Home Book publication Since 1989, threats against Salman Rushdie have sparked free speech debates: NPR

Since 1989, threats against Salman Rushdie have sparked free speech debates: NPR

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In 1989, after Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie, readings of his works were held in the United States. During this one in San Francisco, novelist Alice Walker reads aloud excerpts from Rushdie’s satanic verses.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press


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Eric Risberg/Associated Press


In 1989, after Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie, readings of his works were held in the United States. During this one in San Francisco, novelist Alice Walker reads aloud excerpts from Rushdie’s satanic verses.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

In a small meeting room in midtown Manhattan in 1989, more than 20 prominent writers stood in turn to read aloud the work of writer Salman Rushdie and denounce the fatwa that had just ordered his dead.

At the time, the fatwa sparked an outpouring of support for Rushdie while sparking a debate about the complicated collision of art and free speech with offense.

Now, more than three decades later, those outpourings and debates have come to the fore again following a brutal stabbing attack on Rushdie during an arts and literary retreat in New York.

PEN America, the free-speech writers group, hosted Rushdie’s reading in 1989. Speakers then included writer Joan Didion, novelist Norman Mailer and essayist Christopher Hitchens, all of whom have denounced the fatwa in the name of freedom of expression.

“Censorship was imposed in the United States,” said biographer Robert Caro. “There are issues on which no compromise is possible, and this is one of them.”

But not all responses to the fatwa were such full-throated defenses of Rushdie. Perhaps more importantly, former President Jimmy Carter wrote an op-ed in The New York Times with a title proclaiming satanic verses be an “insult”.

“While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book without recognizing that it is a direct insult to those millions of Muslims whose sacred beliefs have been raped and suffer in restrained silence,” Carter wrote.

Commenting on Twitter in the days following last week’s attack on Rushdie, Iranian-American writer Roya Hakakian criticized a response from a US official. Later, while post a link to Carter’s 1989 op-edshe attributed what she called the abandonment of Rushdie and free speech to the “elites in 1989” and tweeted, “it is also the elites of today, who are laying all the foundations of today’s unsightly cancel culture”.

The attack on Rushdie comes at a time when libraries and schools are under immense pressure from conservatives to remove books about race and LGBTQ issues from their shelves. The publishing industry has also faced its share of criticism over representational issues in literary fiction and young adult books, as well as pressure to drop book deals with the likes of Republican Senator Josh. Hawley, Woody Allen and a Louisville, Ky., Police officer involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

“When literature departments refuse to teach lolitalectures on Dostoyevsky are canceled following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Oscar winners feel comfortable slapping comedians on live television, journalists and cartoonists can be killed for publishing a thought or joke that offends their readers is a dangerous world for both artists and art itself,” Israeli writer Etgar Keret wrote this week.

Several writers, including Graeme Wood of Atlantic and David Rieffhave suggested that satanic verses might not have been published if it had been written today.

satanic verses, published in 1988, includes a section in which the Prophet Muhammad is tricked by Satan into proclaiming a revelation, the titular Satanic Verses, which he then has to retract. Because the sequence depicts the fallibility and human weakness of the prophet, the novel is considered blasphemous by some Muslims.

The year after the book was published, Iran’s religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an order, known as a fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s death and the death of anyone involved in publishing the book. book.

Thereafter, Rushdie spent nearly a decade hiding under police protection. During these years, several publishers and translators were attacked, including the Japanese translator of the book, who was killed in 1991.

Rushdie gradually reappeared in public life in the early 2000s. He said he still received periodic threats as the fatwa had not been lifted. Over the years, hardliners in Iran have reportedly pooled a bounty totaling more than $3 million.

Last Friday, Rushdie, now 75, was preparing to speak at the retreat in New York when a man ran onto the stage and stabbed him 12 times in the neck, chest, stomach , by hand and by eye. Rushdie was hospitalized and his condition has since improved, his relatives said.

The assailant, a 24-year-old Lebanese-American, was charged with attempted murder. Iran has denied any involvement in the attack.

Now, on Friday, PEN America will host a new take on Rushdie’s 1989 reading: A group of writers will gather on the steps of the main branch of the New York Public Library to read passages from Rushdie’s writing in a show of support. The event will include Hakakian, as well as actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi, National Book Award winner Colum McCann and others.

“As publishers, we have a collective responsibility to support writers whose books and ideas ensure an open and ever-changing society,” said Markus Dohle, CEO of Rushdie’s publisher Penguin Random House, in a statement.