We are all praying that Salman Rushdie will be okay. What happened in Chautauqua in New York today is indescribably appalling. An author, a man, stabbed in the neck just as he was about to speak on freedom of expression. This attack is a vile affront to liberty and to the principles of an open society.
Much remains unknown. We don’t know what condition Rushdie is in: he was last seen being carried on a stretcher to an air ambulance. And we don’t know anything about the attacker or the motivation. But there are things we do know. We know that for more than 30 years Rushdie has lived in the shadow of a despicable fatwa issued by Iran. We know that Rushdie became Public Enemy No. 1 for many radical Islamists following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. And we know that, far too often, intellectuals here in the West failed to make a full-throated defence of Rushdie’s freedom of expression. It is our pressing duty now to reflect on all of this.
It remains to be seen whether Rushdie’s attacker was inspired by the fatwa: whether they were simply crazy or deluded in a way that had nothing to do with religion. But it is the threat of precisely this kind of attack that has overshadowed Rushdie’s life since first becoming victim to the 1989 attempt to silence him. In a world in which many people, from Islamists to identitarians, assume they have a right not to be offended, it was only a matter of time before physical force was used against those who offend.
That was always the chilling thing about Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie. It actually chimed with developments here in the West. It looked and sounded like an alien edict – what kind of society calls on people to ‘kill without delay’ a man whose only crime was to write a novel? – and yet it sat creepily well with a growing conviction in Western society that it is unacceptable to offend minority groups and religions.
Iran’s issuing of the fatwa coincided with our own institutionalisation of the idea of ‘Islamophobia’ – the idea that criticising a religion should be ranked alongside racism as a form of bigotry.