Rushdie’s Long War Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

Will the cowardly attack on Salman Rushdie help those in the West understand the stakes for free expression?

Salman Rushdie, 2014. Credit: Ed Lederman / PEN American Center

I first heard news of writer Salman Rushdie’s attack in a cryptic text message sent to me by a close friend. My heart sank like a stone, and my stomach turned as I searched the internet and found the headlines I was hunting for.

Rushdie, seventy-five, was about to speak to an audience in New York State. While taking the stage, he was met with a brutally vicious knife attack. He suffered numerous stab wounds to his head, neck, and abdomen before onlookers finally ripped the assailant off him. After hours of surgery, Rushdie was unable to speak, and reports now suggest he will likely lose an eye.

Based on preliminary information,1 the attacker was a sympathizer of Islamic extremism and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This is, sadly, no surprise.

The looming threat of violence is nothing new for the Indian-born British-American writer. In 1988, he published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, and chaos quickly made friends with Rushdie. He was charged with mocking the Prophet Muhammad in the novel and, thus, with calling the basis of Islamic belief into question.

The reaction to the publication was stark and swift. Riots and assassinations ensued.2 The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, issued a fatwa—a sacred religious bounty—upon the head of Rushdie and his publishers.

Insistent on bloody revenge, the Ayatollah called upon Muslims to point out the writer to those who may be better capable of killing him if they themselves were unable to.

An extraordinary detail worth remembering is that the offense in question against Muhammad took place in a dream sequence in the novel—quite literally fiction within fiction—met with fatwa.

Rushdie would spend nearly a decade in hiding under a British protective order, at one point he was housed in the Washington, D.C., home of polemicist Christopher Hitchens. In a sad bit of history that links us to the present day, few of Hitchens’s stature in journalism or politics publicly came to Rushdie’s defense. Many questioned whether Rushdie may have been asking for it, and many still do.

Rushdie was never self-serving in the aftermath of the fatwa. He actively defended the right of his detractors to publish criticism of his work. In one memorable on-air moment, he reminded a self-righteous television panel that the man who saved New Yorkers from the Times Square bomber was, well, “Muslim, too.”

Such a response is not at all surprising, because Rushdie knew that the problem was not with Muslims but instead with fascism and theocracy and its defenders—whether they existed inside or outside of Islam. Rushdie clearly identified the specific problem in this case as relating to the power of caustic beliefs and an inability to moderate a religion being powerfully influenced by violent, religious fundamentalist extremism.

Nonetheless, Rushdie’s core message was well received by many moderates within the faith. Over 100 of his Arab and Muslim colleagues penned a collection of essays in support of his work.3 And Rushdie offered support of his own, spending decades defending the rights of those with a lesser platform than he held.

Over time, things appeared to settle down. Rushdie continued publishing and insisted on an inconspicuous security presence at his speaking engagements. He urged hosts to focus on his other writings instead of a sustained and therefore boring fixation on that which made him famous. Amazingly, just weeks before the attack, Rushdie told a German magazine that his life had become “relatively normal.” Unfortunately for Rushdie, fanaticism has a long memory.

The fatwa has been characterized as an opening shot in a monumental and modern-day culture war over free expression.4 If that analogy holds, and many believe it does, then Hitchens and Rushdie are four-star generals.

In this war, the battleground is consequential. On the one hand: free expression, free speech, open dialogue, comedy, ridicule, discussion, debate, and, importantly, progress. On the other: backward ideas, tortured ethical views, the negation of rights, and delusional, religiously derived edicts about how both believers and nonbelievers must be forced to live their lives under threat of torture, violence, and death.

In this war, we are being presented with a bully trying to force a new world order and way of living. We are being threatened into cowardice when it comes to speech. We are being presented with a world in which those with something meaningful to say must pause, halt it at the back of their lips, and bat it back down their throats because they might just upset some zealot or fascist. One might be labeled as a bigot, or, worse, someone could get hurt.

January 2015 cover of Charlie Hebdo.

Thirty-four years from the publication of The Satanic Verses and twenty-one years after the 9/11 attacks, we are still very much in wartime. Some have shouldered more than their fair share of the costs. Of course, when only a few stand up for the freedom of expression and freedom of thought, they become appetizing targets. The inability of major media publications to publish newsworthy but controversial topics or cartoons has slapped the idea of “spreading the risk” squarely in the face. It is on the coattails of Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo that the rest of us quietly ride.

Speaking on the topic of the 2015 massacre of the staff of the French satire publication Charlie Hebdo, Rushdie himself produced a lucid response to that grotesque slaughter. “The thing that I really resent,” said Rushdie, “is the way in which our dead comrades, you know, these people who died using the same implement that I use, which is a pen, or a pencil, have been almost immediately vilified and called racists and I don’t know what else.”

He went on to say that Charlie Hebdo had satirized everything and everyone. According to Rushdie, one is free to dislike the cartoons and the cartoonists, and he suggested himself that not all the cartoons were funny. Still, he argued, “the fact that you dislike them has got nothing to do with their right to speak,” and disapproval of their work does not excuse their public execution.5

Obviously, Rushdie is correct. More than this, the freedom of speech, as beautifully summarized by Hitchens,6 does not merely amount to the freedom to express, or speak, but also to listen and to hear. “And every time you silence somebody,” he said in 2006, “you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something.”

When confronted with the problem of explaining who should hold censorship powers in a so-called free society, naysayers arguing for limitations on expression continue to produce dubious arguments. In response to the Rushdie attack, Good Morning Britain titled one segment quite fatuously, “Should we be allowed to cause offense?”7 This is a sign of the times and a red flag waving in the wind, helplessly begging us to come to our senses.

Of course we should be able to offend. Of course we should be able to criticize and make fun of ideas, stupid or otherwise. Nothing is so sacred as to be outside the bounds of ridicule or discussion, because no single belief is held by all people. It is our nonviolent disagreements and dissent that forge progress and nourish a shared and interesting culture.

Apologists arguing in favor of a crackdown on expression will claim the necessity of hate speech laws in defending us against Nazism, for example. See, they say, there are limits after all. In addition to missing the point, as it relates to Rushdie’s speech, this is an awfully ahistorical and silly argument as well. As one keen commentator pointed out, Weimar Germany had its own versions of hate speech laws and prosecuted Nazis using them. In response, the Nazi movement utilized the fiasco as propaganda and used it as a reliable leg to stand on in its focused march toward the Holocaust.

We must shorten our patience for those who want to upend our freedoms and who wish to stitch dangerous religious law into our pluralist social fabric. We must also condemn their apologists among our own ranks. We live in a time in which activists with no skin in the game tell us that “speech is violence.” This is a delusion.

Whether the apologists who make the morally and intellectually bankrupt claim that Rushdie simply “asked for it” want to admit it or not, we are living through an “us versus them” moment, a war fought on a battleground of ideas.

Many in the West will condemn and attack the very people, such as Rushdie and others, who defend the way of life they enjoy. This is a shade of the same cowardice displayed by the man who tried to gut the author. As Rushdie so succinctly put it, “The moment somebody says, ‘yes I believe in free speech, but,’ I stop listening.”

On this point, our societal conscience and compass must steer more directly toward normalizing ridicule of any position that blames the victims of religious-extremist violence. We need to begin to live in a world in which those who tacitly endorse elements of Sharia Law in our societies are laughed out of town. They must begin to pay a costly social price, because we know what the endgame is, and we refuse to accept it.

We don’t accept the enslavement of women, the stoning of adulterers, or the launching of homosexuals from rooftops. We don’t accept or make excuses for these broken ideas, and our intolerance for them should extend to the trampling of free expression as well.

For those who think this is simply too much attention for too little a cause or who think we are unfairly tarring an entire people, you are redirected to the parts of the world where these threats are real. And it is worth the reminder that these real terrors are perpetrated against those within the religion first and foremost.

We must not be cowed by the threats of attacks that may accompany our defense of free expression. We must not get sucked into distorted thought and a regurgitated political correctness that is designed to make us feel good but that should make us feel sick.

In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens reminded us that “the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” In that vein, we must learn to be as vocal and stubborn as the religious zealots who want to destroy Western civilization because our cause is more worthy, our ethics are more durable, and our defenders are more deserving of our help.

On the Rushdie affair, you either stand with Rushdie and others who lift the pen to paper, or you excuse those who attempted to carve his neck and gouge his eyes out with a knife at a public lecture in broad daylight. There are no buts. There are no caveats. There are no stipulations. It really is that simple.

Rushdie gets part of the last word today, as he should. In one of his great fictional pieces, The Old Man in the Piazza, one line stands out: “In these times of strife and stress, I recommend a good rest.”

Let us be ever thankful that the attacker’s dull blade could not slay Rushdie and snuff out his flame. Let that flame continue to burn bright. May he find a good rest before meeting his sharp pen, the spoken word, and the world once again.


1. “Salman Rushdie Stabbing: Attacker Is A Sympathizer Of Shia Extremism, Says Report,” Outlandia, August 13, 2022. Available online at


3. Sharon Waxman, “Arab, Muslim Writers Speak Out for Rushdie,” Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1993. Available online at

4.  Christopher Hitchens, “Assassins of the Mind,” Vanity Fair, January 5, 2009. Available online at

5. Salman Rushdie at the University of Vermont, January 15, 2015. Available online at

6. Christopher Hitchens to the University of Toronto Hart House Debating Club, 2006. Available online at

7. Good Morning Britain, August 15, 2022. Available online at

Will the cowardly attack on Salman Rushdie help those in the West understand the stakes for free expression? I first heard news of writer Salman Rushdie’s attack in a cryptic text message sent to me by a close friend. My heart sank like a stone, and my stomach turned as I searched the internet and …