Salman Rushdie was stabbed onstage at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state on Friday as he prepared to give a talk. The attack comes 33 years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued the first official fatwa against Rushdie over the 1988 book satanic verses – a satirical view of religion, culture and identity in the Indian subcontinent which followed Rushdie’s magical realist allegory of the region in midnight children and Shame – put a bounty of 3 million dollars on the head of the author for having blasphemed against the prophet of Islam Muhammad.
Over the past three decades, many translators and editors affiliated with satanic verses were killed or injured, including in Japan, Italy, Norway and Turkey. Throughout these years, Rushdie continued to appear high on the blacklists of jihadist groups, from Hezbollah to al-Qaeda.
Fatwas calling for his head have been ubiquitous across the Muslim world, even in officially secular Bangladesh and “moderate” Malaysia ever since.satanic verses has been published. A Pakistani film from 1990,International Gorillay, was based on the main cast plotting the murder of Rushdie, who is ultimately struck down by flying Qurans, as the female protagonist exclaims, “Today your death will be a warning to those who reject the prophet.” Recently ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan continues to quote Rushdie in his recent attempt to export Islamic blasphemy laws to the West, expressing a similar desire to instill global fear over sacrilege against Islam.
This quest by Khan and his Islamist friends, such as Recep Erdogan and Mahathir Mohamad, to prevent Islam from being treated like other religions is already in vogue in the West. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that mocking Muhammad is a hate crime, even as cartoonists and satirists exercising their freedom of expression against Islam have been attacked in Denmark, Sweden and other parts of the continent. Journalists affiliated with the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo were massacred for caricatured Muhammad in 2015. Samuel Paty, a French teacher who showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his class, was beheaded in 2020.
While the UK has backed Rushdie all these years, even as his knighthood in 2007 drew backlash from many Muslim countries, Britain has seemingly given up on the ideals of free speech that the author defended. In June, screenings of the film The lady in the sky were canceled in the UK after protests over alleged blasphemy. Last year, a Batley Grammar School teacher lost his job and had to go into hiding after receiving threats for showing Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a class on blasphemy. And the British press usually joins the vast majority of its Western colleagues in refusing to print any pictorial representation of the prophet of Islam, even when reporting on murders linked to those same images.
It came amid the prevalence of bloody blasphemy laws across the Muslim world, with 12 Muslim-majority countries punishing victimless crime with death and 20 others with heavy prison sentences. In addition to the antediluvian codes in these countries, mobs continue to target individuals by setting them on fire in schools, hanging bodies from trees or beheading them in shops because of blasphemy against Islam. Just as Muslim-majority countries adopting Islamic Sharia obviously do not maintain identical penalties for blasphemy against other religions, many well-meaning progressives in the West are abandoning the founding principle of free speech to protect Islam alone from criticism.
The idea that Islam deserves special protection from offensive expression relentlessly encourages blasphemous violence. And it was this continued global privilege of Islam that led to the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie.
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For too long, we have let Islamist brutality over blasphemy trump reason and rationality in Muslim countries and communities. While Islamists have an interest in silencing any challenge to their ideological puritanism, it is the failure of moderate Muslims to defend freedom of religion, conscience and expression against Islam that maintains this Islamist inertia on blasphemy. . Many progressive voices are either silenced by murderous codes of profanity and the real threat of mob violence, or prefer to participate in the perilous amalgamation of Islam and Muslims, ostensibly to defend Muslim minorities against the sectarianism.
We must muster the common sense that free speech is designed to protect precisely that which is deemed “unacceptable,” including shameless disregard for the most sacred ideas, regardless of which demographic adheres to it. No form of courage should be needed to exclaim that absolutely no one deserves to be killed for denigrating any text or personality, including those affiliated with Islam, regardless of any scriptural assertion. After the appalling attack on the most high-profile Muslim-origin dissident of recent times, it’s time we finally stood with the dissidents, not their attackers.