In The Satanic Verses (1988), that made writer Salman Rushdie a faultline in the battle for free speech, he wrote: “Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.” What Rushdie did not write was that violence is cowardice, especially when it is used to threaten, intimidate and erase words and voices that some find offensive or unpalatable. Hadi Matar, who attacked Rushdie, stabbing him several times on a stage before he was about to speak at Chautauqua Institution in New York state, in a discussion about the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers and other artists who are under the threat of persecution, tried to silence his words with a knife. But ideas are stronger than the weapons used to target them. Despite the severe injuries he is battling, what Rushdie continues to stand for – more than ever – is the right not only to speak but also to offend.
Matar (24) had not been born when The Satanic Verses was first published, or when the book was banned in India. In New Jersey, where the would-be assassin lives, Ayatollah Khomeini’s writ – and the fatwa issued on February 14, 1989 – would have held little sway. Now in custody, Matar will not get the $3-million bounty that Iran’s Supreme Leader had placed on Rushdie’s head. In fact, in 1998, the Iranian government distanced itself from the fatwa. Through it all, though, Rushdie did not give in to the intimidation: At an Indian Express Idea Exchange in 2013, he said: “Yes, I would write The Satanic Verses again…people define their identity not by what they love but what they hate.” As of now, Matar’s motives – his social media activity reportedly indicates sympathy for extremist Shia causes – are not known. But no motive can be justification for the attack. In his memoir, Joseph Anton, Rushdie recounted the years he spent in hiding because there were people who thought that killing him was an act of religious merit. However, the fear of irreverence, found across political and religious ideologies and beliefs, is a function, more, of the insecurities of the powerful. It rears its head when they fear being questioned; when they realise that a subversive book opens up new spaces and possibilities to ask questions of power. This fear is then mobilised and weaponised to stoke violence. It is important also, in the aftermath of the attack on Rushdie, to remember that Muslim groups across the world, including the Muslim Council of Britain, were among the first to condemn it.
Those that know Rushdie’s work have found the truest expression of his political worldview not in his many political essays and polemical articles but in a novella that he wrote for his first son. In Haroun and The Sea of Stories (1990), the Shah of Blah (a storyteller of great renown), goes to the Land of K (under quasi-military occupation by a powerful state) and loses his voice and his words. In the dreamland of stories, Haroun battles the insecure, small-minded powers that would silence everyone and have them live in a land of eternal obedience for the sake of his father, the Shah (a proxy for Rushdie). In the land of silence, the storytellers won, and “the black ice of that dark fortress received the sunlight like a mortal wound.” As Rushdie battles severe injuries and faces uncertain long-term health consequences from the attack, there is only one certainty: His words will continue to pierce the darkness.