This month’s brutal assault on Indian-born British-American novelist Salman Rushdie was not just a violent attack on a prominent author. It was an attack on free expression itself.
In response to The Satanic Verses, a book Rushdie wrote in 1988, the supreme leader of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against the author. Since then, there have been numerous attempts on Rushdie’s life. This latest attack is just the most successful of them.
There has been no shortage of commentators who have stated in the same breath that, while the fatwa and assassination attempts were wrong, Rushdie should not have published a book that would offend millions of Muslims around the world. Any attempt to balance the interests of free expression with death threats will only cede territory to violence.
This month’s attack only further proves that speech rights around the world are increasingly threatened by political violence. If someone like Rushdie, who has had to flee his home and receive security, can still be targeted, so can anyone who says the wrong thing. Citizens of free societies should be able to disagree with one another, even stridently, without demonizing their opponents.
In 2020, Rushdie, along with other prominent figures, signed an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine slamming the spread of censorship and intolerance. The letter read: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Now, more than ever, the right to free expression around the world requires even greater defense.