Authors on the Salman Rushdie attack: ‘A society cannot survive without free speech’

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Authors around the world have emphasised the importance of freedom of speech after the attack on Salman Rushdie on stage at an event in New York on Friday.

Rushdie, now 75, became a figurehead of free speech after his writings, particularly his novel The Satanic Verses, were considered by some Muslims to be blasphemous, leading to death threats in the 1980s as Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa that called for his death.

The British-American citizen, who was born in India, was given police protection and went into hiding for many years. He was knighted in 2007 by the Queen, an event that led to protests in Iran and Pakistan.

Writing in the Guardian, Margaret Atwood said Rushdie had never missed an opportunity to speak out on behalf of the principles he had embodied in all his writing life.

Freedom of expression was foremost among these. Once a yawn-making liberal platitude, this concept has now become a hot-button issue, since the extreme right has attempted to kidnap it in the service of libel, lies, and hatred, and the extreme left has tried to toss it out the window in the service of their version of earthly perfection. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee many panel discussions on the subject, should we reach a moment in which rational debate is possible. But whatever it is, the right to freedom of expression does not include the right to defame, to lie maliciously and damagingly about provable facts, to issue death threats, or to advocate murder. These should be punishable by law.

As for those who are saying “Yes, but …” about Rushdie – some version of “He should have known better,” as in “Yes, too bad about the rape, but why was she wearing that revealing skirt” – I can only remark that there are no perfect victims. In fact, there are no perfect artists, nor is there any perfect art. Anti-censorship folks often find themselves having to defend work they would otherwise review scathingly, but such defences are necessary, unless we are all to have our vocal cords removed.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, the Booker prize-winning author Ben Okri said the world had become less tolerant of nuance and disagreement.

We already live in a climate in which it is increasingly harder to express oneself freely. Now, this attack on Salman Rushdie, which many of us have feared for more than 30 years, has made creativity a matter of life and death. The internet has unleashed the monsters of trolling and hate speech. Death threats are issued to celebrities and to ordinary citizens expressing themselves on any number of issues.

We have become less tolerant of nuance and disagreement. The atmosphere is more toxic than it has ever been. Yet it cannot be said strongly enough that a society cannot survive without free speech. Democracy is built on the right to dissent, on the right for people to hold opposing positions. Our societies need freedom of expression to protect us from the worst atrocities that governments can visit on their citizens.

Lisa Appignanesi, the British-Canadian writer and former president of the writers’ organisation English PEN, told Radio 4’s Today programme that The Satanic Verses would be seen as too controversial to be released today.

Satanic Verses certainly wouldn’t be [published]. There are a lot of fanatical religions in the world at the moment and no one knows where the greatest terror will come from next.

Satanic Verses is a satire of Thatcher’s Britain, not of Islam. And a lot of things he describes are very much still with us, such as the tragedy of migrants and the extraordinary racism that still exists.

Ian McEwan said the attack on his “dear friend” represented an assault on freedom of thought and speech.

These are the freedoms that underpin all our rights and liberties. Salman has been an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world. He is a fiery and generous spirit, a man of immense talent and courage and he will not be deterred.

The former children’s laureate Michael Rosen tweeted:

Total condemnation for the deed and the spirit and politics behind it.

The Scottish novelist AL Kennedy told the BBC World Service:

I think [Rushdie’s] reaction to the fatwa was always very, very positive. It allowed him to understand even more that what you do is you keep writing and keep speaking and you keep doing a thing which is eternal. And you do it for as long as you’re able to.

[Rushdie] is the opposite of silence. Writers are the opposite of silence. If you want us to be silent, you want us to be dead.