By Mathew Goldstein
Salman Rushdie is the author of 14 novels, four works of nonfiction and a collection of short stories, and is a co-editor of two anthologies. He and his books have received many awards and prizes. One of his books, Midnight’s Children, is the only book to have been awarded the Best of the Booker designation, which it was given twice. Mr. Rushdie is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. A former president of PEN American Center, Rushdie has been a fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature since 1983.
As widely reported, he is now recovering in a hospital from a recent attempt to murder him with knife stabs that was witnessed by an audience attending a live interview of the author at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. He was seriously and permanently injured and remains in critical condition. The Chautauqua Lecture Series event was ironically exploring the Week Seven theme of “More than Shelter”.
Rushdie served as founding president in 1994 of the International Parliament of Writers, which became the International Network of Cities of Asylum, also known as the Cities of Asylum Network, an international organization formed by International Parliament of Writers in 1993 to support persecuted writers. The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) is a successor organization formed in 2005. Rushdie was to be interviewed by Henry Reese, co-founder of the Pittsburgh City of Asylum — one of the largest residency program in the world for writers living in exile under threat of persecution founded in 2004. There are additional ICORN non-profit organizations in Ithaca, Detroit, and Seattle. One way to support Rushdie is to donate to these ICORN non-profits, see https://www.charitynavigator.org/ein/202810099.
It is inexcusable and appalling that the Chautauqua Institution did not require the 2,500 attendees of the Rushdie interview to pass through a metal detector. The February 14, 1989 religious fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the then Supreme Leader of Iran, ordering that Salman Rushdie, and all publishers of his book “Satanic Versus”, be murdered remains in effect. There is a bounty placed on his head that has repeatedly been increased, it is currently set at $4 million. It was only six years ago, on Feb 22, 2016, that Iranian state-run media outlets added $600,000 to the bounty for killing Salman Rushdie. In 2019, Iran's current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told his followers that the ruling against Rushdie was "solid and irrevocable," in a tweet that led to the shutting down of his account. Four months ago an Iranian news outlet, Iran Online, published an article praising the fatwa. Yet all recommendations from a Chautauqua Institution security committee in recent years—about adding metal detectors, banning bags, increasing the number of security guards, and holding risk training—were reportedly rejected by the leadership. While all such security measures may be unnecessary for most of the lecture series, that simply cannot plausibly be claimed to be the case when someone like Salman Rushdie is brought to the stage.
“Why can’t we debate Islam?” Rushdie said in a 2015 interview. “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being skeptical about their ideas, even criticizing them ferociously.” How we answer that question is ultimately what this is all about. We either allow such debate or forbid it. To allow the debate entails acknowledging the fact that enabling such debate sometimes requires proactively protecting the lives of critics of Islam, particularly when state backed fatwas and bounties are issued to incite religious believers to murder such critics. Iranian media, including the state run Fars News, hailed the attack. Fars News published a warning that the attack signals “all those like him … that they will not survive their hideous act and death shall follow them wherever they are”. Fars News Agency also published an interview with a theology professor at Tehran's Shahed University claiming that the killing of Salman Rushdie would not be terrorism but a completely legal execution of an apostate. Rushdie was born in Kashmir, India, he never lived in Iran.
To be clear, that some left-wing intellectuals discredit essentially any substantive criticism of Islam, including its sometimes oppressive tendencies, as "Islamophobic" is disturbing. The unbalanced notion that criticism of that religion is to be considered bigoted by default is intrinsically anti-intellectual, right wing, and regressive.That is what happened when some 200 PEN authors distanced themselves from a human rights prize awarded to Paris' satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo." Big names were among the opponents of that award, including Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole. When authors respond like that, says Rushdie, they betray those who are fighting for their freedom, who are suffering, or - in the case of "Charlie Hebdo" - being murdered. If the award followed a murderous attack by Christians responding to that magazine’s satire targeting Christianity would those same people have criticized that award? I genuinely do not think so. That same magazine had lampooned the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Trinity (depicting group sex among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), targeted the Catholic Church, etc., and no one attacked employees with violence in response. Instead they reacted against the magazine civilly with lawsuits. That magazine is cruder and harsher than the more erudite Rushdie, but for religious fanatics that difference is of little consequence. The verses of his book’s title praise three pagan Meccan goddesses: al-Lāt, al-'Uzzá, and Manāt and can be found in early prophetic biographies of Muhammad by al-Wāqidī, Ibn Sa'd and the tafsir of al-Tabarī.
Religions make how-the-world-functions fact claims. Such claims require a best fit with the available evidence justification to warrant the matching beliefs, including the belief that the world functions outside of the material, mechanical, physical constraints of the competing ontological naturalism belief. There are no proper grounds for a wholesale exempting of such beliefs from critical and skeptical questioning because they are deemed to be religious. Such demands for such an exemption for any religion are special pleading. Beliefs are not humans. Humans can be insulted, beliefs about how the universe functions cannot be insulted. Disagreement regarding whether there is, or ever was, a supernatural soul and origin of life, a trinity, an angel Gabriel, an earthly tabernacle where a god resides, etc., are not offensive. Salman Rushdie is an atheist. So am I. He considers the origin story behind Islam as a divinely inspired religion to be fictional. So do I. He considers himself entitled to write a novel incorporating that perspective. He is so entitled. I cannot be true to myself and say otherwise.
Let’s at least have the courage to openly side with the peaceful victims of unilateral criminal violence instead of blaming the non-violent victims for merely being provocative with words or drawings regarding public affairs. For The New York Review in 1989 Salman Rushdie said: “One may not discuss Muhammad as if he were human, with human virtues and weaknesses. One may not discuss the growth of Islam as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology born out of its time. These are the taboos against which The Satanic Verses has transgressed.” Insofar as religions impact public affairs, and clearly they do, religions are legitimate and necessary targets of criticism. This certainly includes Islam given that many governments self-claim to base their laws on the Quran and many Muslims claim that their religious beliefs are relevant for public policy, including public policy regarding public expressions of competing beliefs. The United Nations, to its credit, passed a reasonable anti-blasphemy provision in 2011 stating that “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].”