Controversial author Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times during a lecture about free speech in New York, prompting fresh concerns about the legal and cultural protections of free speech in the modern West.
The 75-year-old Indian-born British-American author, known mainly for his novel The Satanic Verses, was stabbed in the abdomen and the neck.
Rushdie was rushed to the hospital and placed on a ventilator, unconscious and unable to speak. Doctors said he could, unfortunately, lose an eye, as well as suffer possible liver damage and multiple severed nerves in his arm.
The local district attorney also confirmed that he had been stabbed once in the chest and three times in his right thigh.
Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which was inspired by Prophet Muhammad and features three pagan Meccan goddesses, sparked controversy across the world upon its release in 1988.
It raised debate as to where the line was drawn between free speech and religious intolerance. On a cultural level, many Muslims were divided between Western ideals regarding free speech and conservative Islamic theology which forbids criticism and/or ridicule of the Prophet Muhammad.
Iranian newspaper Vatan-e Emrooz on Saturday, with the front-page title reading in Farsi: “Knife in the neck of Salman Rushdie.”Atta Kenare / AFP – Getty Images
Then-Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayotollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, compelling Muslims to kill him, and the novel was banned in several countries for fear of civil unrest.
After the arrest of Rushdie’s attacker, named Hadi Matar, police investigations found that he was a staunch supporter of Ayotollah Khomeini and openly showed support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (a branch of the Iranian armed forces).
J.K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels, openly supported Rushdie on Twitter before receiving a death threat which simply read ‘Don’t worry, you are next’.
We are running out of time
Make no mistake about it; society will be forced to choose between free speech and authoritarian censorship at some point. At the risk of undermining liberal, Western values, we as a society must stand up to censorship and intolerance in all its forms.
There are many reasons why a person should not say something. Perhaps their thoughts are so absurd that they’d do well not to speak in a public arena, at the risk of ridicule.
Or, perhaps they choose not to say something so as to not seem unnecessarily cruel or antagonistic. There is a time and a place for everything, and social norms often compel people to act and speak in a certain way, depending on the situation at hand.
Words, like actions, have consequences. However, that statement in itself is so vague and ambiguous, that it can be used to justify the silencing of those deemed to be ‘problematic’, ‘blasphemous’ or ‘offensive’.
It depends purely on the consequences of your words, and the context in which they are used. There is a fine line between conforming to certain social norms (which usually have a moral and ethical framework supporting them), and being forced to conform due to outright fear of being hurt in some way.
If a person makes a decision to say or not say something due to factors such as social norms or legal requirements, then that’s a wise decision.
If that same person feels compelled to say or not say something because of other consequences – such as fear of violent repercussions or ‘cancelling’ – then we have a problem.
Censorship has taken many forms across the world throughout history. Rushdie’s case is just the latest incident of religious intolerance, where people of different faiths concluded that their religion and its figures are sacrosanct, to the extent that even people who aren’t part of the faith are obligated to adhere to its rules.
George Washington, 1st US President
The idea is that their religious beliefs supersede Western laws and liberal values. In fact, Matar pleaded not guilty when charged with the attempted murder of Rushdie, most likely believing himself to be justified due to Rushdie’s controversial novel making a mockery of certain figures in Islamic theology.
A similar case to this was Charlie Hebdo, where 11 cartoonists of the satirical magazine were slaughtered for daring to depict the Prophet Muhammad in an ‘offensive’ manner.
Remarkably, many people born and raised in Western society also have similar ways of thinking. What they find to be sacred – and therefore untouchable – may be different from religious zealots, but the way of thinking is the same.
It’s based on the premise that a religion, idea, philosophy or identity is sacrosanct and therefore immune from criticism, satire and ridicule.
This way of thinking, by large portions of Western society, is perhaps why the response to Rushdie hasn’t been as vigorous as it should be.
An example of this is comedian Dave Chappelle, who has come under fire in recent years for making jokes about the LGBT community.
Whilst on stage at the ‘Netflix is a Joke’ festival, Chappelle was attacked by 23-year-old Isaiah Lee. Police found a replica handgun on his person upon his arrest. When asked about his motive, Lee said, “I identify as bisexual … and I wanted him to know what he said was triggering.”
“I wanted him to know that next time, he should consider first running his material by people it could affect.”
A stark choice must be made, and soon
Whatever flavour of censorship and intolerance rears its ugly head – whether it be religious, criminal or identity-based – fundamentally, at its core, it’s still censorship. It’s time to call a spade a spade.
If a person can be killed, injured or otherwise hurt for daring to ‘blaspheme’ against a so-called sacrosanct idea, religious belief or identity, then we are in the realm of authoritarianism.
Does the West wish to continue down this path? Do Western citizens want their right to speak limited and dictated by an individual or community? Do we want to continue having dissenting perspectives silenced under the guise of ‘offence’ and ‘sensibilities’?
Do we wish for literary and academic freedom to cease to be? Do we, fundamentally, value free speech? If we aren’t prepared to defend free speech, then we shouldn’t be shocked when attempted murders (and actual murders) become commonplace in society; neither do we have the right to be angry about it, as we know the consequences of not defending the principle itself.
It’s cause and effect. If speech isn’t free to all, it’s free to nobody. We are at a crossroads and have a stark choice to make Either we re-embrace the principles of free speech in its entirety, or we become a ‘soft’ authoritarian state. That is the bottom line.