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Free speech

Salman Rushdie and the death of free speech

Salman Rushdie defying his fatwa in Paris, 1993. Gilles Bassignac/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

The Satanic Verses is a book “with a very bloody trail”, says Bari Weiss in Common Sense. After Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini offered a bounty, eventually raised to $3.3m, for Salman Rushdie’s murder, the author spent years in hiding. The book’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death; the Norwegian publisher was shot and critically injured. So why in 2015, when the chaos had subsided and “you might run into Rushdie at Manhattan cocktail parties”, did the writer say it was “the darkest time” he’d experienced? Because by then we had betrayed the “ferocious commitment” to free speech that had saved his life. If The Satanic Verses was published today, Rushdie would be condemned for “insulting an ethnic and cultural minority”.

Now it’s no longer just religious fanatics who believe “words are violence”, but those who occupy our society’s “highest perches”. When satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo won an award months after a dozen staff members were slaughtered by terrorists, some of the world’s “most celebrated authors” chose to protest against it – on the grounds that the magazine had published “offensive material”. The same “silliness and weakness” is on display when people accuse JK Rowling of “putting trans lives in danger”. Yes, language can be “disgusting, offensive and dehumanising”, but conflating it with tangible harm – with plunging a knife into someone – is ridiculous. Blurring the “bright line” between words and violence is, after all, what led a fanatic to attack “one of the bravest writers alive”.