Free Speech

Remembering Rushdie: 30 Years Ago, the Novelist Was Marked for Death by Ayatollah Khomeini

Jonathan Rauch says that the fatwa against The Satanic Verses author ushered in a new age of intolerance.


Andrew Lih, CC, Wikipedia

Today marks the day, 30 years ago, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, whose novel, The Satanic Verses, mocked Mohammed. The Iranian leader offered millions of dollars to the true believer who would murder Rushdie. Forty-one years old at the time, Rushdie lived hidden and under guard for a decade before coming back above ground (it's not fully clear if the fatwa is in force anymore, but Rushdie now lives publicly and without protection).

"It feels like ancient history to me," he told an interviewer in 2018, while promoting his latest novel, The Golden House. He expresses satisfaction in finding that at long last, a generation on, The Satanic Verses can be read as a novel, rather than as a controversy, a symbol, a casus belli. "Now, after all this time, it's finally been able to have the ordinary life of a book," he said in March of 2018.

Writing in Spiked, Jonathan Rauch argues

At the time, many observers, myself included, believed the incident to be some kind of inflection point – a view which proved correct. But what sort of inflection point? Thirty years have brought additional clarity, and an ominous development. Today, mob demands for censorship and censure are so common they have acquired a new name: call-out culture. Contra Rushdie, the episode is not ancient history, not at all.

I'm not fully convinced by his argument that there is a straight line between the Rushdie affair and today's diminished defenses of free speech (indeed, Rauch himself hedges toward the end of his article). But his quick litany of high-profile instances where the principle of free-speech has been tossed out the window in the name of protecting the feelings of the aggrieved is sobering and depressing. And certainly this much is true:

The impulse to rally against blasphemy and to drive out impurity is a human impulse, not a radical or Islamist or specifically religious impulse; and that lots of sophisticated people in places like America and the UK are yielding to it; and the ultimate consequences are barbaric and oppressive, because of the victims they destroy and the conversations they squelch.

Read Rauch's full article here.

Read Reason works by and about Rauch here.