Marchers scream out anti-Rushdie chants in Derby, England, on March 15, 1989. (Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

We Ignored Salman Rushdie’s Warning

Words are not violence. Violence is violence.

We live in a culture in which many of the most celebrated people occupying the highest perches believe that words are violence. In this, they have much in common with Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who issued the first fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, and with Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old who, yesterday, appears to have fulfilled his command when he stabbed the author in the neck on a stage in Western New York. 

The first group believes they are motivated by inclusion and tolerance—that it’s possible to create something even better than liberalism, a utopian society where no one is ever offended. The second we all recognize as religious fanatics. But it is the indulgence and cowardice of the words are violence crowd that has empowered the second and allowed us to reach this moment, when a fanatic rushes the stage of a literary conference with a knife and plunges it into one of the bravest writers alive.

I have spoken on the same stage where Rushdie was set to speak. You can’t imagine a more bucolic place than the Chautauqua Institution—old Victorian homes with screened-in porches and no locks, a lake, American flags and ice cream everywhere. It was founded in 1874 by Methodists as a summer colony for Sunday school teachers. Now, it attracts the kind of parents and grandparents who love Terry Gross and never miss a Wordle. It is just about the last place in America where you would imagine an act of such barbarism.

And yet as shocking as this attack was, it was also 33 years in the making: The Satanic Verses is a book with a very bloody trail.

Demonstration against Salman Rushdie in Tehran (Mohsen Shandiz/Sygma via Getty Images)

In July 1991, the Japanese translator of the condemned book, Hitoshi Igarashi, 44-years-old, was stabbed to death outside his office at the University of Tsukuba, northeast of Tokyo. The same month, the book’s Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was also stabbed—this time, in his own home in Milan. Two years later, in July 1993, the book’s Turkish translator, the prolific author Aziz Nesin, was the target of an arson attack on a hotel in the city of Sivas. He escaped, but 37 others were killed. A few months later, Islamists came for William Nygaard, the book’s Norwegian publisher. Nygaard was shot three times outside his home in Oslo and was critically injured. 

And those are stories we remember. In 1989, 12 people were killed at an anti-Rushdie riot in Mumbai, the author’s birthplace, where the book was also banned. Five Pakistanis died in Islamabad under similar circumstances. 

As for Rushdie himself, he took refuge in England, thanks to round-the-clock protection from the British government. For more than a decade, he lived under the name “Joseph Anton” (the title of his memoir), moving from safe house to safe house. In the first six months, he had to move 56 times. (England was not immune from the hysteria: Rushdie’s book was burned by Muslims in the city of Bradford—and at the suggestion of police, two WHSmith shops in Bradford stopped carrying the book.)

Muslims burning copies of The Satanic Verses in Bradford. (Derek Hudson/Getty Images)

Salman Rushdie has lived half of his life with a bounty on his head—some $3.3 million promised by the Islamic Republic of Iran to anyone who murdered him. And yet, it was in 2015, years after he had come out of hiding, that he told the French newspaper L’Express: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” 

You would think that Rushdie would have said such a thing in the height of the chaos, when he was in hiding, when those associated with the book were being targeted for murder. By 2015, you might run into Rushdie at Manhattan cocktail parties, or at the theater with a gorgeous woman on his arm. (He had already been married to Padma, for God’s sake.)  

So why did he say it was the “darkest time” he had ever known? Because what he saw was the weakening of the very Western values—the ferocious commitment to free thought and free speech—that had saved his life. 

“If the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today,” he said in L’Express, “these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

He didn’t have to speculate. He said that because that is exactly what they did. 

See, when Salman Rushdie was under siege, the likes of Tom Wolfe, Christopher Hitchens, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney stood up to defend him. The leader of the pack was Susan Sontag, who was then president of PEN America, and arranged for the book to be read in public.  Hitchens recalled that Sontag shamed members into showing up on Rushdie’s behalf and showing a little “civic fortitude.” (Read more about it all here.)

From left to right: Susan Sontag, Gay Talese, E L Doctorow and Norman Mailer at Writers in Support of Salman Rushdie in New York City in February 1989. (Sara Krulwich/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

That courage wasn’t an abstraction, especially to some booksellers. 

Consider the heroism of Andy Ross, the owner of the now-shuttered Cody’s Books in Berkeley, which carried the book and was bombed shortly after the fatwa was issued. 

Here’s Ross: 

“It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees.”

After the bombing, he gathered all of his staff for a meeting:

“I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. . . . I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness. But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.”

That was the late 1980s.

By 2015, America was a very different place.

When Rushdie made those comments to L’Express it was in the fallout of PEN, the country’s premiere literary group, deciding to honor the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo with an award. Months before, a dozen staff members of Charlie Hebdo were murdered by two terrorists in their offices. It was impossible to think of a publication that deserved to be recognized and elevated more.

And yet the response from more than 200 of the world’s most celebrated authors was to protest the award. Famous writers—Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Michael Cunningham, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, Junot Díaz—suggested that maybe the people who had just seen their friends murdered for publishing a satirical magazine were a little bit at fault, too. That if something offends a minority group, that perhaps it shouldn’t be printed. And those cartoonists were certainly offensive, even the dead ones. These writers accused PEN of “valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

Here’s how Rushdie responded: “This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.”

He was right. They were wrong. And their civic cowardice, as Sontag may have described it, is in no small part, responsible for the climate we find ourselves in today. (As I wrote this, I got a news alert from The New York Times saying the attacker’s “motive was unclear.” Motive was unclear?)

Rushdie in Paris. (Micheline Pelletier/Sygma via Getty Images)

The words are violence crowd is right about the power of language. Words can be vile, disgusting, offensive, and dehumanizing. They can make the speaker worthy of scorn, protest, and blistering criticism. But the difference between civilization and barbarism is that civilization responds to words with words. Not knives or guns or fire. That is the bright line. There can be no excuse for blurring that line—whether out of religious fanaticism or ideological orthodoxy of any other kind.

Today our culture is dominated by those who blur that line—those who lend credence to the idea that words, art, song lyrics, children’s books, and op-eds are the same as violence. We are so used to this worldview and what it requires—apologize, grovel, erase, grovel some more—that we no longer notice. It is why we can count, on one hand—Dave Chappelle; J.K. Rowling—those who show spine.

Of course it is 2022 that the Islamists finally get a knife into Salman Rushdie. Of course it is now, when words are literally violence and J.K. Rowling literally puts trans lives in danger and even talking about anything that might offend anyone means you are literally arguing I shouldn’t exist. Of course it’s now, when we’re surrounded by silliness and weakness and self-obsession, that a man gets on stage and plunges a knife into Rushdie, plunges it into his liver, plunges it into his arm, plunges it into his eye. That is violence.

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