Book BurningA painfully prescient quote from Salman Rushdie appeared on Twitter yesterday – ‘The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.’ I’ve no idea how old this quote is, but it’s reasonable to assume it was written in the long shadow cast by the fatwa of 1989. Since that groundbreaking moment of intolerance on the part of an entire State, intolerance towards freedom of both thought and speech, whereby any individual expressing an opinion deemed ‘wrong’ is fair game to be brought to heel by whatever means are at their opponents’ disposal, has filtered down to the masses, facilitated and fuelled by the ubiquitous social media that didn’t exist when Rushdie wrote ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1988. Previously, a novelist in the West faced potential censure from publishers or book stores if they penned a work regarded as ‘controversial’, yet having a price placed on their head by the Islamic Mafiosi running Iran was a new development; just as the 1570 declaration of Pope Pius V that Queen Elizabeth I was a ‘heretic’ gave the green light to radical Catholics of the 16th century, the edict issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini five months after the publication of Rushdie’s novel not only placed the writer’s life in peril, it legitimised violent reprisals on the part of any mental fundamentalist if they felt their outrage was justifiable.

Amongst numerous other atrocities committed over the past two or three decades, the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ massacre of 2015 can be traced back to the 1989 fatwa, providing yet one more extreme example of how the offended believe they are entitled to exact revenge to ease their offence. At the other end of the scale, Hollywood bigwig Will Smith felt similarly entitled to stroll up to comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars in the middle of his routine and sock him on the jaw simply because he didn’t like what the comic was saying about his missus. In comparison to the serious attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life at an event in New York State yesterday, Smith’s petulant punch seems trivial, yet both he and the lunatic who stabbed Rushdie and left him in a critical condition felt their actions were justified because they’d been offended. Where that leaves either a vulnerable novelist or a comedian when alone on stage, self-censoring their freedom of expression for fear an audience member might take offence at something they say and then leap onstage wielding a weapon or a fist, is worrying when a belief in one’s own self-righteous entitlement has spread from the ivory towers of a hardline Islamic regime to any disgruntled member of the public. An unpleasant precedent has been set.

It may be a blink in the eye of the elephantine memories of Radical Islamists – after all, that has a vintage of centuries – but 33 years have now passed since the Ayatollah delivered his death sentence on Salman Rushdie in absentia; therefore, the understandable security precautions that were taken in the early days of the author’s exile from polite society have been largely relaxed since. A famous story emanating from those days concerns a visit from celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, who was cooking a meal for Rushdie when said foodstuff ‘exploded’ in the oven, causing Rushdie to dive under the sofa in a manner reminiscent of citizens sheltering from the Blitz. It’s no wonder he was jumpy. Various people associated with his most notorious novel have met far worse fates in the last 30-odd years, and Rushdie naturally figured he was through the worst; he even parodied his situation on an episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, when Larry David sought advice as he went into hiding following his announcement he intended to produce a musical based on the fatwa. Unfortunately, that joke isn’t funny anymore.

The Iranian Government has distanced itself from the Ayatollah’s decree since around 1998, though so far-reaching was the initial proclamation that the growth of Radical Islamist networks and various terrorist collectives this century has meant the message has never really gone away; there was even a bounty of $3 million offered by an Iranian religious foundation in 2012, meaning Rushdie has continued to exercise a degree of caution when it comes to public speaking. It’s interesting that the provocative burning of books on British streets in certain cities with a large Muslim population first became a regular sight in the wake of the furore surrounding ‘The Satanic Verses’, as did the appearance of those openly advocating the assassination of Rushdie on British television without being challenged – including the otherwise moderate Muslim convert Yusuf Islam, AKA singer Cat Stevens; these stunts went unpunished by police reluctant to be accused of racism.

One might say the inaction of authorities then has left a devastating legacy in the UK since; everything from the terrorist cells responsible for appalling carnage in London and Manchester in the 2010s to turning a blind eye to the insidious ‘grooming gangs’ in Rochdale to the teacher in Batley whose school was besieged by the local Muslim Gestapo in 2020 and remains in hiding due to a glaring absence of support from teaching unions – there’s a direct connection stretching all the way back to failure to act in 1989. Even the response of some of Rushdie’s fellow creative artists at the time saw the debut of the kind of gutless self-preservation that has subsequently become a hallmark of the artistic fraternity during the age of ‘cancel culture’, with even fewer prepared to stand up and be counted when the online hounds are unleashed to silence any artist who has dared to venture an opinion contrary to the consensus. Silence is compliance when one of your own is under threat; and the misguided solidarity shown towards a terrorist organisation like Hamas by the far-left in the West merely because their arch-enemy is Israel – remember ‘Queers for Palestine’? – is another risible strain of this; I’m just wondering how the Pride flag-waving zealots will react when the next World Cup is held in a Middle Eastern autocracy where freedom of expression is effectively outlawed – ‘Queers for Qatar’?

According to police, Salman Rushdie was poised to speak at the large outdoor amphitheatre at the Chautauqua Institution in New York State on the ironic topic of artistic freedom when a man ran on stage and stabbed him in the neck and torso; the attacker was swiftly – if belatedly – apprehended by security and Rushdie was rushed to hospital by helicopter. He is currently on a ventilator after surgery, with the author’s spokesperson telling the press that ‘Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.’ The culprit was arrested and is apparently sympathetic to the Iranian Government; if the attack was fatwa-influenced, the Iranian Government he’s seemingly sympathetic to must be the one of 1989, but Radical Islamists tend to live in the past so perhaps that’s no great revelation. I suppose the fact Salman Rushdie was one of the first artists to be exposed to the unhinged wrath of extreme opponents to the foundation stone of Western democracies means this grotesque attack coming at a time when everyone is susceptible to assault if they dare to speak their mind gives it the grim feel of a full circle being reached.

Voltaire’s famous quote on freedom of speech tends to be exhumed for paraphrasing yet again at moments such as this, even if many who spout about freedom of speech don’t necessarily live by Voltaire’s words; for far too many today, free speech is fine as long as it chimes with one’s own opinions; when it doesn’t, it’s deserving of censure, either by organising an online campaign of vile trolldom or going one further, as the head-case who attacked Rushdie did. If hate crime exists at all, surely something like this is the most barbaric example of it, not misgendering some delicate non-binary nitwit on Twitter. As a human being suffering such a brutal attack, one hopes Salman Rushdie survives it; as an increasingly-rare artist advocating freedom of thought, speech and expression, it’s absolutely vital he does.

© The Editor





  1. According to the latest medical news, Rushdie is now breathing unaided and speaking, so it appears that the worst outcome may have been avoided. That’s a relief. I know nothing of Rushdie as a person and little of his works, but my ‘Voltaire head’ requires that he be free to express his words and that all others be free to receive them and make their own assessment.

    Although I’ve never read it, I understand that ‘The Satanic Verses’ has similarities to ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ of less than a decade earlier, in that it created a fantasy situation based on close parallels with personalities and locations which feature in the foundations of Islam. At the time in 1979, ‘Life of Brian’ provoked reaction amongst some Christian religious zealots here, but I don’t recall any of them going so far as the demand the assassination of John Cleese or Graham Chapman, with multi-million-pound success bounties available. That’s the difference between mature societies and the village tribe mentality which still applies in less developed groups, including many of those who now inhabit Western lands.

    Sadly, as you observe, the petrified stances of our authorities have enabled, even encouraged, those backward-looking societies and attitudes to survive and flourish, resulting in such acts as the indefensible attack on Rushdie, amongst all their other intolerable outrages. Can we imagine either of the current prime ministerial candidates having the cojones to reverse that? I think we probably know that answer, so Sir Salman may need to continue to take even greater care in the future, whilst the rest of us observe with increasing dismay just what we continue to lose in the process.

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    1. Interestingly, there was an exact decade between ‘Life of Brian’ and the fatwa, and the contrast between how outrage over ‘blasphemy’ was expressed in 1979 and how it was expressed in 1989 seems to highlight how society had changed in just ten years. A protest outside a cinema, a stiff letter to the Times, or even the infamous chat-show confrontation with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark (I think it was) – that’s as much as the Pythons had to deal with then, and that’s as much as any creative individual should have to deal with now.


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