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17 August 2022

Storytelling must prevail in a world in which democracy is under threat

The attack on Salman Rushdie was not an isolated incident, but connected to the political and cultural changes we are living through.

By Elif Shafak

It is not easy to be a storyteller in a world that increasingly chooses online hearsay over knowledge, amnesia over memory, apathy over empathy, uniformity over diversity, dogma over doubt, tyranny over democracy, and, ultimately, silence over stories. Anyone who has dedicated their life to books and literature knows that freedom of expression, the oxygen we desperately need in order to write and dream and connect beyond borders, is being depleted. Writers, like fish in heavily polluted rivers, are either swimming around frantically searching for those last remaining pockets of oxygen, or slowing down and retreating into pessimism and fatigue. Those of us from parts of the globe that have been shaped by waves of populist authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism, extremism and jingoism, those of us from badly wounded democracies, have already learned the hard way that words can be heavy and literature, at its core, is resistance. From politics to sexuality to history, no subject is easy to write about any more. The truth is we have been feeling this way for a long time, and yet it was still a total shock when, on 12 August, a 24-year-old extremist attacked and repeatedly stabbed one of the world’s leading novelists, essayists and public intellectuals, Salman Rushdie. He will be left with life-changing injuries and a trauma that will probably never truly heal.

There are two ways of reading this horrific incident. We can view it as an isolated attack, in which case we will focus mainly, if not solely, on the author and his book The Satanic Verses, which has caused outrage ever since it was first published. A substantial portion of the world’s media coverage has followed this part of the story. Article after article has highlighted the 1989 fatwa against Rushdie, which not only called for his assassination but also the assassination of everyone involved in the book’s publication.

There are several milestones in this history: the Japanese translator of the novel, Hitoshi Igarashi, a professor of Arabic and Persian literature, who was knifed to death in 1991. The Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was attacked that same year, and in 1993 the Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was shot and seriously injured. In Turkey, the author Aziz Nesin translated and published excerpts from The Satanic Verses. In 1993, when Nesin was visiting the Anatolian city of Sivas for a festival, a mob of religious fundamentalists gathered around his hotel and set it on fire. The perpetrators knew there was also a number of artists, writers and poets inside the hotel, most of them from Turkey’s minority Alevi background. Nesin escaped, but 37 people were murdered that day as extremists kept chanting slogans. To this day, it remains one of the most despicable and tragic assaults against democracy, diversity and arts.

[See also: How the fatwa against Salman Rushdie changed British identity]

In 1989, a letter addressed to the editors of the New York Review was penned by several “writers and scholars from the Islamic world”. Their aim was to publicly condemn bigoted violence. Among them were the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said and the Indian-born poet Agha Shahid Ali. That letter ended with these words: “We deplore and regret this sort of thing, and we reaffirm our belief in universal principles of rational discussion and freedom of expression.” Since then the chasm between those with such beliefs and those without has been widening.

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This is why it is important to understand that there is a second way of analysing the attack against Rushdie: by realising that this is not an isolated incident, but connected to the political, cultural and social changes we are living through. Until recently, many people assumed human rights, women’s rights and the need to defend basic freedoms were challenges for other parts of the world, not the West. Now it is evident that these assaults, these attacks on democracy, can and do happen anywhere. All across the world, alongside the proliferation of digital technologies and social media, there is an alarming increase in abuse targeted against authors, poets and journalists. Women and minorities are among the worst affected.

Over the years I have shared multiple literary platforms with Salman Rushdie, including the Booker shortlist readings in 2019. Always eloquent and clear-minded, he understood the importance of extending solidarity to all persecuted writers, from Afghanistan to Ukraine. I observed how he appreciated literary festivals as spaces where one could have nuanced conversations, proper intellectual exchange, both to speak one’s mind freely but also to hear someone else’s story. While in daily life everyone rushes constantly, inside cultural spaces people naturally slow down to listen to each other.

That this awful attack occurred in a peaceful, inclusive and diverse cultural space is not some random detail. The perpetrator wanted not only to silence a prominent author but also to bring fear and chaos into one of our last remaining democratic spaces – a literary festival. Many Western politicians, including Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, have spoken up in the aftermath of the attack. If they are sincere, they must support cultural festivals, literary venues and, especially, local libraries. The loss of culture and literature has huge social consequences. The art of storytelling is not an incidental element, a luxury that can be pushed aside or discarded. Stories are central to who we are as human beings. But also, as we have seen, they are central to the well-being and survival of our democracies.

[See also: Salman Rushdie shows us that free speech is life itself]

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