What Salman Rushdie Can Teach Us About Modern Free Speech

“Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.” In his fourth novel that struck the world as controversial yet insightful, The Satanic Verses, Indian-born British-American novelist Salman Rushdie emphasizes the importance of expressing your true beliefs regardless of potential public backlash. In fact, the significance of your first amendment right to freedom of speech is best outlined by Rushdie himself: “Without the freedom to offend, [the freedom of expression] ceases to exist.”

While many Islamic leaders failed to look at the valuable messages Rushdie attempted to share to the world in his novel, activists who stand up for journalistic integrity, protection, and freedom of speech stood by his side, giving way for his nomination for the 1988 Booker Prize. At the time, it seemed as though in the midst of the hate and animosity (to the extent of assassination attempts and death threats) Rushdie was receiving for his tendentious views on the Islamic culture and the foundations off of which Muslims lead their daily lives, the liberties of humankind, the basic freedoms we are entitled to, and the pedestal that authors are specifically honored with to share their scholarly and erudite perspectives on pressing issues would prevail.

But, must I emphasize at the time? On August 12, 2022, Rushdie was stabbed in the neck and abdomen multiple times preceding a public lecture he was about to give at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. As the Associated Press reports, the suspected attacker, Hadi Matar (24) from Fairview, New Jersey was “arrested at the scene and was awaiting arraignment.” The audience members testified that the assailant stabbed and punched him 10 to 15 times over the course of the attack. Despite these severe injuries, Rushdie is recovering well and his fellow novelists and supporters have stood by his side with the “Stand With Salman” gathering presented by Penguin Random House (Rushdie’s main publisher), and by the literary and human rights organization PEN America.

Before we get into the paramount portion of the matter at hand, it is of great importance to recognize the root causes behind the aggressor’s actions. Although Matar nor his attorney have provided any confirmed motive, many people have connected the case to the 1989 fatwa (Islamic law) issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, calling for Rushdie’s death after the latter published The Satanic Verses. The fatwa was widely promulgated across the international Muslim community alongside a three million dollar bounty awarded for his death.

Now, of course I didn’t give you all of this backstory of Rushdie’s historical and current state to simply report on this issue. No, not at all. In fact, the previous paragraphs are leading up to an underlying problem that has been ingrained in American society as we know it today, yet ignored by those who have the power to fix it. Ingrained, yet ignored, like most things American.

In layman’s terms, the freedom of speech and expression for journalists and authors who are essential to society for their scholarly opinions that serve as a foundation of the actions of elected leaders is under attack for comparatively irrelevant factors. A basic human right, the very first one in the Bill of Rights if I may add, is currently being undermined in a country in which liberties have evolved into advertising content. Anyone will be able to confidently list the defining factors of America: bald eagles, the Statue of Liberty, and freedom. And while the first two are seen to be significant pillars of American democracy as we know it today, the one that involves Rushdie’s case is the last one: freedom, and specifically freedom of speech.

As touched upon earlier, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses sparked debates all over the world surrounding the topic of where to draw the line between practicing free speech and offending social groups and classes with thoughts being pitched in by religious leaders, Constitutional pundits, social activists, and the occasional Redditer who has nothing better to do than scroll through an entire argument between two fellow Redditers in a comments thread of a post that has nothing to do with the subject. But again, I digress.

Before we move on, I would also like to point out that the Rushdie controversy kindled the flames of many all around the world in support and opposition of the author, with former President Jimmy Carter pitching in, attempting to ease both sides of the argument but still respecting Rushdie’s freedom of speech. In a New York Times article, Carter wrote, “The death sentence proclaimed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an abhorrent response, surely surprising even to Rushdie. It is our duty to condemn the threat of murder, to protect the author’s life and to honor Western rights of publication and distribution.”

It is also important to understand Rushdie’s personality as well before analyzing this topic. Rushdie himself looks at his role as a writer “as including the function of antagonist to the state.” He believes that authors are given the special distinction of not just holding the government accountable (something that all Americans can do), but doing so in a learned capacity using evidence and deductive reasoning to back their argument.

Some may argue that when looking at the novel in terms of freedom of speech, Rushdie crosses the societal boundary of offending people, an argument that is warranted by pointing at J. K. Rowling’s 2020 controversial statements on defining the existence and, therefore, legality of transgender people.

Two authors practicing their freedom of speech and attempting to have their input on the table while offending a certain demographic. While at first these situations may seem indistinguishable, the reality behind them is vastly different. Primarily, Rowling has not ever had the experience of being a transgender person or any part of the LGBTQIA+ while Rushdie has explicitly stated that he was “shaped by Muslim culture more than any other” and was a student of Islam. Given that Rushdie is a first-hand expert of Islam who has practiced it, and then found its flaws to be greater than its benefits, but Rowling is inexperienced in the matter of her controversy, it is as dangerous of a comparison as Khomeini claimed Rushdie’s well-intentioned novel to be “blasphemous”.

Furthermore, an example closer to the religious standpoint that Rushdie dissects is cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a nonfiction book in a graphic novel format that follows Spiegelman’s father’s journey through World War II and concentration camps as a Jew. The book received massive criticism for displaying naked mice and creating divide between sides in the war. This extended to the point where many school boards and state lawmakers banned it, rekindling the debate on the efficacy of banning controversial texts. However, these actions are only putting students in a bubble that will only protect them from the real world until they are forced to actually live independently. In fact, as I discussed in a previous article, hiding from the truth will only make you less prepared to face these issues and more likely to repeat a tragic event.

And as always, where do we go from here? The least that the followers of the late Ayatollah Khomeini can do is the most simple, yet most powerful reparation: apologizing. When the perpetually immutable defamation of Rushdie reached the extent of a brutal, near-fatal attack three decades after the publication of the book that started it and the death of Khomeini himself, it is commonsensical that the one who claimed an uncontroversial book to be controversial should be held accountable along with his followers who carried out his religious directive. Furthermore, bringing justice to this case would increase journalists’ and authors’ motivation to continue their profession as they are assured that their actions will be protected by the first amendment.

It is essential to recognize that while all people should have the freedom of speech, authors and journalists, great scholars who know how to transform ideas and knowledge into words for others to read, have an even greater obligation that doubles as a liberty: the freedom of press. They have the bully pulpit of knowledge, the attention of just about everyone who can read, and the power to pass down stories, events, and ideas to the future generations. When we acknowledge this power of authors, our side of the social contract is to respect and trust them. And when these journalists are bestowed with such great responsibility, the least that this aspiring journalist can ask is to treat them with the respect they deserve.

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KRISHNA MANO

Hello! My name is Krishna Mano and I am an 9th Grader at City High School. This is my third year writing for the City Voice and first year as an editor. Apart from the newspaper, I am part of the Speech and Debate team, Student Ambassadors, and a board member of the NHS. Outside of school, my most favorite hobbies are reading, playing the violin, public speaking, and paddleboarding. If you have any questions about my articles, please contact me at krishna.mano.thecityvoice@gmail.com.

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