Salman Rushdie knows a thing or two about fatwas – on Valentine’s Day in 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s spiritual leader, proclaimed one ordering the writer’s execution over his 1988 book The Satanic Verses, which was considered blasphemous of Islam.
A bounty was put on Rushdie’s head, there were riots and book-burnings around the world, the book was (and still is) banned in many countries, translators of the book were attacked and the Japanese translator was murdered at his home.
Rushdie was given police protection, adopted an alias and went into hiding, on and off, for a decade.
He still lives with the fatwa, which has never been revoked, but now he lives more openly. He has said this is due to a conscious decision on his part, not because he believes the threat is gone. You can still earn yourself over $3 million by killing him.
Of all the names that signed the open letter published this week in Harper’s magazine, warning against a growing illiberalism of debate, Rushdie’s was the most interesting.
Other high-profile signatories included Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, JK Rowling and Gloria Steinem.
The letter expressed anxiety that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted” and that “while we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also speaking more widely in our culture”.
This was expressed through “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”, they said.
The reaction to the letter – which was really an affirmation of liberalism, free speech and tolerance – was swift.
Much of it reiterated, without irony, the points about censoriousness its authors were trying to make.
Some people made the valid point that one person’s “cancel culture” is another person’s critique; that the vigorous criticism, including ridicule, of a person’s ideas or art, does not amount to a crushing of free speech. That freedom of speech is truly threatened when states silence dissent with force, not when people’s feelings get hurt on the internet.
Look at Hong Kong right now, not Sydney or New York or the boundless plains of Twitter, if you want to see what real threats to free speech look like.
Which brings us back to Rushdie.
He has experienced state censorship and death threats. He risked his life for his artistic freedom.
Yet he still thinks the social media-enabled phenomenon of public shamings and cancellations is pernicious and suffocating to artists like himself.
And that its consequences will result in risk aversion among artists, which equals the death of any real creative questing.
Journalists, writers and artists may not fear for their lives, but they might fear for their livelihoods and reputations. They may fear their work will be labelled “problematic” before its artistic worth is even considered.
Rushdie’s support for the letter suggests that while there are obvious differences between a state-sponsored fatwa which inspires terrorist murders, and, to take one recent example, the vicious internet trolling of a food writer who tweeted something snobby about a popular celebrity – it is possible to condemn both things. To admit, even, some relationship between the two.
What happens on the internet is not what happens in society, and the pace of social change as expressed by Twitter and other platforms has not been matched by real change in the institutions which most affect people’s lives.
Does it matter, really, if an artist takes a reputational hit for producing an incorrect work, when our society’s most powerful institutions – parliament, the judiciary, and the boardroom – are still so unrepresentative, and so resistant to change?
It does matter, just as it is a mistake to set those two causes up in competition with each other. Actually, they are in deep and intense conversation with each other.
The Harper’s letter represents the moment the forces for moderate liberalism realise they have been outflanked.
To their left, at the extreme, is a set of principles and orthodoxies that they could try to play along with, and may have some sympathy for, but which, they fear, they will eventually fall foul of themselves.
To the right is the kind of entrenched structural power and inequality they oppose in principle.
The result is the increasing alienation of a large chunk of the middle.
They may not fear death, like Rushdie did.
But they will fear ostracisation by their professional peers, public shame, social media intimidation, and real-world consequences like the loss of reputation, the inability to land an employment contract, or disinvitation from cultural festivals.
That is even leaving aside the question of personal vulnerability – some people can shake off an internet shaming or a newspaper campaign against them.
For others, it will send them into a spiral of anxiety they find difficult to recover from. You know who those people mostly are? Women. Another large chunk of them will be from the vulnerable groups whose voices social media has worked so beautifully to raise up.
Do we want to foster a society where it’s only possible to be artistically or intellectually brave if you have wealth or privilege to fall back on?
And so this perverse obsession with calling out “problematic” individuals reaches its end point – a schoolyard game where the popular kids make the playground such a nasty place to play, that the more sensitive kids pack up and go home.
Others are turned off by the silliness of it all. Still more fail to engage in the first place, because they see nothing there that appeals to them.
Categories: Europe, Europe and Australia, UK
Two points about Salman Rushdie. I thought I show know what he is writing so I bought the book ‘Midnight’s children’ (I think it was). In one of the first chapters I came across the sentence ‘my grandfather was in Germany around the first world war and studied medicine there. He prayed regularly. He came back to Kashmir. It was winter. He slipped on the ice in the morning on the way to the mosque and broke his arm. And then he never prayed again’. Totally stupid. I did not read any fruther.
Another interesting aspect: During the time of the Iranian Fatwa against Salman Rushdie many journalists in London called on our beloved Khalifa, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, may Allah be pleased with him, to ask his opinion. As so many called he agreed to a press conference. During the press conference he explained to the journalists that based on the Quran there was no such thing as a death penalty for what Salman Rushdie said. At the end of the interview he asked ‘are you satisfied with my answers’, to which all journalists answered in the affirmative. Then Hazoor (as) said: and now I tell you one thing more: tomorrow nothing of what I said will be in the newspapers or on TV. Because I did not tell you what you wanted to hear: If I would have said ‘Death to Salman Rushdie’ I would be on the front pages tomorrow. All journalists replied that no of course we are going now to write and prepare for tomorrows headlines. But, you guessed it, there was nothing in the press.
The western press is very, very biased! It would seem that they ONLY want to hear and report the negatives of Muslims, NEVER anything positive!
And this proves it!