Friday’s attack on author Salman Rushdie was horrific. The attacker stabbed him 10 times, puncturing his liver and severing the nerves in one arm. Rushdie may lose an eye. Security and audience members swarmed the attacker, pulling him off Rushdie and subduing him. A doctor in the audience tended to Rushdie’s wounds while the attacker was placed under arrest.
The assault hit close to home for me. Not just because I’ve met and dined with Rushdie. Or because, as an unrepentant bibliophile, the first printing of The Satanic Verses that Rushdie signed and personalized “For Andrew” is among my most cherished possessions. But because I’ve written a book that plenty of people wrongly consider to be against Christianity, Jesus and the Bible. I’ve had death threats, some serious. I pay exorbitant fees to keep my personal information offline. A Tennessee pastor tied to the Proud Boys filmed himself happily burning my book with a blowtorch. I don’t mean to suggest that the personal threat I face is the same as the threats Rushdie faces; only that the public values threatened are.
The attack on Rushdie was premeditated, according to authorities. Officially, we don’t yet know the reason for the assault, and there’s been no announcement about the attacker’s motive. But we can make an educated guess. The history of violence that has haunted Rushdie’s life and the assassination order publicly announced in 1989 suggest an obvious answer.
Six months after the publication of Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, put a price on Rushdie’s head. Not just Rushdie, but “all those involved in its publication who are aware of its content are sentenced to death.” Why? Because “the Satanic Verses book … is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran.”
A head of state and religious leader ordered the murder of a British citizen for writing a book. For daring to think freely. To write freely. To publish freely. Eventually, the bounty climbed to more than $3 million.
Protests and mob violence erupted worldwide. Bookstores, including in the U.S., were firebombed for selling or discussing the book. In 1991, Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator of the book, was stabbed in Milan. Days later, Prof. Hitoshi Igarashi, the translator for the Japanese language edition, was stabbed to death outside his office at Tsukuba University in Tokyo. William Nygaard, the head of the Norwegian publisher of the book, was shot three times in 1993, barely surviving. The plots and violence continued over the years, though more sporadically, as did the official calls for Rushdie’s death. The publicly announced murder-for-hire contract was never rescinded.
This appalling attack imperils a host of freedoms that Americans United fights for and holds dear: freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and church-state separation. For instance, we don’t typically see secular states suborning the murder of a writer who may utter something critical of religion. Theocracies do that. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the forerunner to our First Amendment, explained “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions” and that, “to suffer the civil Magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty.” Our nation, from the beginning, was not a Christian nation, but one opposed to theocracy because our founders were committed to the freedom of thought.
Criticism of religion is a basic human right. It’s the beginning of freedom. We cannot begin to live freely until we can think freely. And freedom of thought begins with questioning, critiquing and criticizing the answers we are told from birth to accept without question.
If last week’s attack was an effort to consummate the holy fatwa, that it was carried out on U.S. soil should be to our national shame and rage. Rushdie was going to speak to the audience at the Chautauqua Institution on “the United States as a place of asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.” The assassination attempt is an attack on all of us. It differs from the current political assaults on public education, public schools, teachers, public libraries and books only in its violence. If we wish for America to be an asylum for free expression, we need to defeat the Christian nationalism and religious extremism threatening our public institutions.
I keep revisiting one facet of the assassination attempt: Rushdie’s attacker is 24 years old — he wasn’t even born when The Satanic Verses was published. He wouldn’t be born for another decade. And yet he threw his life away to attempt to end another’s, likely because this one person wrote a work of fiction that others deemed offensive. Because Rushdie had the audacity to think and write freely. A brainwashed man with a knife tried to snuff out the life of a brilliant man with a pen.
Photo by Chris Line