Salman Rushdie and the Cult of Offense

This is what happens when you debase free expression in the name of free expression.

A burning copy of 'The Satanic Verses'
A cop​y of Salman Rushdie's novel 'Th​e Satanic Verses' is burned duri​ng a demonstration in Bradford, England, in 1989​ called by Muslims. (Severin Carrell / Camera Press / R​edux)

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in June 1989, just months after issuing a fatwa ordering the murder of Salman Rushdie and all others involved in the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Fatwas cannot be rescinded posthumously, which is why ever since then, this fatwa has hung in the air like a putrid smell, inhaled deeply for inspiration by devout followers of Khomeini and his successors. On Friday, a man stabbed Rushdie in upstate New York. The suspect is 24, from New Jersey, and reportedly an admirer of Iranian theocratic rule. “The news is not good,” Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said in a statement. Rushdie took a hit to the liver and will likely lose an eye. By Saturday night, Rushdie was reportedly off his respirator and talking.

The honorable response is to say that we are all Rushdie now, and that America’s failure to protect him is a collective shame. In the face of this thuggery, Rushdie’s work should be read publicly, and his name thrown in the face of apologists for the regime that once ordered and offered to pay for his assassination. (In 1998, in an effort to normalize relations with the West, Iran canceled the hit but made clear that if some freelancer wanted to get him, Tehran would not be displeased.)

But we are not all Rushdie. And in fact the past couple decades have led me to wonder if some of us are more Khomeini than we’d like to admit.

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: Some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. Former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the balls” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: Don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

It is unfair to pick on Carter, because many who have less excuse for these atrocious opinions have agreed with him. These include professional writers. (Carter is a writer and poet, but his writing is more an unfortunate hobby than a real calling.) Like Carter, these writers have condemned murder, to be sure, but hastened to change the subject to the apparently equally urgent problem of the victims’ own sins.

In 2015, after jihadists killed eight members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, PEN America, a venerable institution promoting the interests of writers and of free expression—and one that Salman Rushdie himself once led—presented the survivors with an award for their courage. Fanatics had warned them for years that they’d be killed for their cartoons, but they published anyway. After the slaughter, hundreds of PEN members, led by Teju Cole and Francine Prose, doubted whether they deserved an award, and objected in a sententious, scolding open letter. (I joined PEN that year, and where the application asked my reasons, I wrote “to cancel out the vote of Joyce Carol Oates,” another one of the signers.)

Today, with Rushdie sliced to ribbons in a hospital bed in Erie, it is impossible to read their letter without noticing how fully they surrendered to this cult of offense and took the side of those offended against those slain.

How awful that the Charlie Hebdo artists and writers were shot to death, the signers said. But should we really applaud them? “​​There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable,” they wrote, “and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” They then proceeded to explain (after, to be sure, a statement that mass murder is not acceptable) that Charlie Hebdo’s ridiculing of the “marginalized, embattled, and victimized” was also not acceptable. In 1989, Team To Be Sure had betrayed its philistinism by reducing Rushdie’s novel, one of the greatest by a living writer, to an “insult.” PEN’s critics of Charlie Hebdo declared that its “cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.” The letter did not even attempt to criticize Charlie Hebdo on literary grounds.

It takes nerve to describe artists and journalists who were recently shot in the face as having themselves caused “suffering.” To do this in one’s capacity as a PEN America member speaks to a larger faltering of the culture, in its confidence that the liberty of individuals is worth fighting and dying for. (I note that since the attempt on Rushdie's life, almost no one has advanced these arguments. I am not sure why successfully killing several cartoonists contemptuous of religion gets to be sure treatment, but trying to kill a novelist contemptuous of religion does not. In any case I welcome into the ranks of the sensible whoever wishes to join.)

V. S. Naipaul called Khomeini’s fatwa “a most extreme form of literary criticism”—a macabre joke that seemed at the time to come at Rushdie’s expense. Today it sounds just as macabre but hits a worthier target: those who muddle the distinction between offense and violence, and between a disagreement over ideas and a disagreement over whether your head should remain attached to your body.

Now that Rushdie’s head has been partially detached, and on American soil, I hope these distinctions will need no further elaboration, and that those who elided them will swallow their full helping of shame. Rushdie has survived long enough to see free expression debased in the name of free expression. Survive a bit longer, Salman, and we’ll see this cause restored to the status it deserves.