The entire writing industry is reeling in the wake of the stabbing of Salman Rushdie.
In the age of good old Western freedom, it is challenging to see that such an attack can still happen. Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ has been at the forefront of conversations about our freedoms of speech and religion since its 1988 publication. Outraged at the depiction of the Prophet Muhammed in Rushdie’s work, the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwa on the killing of Salman Rushdie and the publishers. A fatwa that - some 33 years after Khomeini’s death - was brutally realised.
With the political significance of Rushdie’s work, it is not unreasonable to see the attack on the author as a symbol of something much greater. A warning, perhaps, of the direction we are heading in as a society. The glaring reality is that since ‘The Satanic Verses’ was released, we have taken numerous cultural steps backward when it comes to freedom of expression.
Back then democracy was upheld by, at least, very basic standards of liberality. Politicians and writers alike were at liberty to debate and decide for themselves what was appropriate to publish or say. Literature was a haven removed from theocratic regulation and censorship. Of course Rushdie’s novels pushed boundaries, but there was a consensus in the West that he had a right to be heard. Jimmy Carter even defended that very right off the back of his scathing New York Times op-ed.
And so we come to the question - why has this happened over three decades later?
The answer is as damning as it is simple: we are allowing it.
We are exponentially conceding our definition of morality to the ill-informed majority. “They wouldn’t get away with that today.” I’m sure you will have heard it said before in reference to an old, slightly edgy TV show, or an outdated comedy sketch. While often said in jest, it signifies a pervasive narrative that we simply are not allowed to create like we used to. Any and all ambiguity in that statement left with the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie. He didn’t “get away” with it. He barely got away in one piece.
Our insistence on cancelling and speech restriction means authors are spending 33 years on a societal death row because of offence taken. Nowadays, shocked sensibilities inspire hate over debate and violence over education. Of course you’re allowed your freedom of speech! Just make sure you say it in these words, be aware that in the near future it may be deemed suddenly unacceptable, and prepare to be confined to a hospital bed in Erie.
Not a single one of us is doing enough to condemn this savagery and the principles behind it. We are failing to protect freedoms, with a predictably doomful result. It is time we all realise that when we take for granted and tamper with freedom of expression, it is not just our reading material at stake, but people’s lives.