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When is Salman Rushdie not a poignant and principled symbol of free speech and free expression to the political right in Europe and the United States?
Based on their deafening silence in response to a recent talk he gave, the answer appears to be when Rushdie defines populist right-wing authoritarianism as a greater threat to free speech in “The West” than fundamentalist Islam.
Just over a year has passed since Rushdie was attacked on stage during a literary event in western New York, resulting in his being permanently blinded in one eye and losing the use of a hand. For over 30 years Rushdie lived under the fatwa issued by the former Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini.
With the passage of time there was a sense that the threat to Rushdie’s life had diminished. Rushdie even made light of his situation in a cameo appearance in Larry David’s HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm – saying, for example, that the fatwa was a great excuse for getting out of unwanted social engagements. That sense was obliterated with the shocking events of August 12, 2022. Media reports indicated that Rushdie’s attacker had shown sympathy for Shia extremism and the Iranian government, but has (to date) refused to say if the attack was a direct response to the fatwa.
After Rushdie was attacked, many on the US and European right identified Islamic fundamentalism as the single greatest threat to free expression in the so-called “Western” world. If the violent riots following the 2005 publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper, followed by the horrific 2015 mass murder of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, had entrenched this position, the Rushdie stabbing solidified it.
In the last few months in Sweden a number of journalists and politicians came out in defence of the public burning of Qur’ans, saying that these acts are the crystallization of free expression, again pointing to fundamentalist Islam as the most serious contemporary threat to Swedish free expression.
One might assume that, of all people, Rushdie would agree.
Speaking via video to the National First Amendment Summit in Philadelphia earlier this month, Rushdie identified the greatest threat to contemporary free expression as coming from “populist authoritarian demagoguery” on the political right, and pointed squarely at US Republicans as undermining speech and democratic values.
Rushdie said, perhaps unsurprisingly, that ten or twenty years ago he would have seen religious fundamentalism as greatest threat to free expression. Now? Rushdie fears a diminishing belief in “the democratic values enshrined in the first amendment” and sees the main threat to contemporary speech as “political more than primarily religious.”
Given that last year’s attack on Rushdie was used as (yet more) proof by many on the right that Islamic fundamentalism is the main threat to free speech, it was undoubtedly irritating to that same populist right that Rushdie identified them as the greater threat.
Rushdie’s observation – using the United States as his example – about the dangers of authoritarian populism outweighing that of religious fundamentalism is one that emphasizes the profound impact of policy and politics on speech and expression over individual acts of violence.
In a review of the banning of books in US schools, Pen America found that almost 4,000 books had been banned since the fall of 2021. According to PEN, “Black and LGBTQ+ authors and books about race, racism, and LGBTQ identities have been disproportionately affected” and “the wave of book banning is worse than anything seen in decades.” One would be hard-pressed to argue that Islamic fundamentalism has had a greater impact on free expression in the US than this single wave of book banning.
One would be equally hard-pressed to argue that Islamic fundamentalism threatens to have a greater impact on free expression in, for example, Hungary than Victor Orban’s Fidesz party, which, according to Reporters Without Borders, has taken near-complete control of the Hungarian media landscape by turning public broadcasting into a “propaganda organ” and, “has seized de facto control of 80% of the country’s media through political and economic manoeuvres and the purchase of news organisations by friendly oligarchs.”
Outrage over what happened to Salman Rushdie or at the Charlie Hebdo offices is more than justified, it is required. Attempts by religious extremists to stifle speech by murdering, or attempting to murder, those who speak is barbaric and have no place in a democratic society.
Yet the claim that these fundamentalists are today the main threat to free speech and expression is either naïve or disingenuous. Speech and expression in the US and Europe are threatened by a number of actors: from governments to police to corporations to the military. Their power to stifle free expression is deep and wide. The country that declares itself the “freest in the world” is literally banning books from public schools and libraries.
As the target of fundamentalists for over three decades, Rushdie possessed a great deal of moral capital on the issue of free expression. So, when he was blinded and lost the use of a hand, that capital was leveraged by politicians and journalists across Europe and the US to frame Islam as the greatest threat to the “Western” value of free speech. There were countless news articles, opinion pieces, tweets, Facebook posts and television soundbites.
Yet, when that same symbol of free speech and free expression, likely stabbed in the name of that same fundamentalism, decided to cast his own spotlight elsewhere? Somewhere culturally inward and politically inconvenient? Then, suddenly, Rushdie’s moral capital was no longer of interest. Gone were the news articles, opinion pieces, tweets, Facebook posts and television soundbites.
And gone, one may conclude, was any genuine interest in free speech.