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March 2023 Issue [Revision]

A Climate of Fear

The free speech skeptics abandon Salman Rushdie
Illustration by Ibrahim Rayintakath

Illustration by Ibrahim Rayintakath


A Climate of Fear

The free speech skeptics abandon Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, closes as its author emerges in 2002 from years in hiding; he bids goodbye to members of the security detail that has guarded him since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa called for his death. “That was it,” Rushdie writes. “More than thirteen years after the police walked into his life, they spun on their heels and walked out of it.” Still, he wonders whether “the battle over The Satanic Verses” has ended in “victory or defeat.”

This may seem a strange question. Rushdie’s novel had not been suppressed; in fact, its literary and political significance was widely recognized, and its author was alive and well. Both Rushdie and those charged with his protection believed that the threat against him had abated enough for him to return to public life. Yet Rushdie ends his memoir on a note of concern: he writes that the “climate of fear” had intensified since the fatwa was issued, making it “harder for books like his to be published, or even, perhaps, to be written.”

As it happens, he had cause to worry. In the intervening years, support for Rushdie and for free expression has narrowed—a fact made particularly clear since his August 2022 stabbing by an American of Lebanese descent who expressed admiration for Khomeini and condemned Rushdie after reading “a couple pages” of The Satanic Verses. The assault, which put Rushdie in intensive care and left him blind in one eye, would have been unimaginable without the fatwa, yet many have been content to treat it as a random act of violence by a lone madman.

An August 19 New York City rally of writers gathered in support of Rushdie reprised a 1989 demonstration against the fatwa in which Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Christopher Hitchens, and others participated, but the later iteration “paled in comparison,” a Le Monde editorial remarked. Across social media, writers expressed concern for Rushdie’s health, but an instinctual solidarity with him and the sense—so strong at the time of the fatwa—that his fate spoke to all of us as members of a liberal society did not materialize. Even among his defenders, free speech took a back seat.

Why? One reason is fear. In 2009, the British writer Hanif Kureishi told Prospect Magazine that “nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses.” He might have added that no one would have the balls to defend it. Most writers, Kureishi continued, live quietly, and “they don’t want a bomb in the letterbox.”

The effectiveness of threatened violence was proven by an event that came to be known as “the Danish cartoon crisis.” In 2005—the same year that Ayatollah Khamenei reaffirmed Rushdie’s death sentence—the left-wing Danish author Kåre Bluitgen sought an illustrator for a children’s book about Mohammed but was reportedly unable to find one due to artists’ fears of retaliation. The story caught the attention of editors at Jyllands-Posten, one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, who solicited members of the forty-two-person newspaper illustrators’ union to draw the prophet in a test of self-censorship. They received twelve submissions. Their publication, alongside an essay on the experiment by culture editor Flemming Rose, led to a series of violent protests over several months in which hundreds of people died. The controversy became international news, but the vast majority of U.S. outlets that covered it did not reprint the cartoons, so as to avoid instigating more violence.1 When Yale University Press published the definitive scholarly work on the subject, Jytte Klausen’s The Cartoons that Shook the World, the publishers also declined to reprint the cartoons, against the author’s wishes. The press’s director, John Donatich, explained that he did not shy away from controversy, as shown by the fact that he had published an “unauthorized” biography of the Thai monarch: “I’ve never blinked.” But despite this record of untold bravery, he did not want “blood on [his] hands” by reprinting the cartoons.

That offense to fundamentalist Muslims will result in bloodshed—and that any spilled blood would be “on the hands” of those whose free expression caused the offense—remains a bedrock assumption for editors and publishers, as recent examples demonstrate. In 2008, Random House—Rushdie’s own publisher in the United States—sent around advance copies of The Jewel of Medina, a novel about Mohammed and his child bride, for promotional blurbs. When some of those solicited declined on the grounds that the book might provoke violence, Random House simply pulled the plug, claiming that it wanted to protect “the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.” Rushdie was vocal about his disappointment: “This is censorship by fear,” he said, “and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.”

Censorship by fear can take two forms: top-down or bottom-up. From the top, a publisher or editor can stop publication over concern about a potential reaction. If the right to free expression is qualified by the condition that you not “upset someone, especially someone who is willing to resort to violence,” Rushdie noted in Joseph Anton, it is no longer a right. However, the text or cartoon still exists, and might appear elsewhere (a small publisher picked up The Jewel of Medina after Random House scrapped it). But bottom-up censorship—self-censorship—is more nefarious, more widespread, and more difficult to track. Writers shelve projects before they see the light of day. The cartoon is undrawn, the novel or the scene unwritten. “The fight against censorship is open and dangerous and thus heroic,” the Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kiš observed in 1985, “while the battle against self-censorship is anonymous, lonely and unwitnessed.”

Despite the heroism of so many writers behind the Iron Curtain, some Western commentators throughout the Cold War claimed that citizens of the Soviet bloc valued the right to work, housing, free medical care, and education, but didn’t desire the imposition of Western liberal principles. Demands that those living under communist regimes be guaranteed freedom of expression were thus considered a form of imperialism. Many progressives offer the same interpretation when discussing the Muslim world today.

There is another reason support for Rushdie is not as strong as it should be: the increasingly widespread belief that free speech operates as a tool of the elite, that it ought not to be applied to speech that risks harm to marginalized groups. In a 2015 interview, Rushdie suggested that if the fatwa had come down then, commentators would be more upset that he’d insulted a minority group than that his life was endangered.

At the time, Rushdie was responding to fresh controversy: PEN America—the writers’ organization for which Rushdie had previously served as president—had given the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo an award after Islamic terrorists raided an editorial meeting and slaughtered twelve people over the magazine’s history of mocking Mohammed.2 To Rushdie’s amazement, over two hundred great and not-so-great writers—including Francine Prose, Geoff Dyer, Michael Ondaatje, Joyce Carol Oates, and Teju Cole—protested the award. If a writers’ group cannot defend free expression, Rushdie wondered, what can it do? To the righteous protesters, the cartoonists had intended to cause “humiliation and suffering” by attacking devout French Muslims who were “already marginalized, embattled and victimized.” Moreover, the cartoonists ignored the power dynamic at play—the fact that, supposedly, the illustrators with their pens held all the power, while the terrorists with their guns held none. (Convey that news to the families of the dead.)

This protest demonstrated the left’s retreat from free speech. For the American essayist Eliot Weinberger, the award was “merely the latest instance in the now-rampant free expression of gentlemanly Islamophobia.” Weinberger was probably pleased that the Islamic Human Rights Commission, a British outfit which claims to defend “the oppressed,” bestowed its “Islamophobe of the Year” award on Charlie Hebdo just two months after the massacre. First you get murdered in your office, then a human rights group posthumously condemns you for offending your killers.

The PEN protest popularized the idea that free speech should face limits when it comes to marginalized groups. The free speech movement of the old campus left apparently had the story upside-down: the new progressive credo posits that free speech sustains racism. In a recent article with the lovely title the settler coloniality of free speech, the scholar Darcy Leigh argues that free speech props up “white supremacist colonial power.” Rather than serving as a public good, Leigh explains in a model of academic prose, the “liberal politics around the freedom of free speech have functioned to control or silence Indigenous, Black, and/or otherwise racially othered speech.”

What this view means in practice was recently demonstrated at Minnesota’s Hamline University, when the adjunct professor Erika López Prater showed a fourteenth-century painting of Mohammed to a global art history class. The image was not a satirical drawing but an illustration from medieval Persia, and López Prater gave advance warning, allowing any student who might take offense to leave. Nonetheless, the university fired López Prater following complaints from Muslim students, and the university’s president co-signed a letter stating that the feelings of the Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.”

The free speech skeptics might want to read up on the history of abolitionism. In 1860, Frederick Douglass participated in a meeting of abolitionists in Boston. A mob of anti-abolitionists stormed the hall and silenced the gathering. When Douglass finally gave his prepared remarks, he included some thoughts on free speech. He found the excuse that the meeting in crisis-ridden Boston was “ill-timed” unconvincing: “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.” The right to free speech, he stated, strikes fear in the heart of tyrants. “It is the right which they first of all strike down. . . . Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble. . . . Slavery cannot tolerate free speech.”

One wonders what the bien pensants who prefer inoffensive expression would do with Voltaire, who regularly signed his letters “Écrasez l’infâme!” This translates to “crush the abomination,” by which he meant the Catholic Church. Today’s progressives would probably charge him with humiliating the faithful. Voltaire failed to understand the plight of provincial Catholics; Weinberger would doubtless take him to task for a gentlemanly anti-clericalism.

The point is, the liberal literati are backing away from freedom of expression. As one British free speech advocate recently asked, “Where is the ‘Je suis Salman Rushdie’ movement?” Answer: nowhere.

 is the author, most recently, of On Diversity.

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