On hearing the news on Friday evening (12 August) that the author Salman Rushdie had been stabbed more than ten times at a literary event in New York state, most people likely had a similar reaction: chilling shock, then dread that the act was likely motivated by a 33-year-old fatwa, or edict, calling for his murder. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued the $3m bounty for Rushdie’s death shortly after the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), when geopolitics and culture were intersecting in a unique moment. Rushdie spent almost a decade in hiding. Despite the decades that passed it may still have led to his hospitalisation. He could lose an eye and a kidney, as well as the function in one arm.
Others have, however, seen an opportunity. Even before Rushdie’s discharge from hospital, he has once again become an emblem of a global cultural debate, with his attack being used as an argument against “cancel culture” and wokeness – turning into a weapon in the free speech culture war debate. These arguments have drawn comparisons with Dave Chapelle and JK Rowling, claiming these figures have been similarly threatened for their views; some have even harked back to Chris Rock getting slapped by Will Smith at the Oscars (ie, a man who was “physically attacked on stage because someone was offended by something they have said”).
For anyone with a sense of reality – and proportion – it’s easy to find these comparisons ridiculous, even laughable. But beyond being breathtakingly unserious, these arguments are a potentially dangerous means through which columnists can boorishly shoehorn in their own interests, vulgarly using Rushdie as a political pawn in a dark moment of personal crisis.
In much of the writing in the last few days, columnists have been eager to cast young activists as the villains in this moment, with their fabled obsession with policing words and no-platforming public figures, and arguing that some language can be equated to violence (it’s worth noting Rushdie praised that generation’s activism just a fortnight ago in an interview with the German magazine Stern). They have particularly focused on trans rights activists, comparing online reaction to Rowling’s gender-critical views as a modern parallel to Rushdie’s experience with Islam. Many have noted that Rowling received a death threat this weekend after tweeting about the attack when making this argument (though it was not from a trans activist but another radical Islamist).
This comparison is not just inelegant – it completely detracts from the severity of the Rushdie case. Was Rushdie “cancelled” by the former supreme leader of Iran? Can you truly compare having an assassination bounty formally and proudly placed on your head by a nation’s leader with being repeatedly mocked on Twitter? This isn’t to say we should shrug away the threats made against figures like Rowling. In fact, we should be doing much more to reduce the casualness with which threats of violence can be made online, of the type that almost all women in the public eye experience regardless of what they do (especially given the difficulty of parsing real ones from unserious ones). But equating internet comments, even the most serious ones, with a literal fatwa issued by an ayatollah is too crass to have to explain.
“Death threats against Rushdie are precisely the same as death threats against Rowling or [Julie] Bindel [another gender-critical feminist],” wrote Euan McColm in a column for the Scotsman on Sunday (14 August). Published less than 48 hours after the attack, it’s hard to see how such arguments can be sincerely concerned about what happened to Rushdie. It’s even harder to see the value in reducing a fatwa issued by a rogue state to the same level as a one-off threat of violence.
But what truly feels egregious and unbelievable about the arguments being made in this moment is the personal context; that they appear in direct conflict with what Rushdie has long-sought. In an interview with the Guardian last May, Rushdie said he wants his work to be divorced from the fatwa: “It destroys my individuality as a person and as a writer… I’m not a geopolitical entity. I’m someone writing in a room.” By reducing Rushdie to a shoddily interpreted version of his ideas – an entity to suit pre-existing debates and beliefs – his person and his work are flattened out into culture war arguments. His attack isn’t just being used as a moment for serious reflection or discussion, but has been deployed to score cheap points.
There have already been reports of how the stabbing has renewed interest in the fatwa. Among hundreds of similar posts, the conservative social media activist Hossein Saremi wrote in a tweet that has since been removed for violating Twitter’s rules: “Revenge may be delayed, but it will inevitably happen.” Rushdie has lived with the threat of perennial violence for almost half a lifetime. The failure to grasp the difference between this and a slap at the Oscars only adds to the harm.