushdie of favoring one culture over the other. He is deeply interested in the humanity, and the foibles and venality, of people of both worlds, and the question of whether you can escape to a better place by getting up and moving from one to another. To some, his satirical eye may seem cold or even cruel, but he is an agent of Susan Sontag’s wisdom that a writer’s first job is to tell the truth “and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.”

In Rushdie’s vision, the East may be a more spiritual place than other parts of the world, but in many part of it men and women live from day to day in a mire of corruption. In the story “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies,” he takes us into the world of the “Tuesday women,” so called because they show up at the British consulate in Pakistan every Tuesday in the hope of securing a permit to travel to London or some other destination abroad. You have to take an exam and the authorities are deeply hostile to those seeking permits and turn them down on the basis of one or another trifle, such as not correctly recalling the color of the curtains in the house in London where you claim to have a spouse waiting for you. Not surprisingly, a shadow industry exists alongside the “legitimate” one, selling permits to those who can afford the exorbitant price. There are no good options for the Tuesday women.

Rushdie is not much kinder to the bureaucracies of India. His short story “The Free Radio” is a harrowing account of a society where arranged marriages and suttee, the practicing of burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyre that the British claimed to have put an end to during the colonial period, are still common.

The story details the tortures and humiliations to which an aloof regime subjected citizens as part of its campaign in the 1970s to get India’s population growth under control, encouraging people to have their tubes tied with the promise that they will receive a state-of-the-art “All-India Radio” as their reward. But those who obediently follow the government’s dictates may find that the radio they thought would give them status and power in their poor filth-ridden villages is a chimera.

Into the Fire

Imagine for a moment that the Tuesday women depicted in “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies” got their permit and managed to bolt to the U.K. or to America. Having given us his vision of the East, Rushdie invites us to consider the West and ask whether it is indeed a refuge for those trying to escape repression and injustice. Had the talk at the Chautauqua Institution proceeded as scheduled, we have to wonder what Rushdie would have said about this idea of the United States as a refuge for writers. In a sense, the attack answered that question for him.

“At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” is an allegory full of flashy imagery, narrating an event that will not fail to call to mind the high-end auctions held by the likes of Sotheby’s. But one of Rushdie’s themes is how commercial imperatives in the mercantile West have elevated, or reduced, everything to the status of one more gaudy commodity, very much including ideas and ideologies. The guests at his auction cherish their ability to spend as much their right to take offense at what they consider to be passé or unworthy of their refined and enlightened sensibilities.

Rushdie’s contemplation of this theme leads to one of his most resonant passages: “We, the public, are easily, lethally offended. We have come to think of taking offense as a fundamental right. We value very little more highly than our rage, which gives us, in our opinion, the moral high ground. From the high ground we can shout down at our enemies and inflict heavy fatalities. We take pride in our short fuses. Our anger elevates, transcends.”

This passage informs Rushdie’s role as an iconoclast and a provocateur in the noblest sense of those long-devalued terms. Unlike some public intellectuals who will say anything to get attention, Rushdie will go where angels fear to tread in order to stick it to the hubristic and small-minded.

Rushdie makes use of a flamboyant fictional medium to describe a grim social reality. Even if subsequent investigation bears out the early reports and the Chautauqua attack is the work of a jihadist sympathetic to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, it is depressingly of a piece with earlier instances of violence committed by Westerners against writers, artists, and musicians, who learned first-hand the truth behind the claims of artistic and intellectual freedom on which we all are nurtured. One thinks of the long list of journalists killed in the United States for doing their job, the murder last year of Dutch crime reporter Peter De Vries, the murder of Irish crime journalist Veronica Guerin in 1996, and the more recent slaying of Northern Ireland journalist Lyra McKee, not to mention all the celebrities cut down in the flower of their fame, from Rebecca Schaefer to John Lennon.

Reporting facts can be dangerous even or especially in a society putatively defined by freedom of expression. That gives us all the more reason to honor Rushdie, for whom creative daring and telling the truth have never been just an empty pose.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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