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15 August 2022

Salman Rushdie shows us that free speech is life itself

Rushdie knows how vital, how serious the business of storytelling is. Yet in my encounters with him he never took himself seriously.

By Erica Wagner

As I write this, I am relieved to hear that Salman Rushdie is conscious and able to speak, though still in a hospital bed. Last Friday, 12 August, he had been due to address an audience at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York state when a man rushed on to the stage and stabbed the author at least ten times. Rushdie’s agent and friend Andrew Wylie has said the author is likely to lose an eye; his liver is damaged and the nerves in his arm have been severed. It is a cliché to say of someone who has been gravely injured that there is cause for optimism because “he’s a fighter” – yet if this is true of anyone it is true of Rushdie. For decades he has fought against the threat of violence with eloquence, with humour, with the optimism that pervades his extraordinary body of work.

“Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.” Any writer should keep these words pinned above their desk. They were spoken by Rushdie in a lecture he gave at Columbia University in 1991, a thousand days, give or take, since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an edict known as a fatwa in February 1989 that ordered Muslims to kill Rushdie, and placed a bounty on his head. Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses fictionalises elements of the Prophet Muhammad’s life; this, according to the then ayatollah, was blasphemy, and the fatwa was the result.

I thought of those words when, in the wake of last week’s ghastly attack – an attack on my friend, an attack on one of our greatest contemporary authors, an attack on all of us – I was asked by a radio producer whether a publisher now might not be more “sensitive”; whether they might refuse to publish such a novel. The answer is, quite possibly, yes, and we are all the poorer for it.

[See also: Don’t blame cancel culture for what happened to Salman Rushdie]

Salman Rushdie knew – better than anyone – that this kind of “sensitivity”, while well-meaning, is a threat not only to freedom of expression but also, finally, to those it purports to protect. In an interview with the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman last year, Rushdie said that while there was much that was valuable in what he called “a youthful progressive movement”, he also saw within it “an acceptance that certain ideas should be suppressed, and I just think that’s worrying. Wherever there has been censorship, the first people to suffer from it are underprivileged minorities. So if in the name of underprivileged minorities you wish to endorse a suppression of wrongthink, it’s a slippery slope.”

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In 2015 Rushdie, who lived in hiding for almost a decade following the ayatollah’s decree, spoke out strongly against the decision of six writers, including Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje, to withdraw from a PEN America gala honouring the French magazine Charlie Hebdo – its offices had been attacked and its staff slaughtered after publishing cartoons satirising Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. “If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name,” Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

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Rushdie knows what he stands for; he never wavers. What is remarkable is how his serious, joyous work has never been stained by his ordeal. Now is as good a time as any to return to Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), written for his then-11-year-old son Zafar when he first went into hiding. It is – like all truly great children’s books – both serious and delightful, with echoes of the Arabian Nights, echoes of L Frank Baum’s Oz, hints of Carroll’s Alice. In it the tyrant Khattam-Shud expresses his fear of stories – and the source of their power. “Inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all.”

Rushdie knows how vital, how serious the business of storytelling is; yet in my encounters with him – the most recent, a convivial drink in his adopted home of Manhattan just a few nights ago – he never took himself seriously. I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to chair many public events with him – events not so dissimilar to the one at Chautauqua. At one of our more recent talks he was asked by a young audience member how he coped with his fame; how he was able to bear – as the questioner imagined – being recognised wherever he went. This was, after all, an author who was friends with Carrie Fisher and who appeared on stage with U2. 

He smiled. He said that never happens. Well, he allowed, he could recall one single time, when he was stopped in the streets of New York by an older Indian gentleman. “Salman Rushdie?” came the enquiry. “I am,” the author acknowledged. A finger was wagged in his face: Rushdie, a great performer always, mimicked the gesture, causing our audience to burst out laughing. “Salman Rushdie,” the fellow scolded. “Not as good as VS Naipaul!”

Now I was laughing, and the audience, and Rushdie. It is the freedom to laugh – the freedom to criticise – our ability to take offence and bear it, that we must treasure, as we treasure the work of Salman Rushdie and hope for his swift return to health. Free speech is life itself.

[See also: The attack on Salman Rushdie is an attack on a global community of writers and readers]

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World