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Inside politics

Why radicals were Rushdie’s staunchest supporters

One of Salman Rushdie’s “most treasured images”: the author, his friend Christopher Hitchens, and a bust of Voltaire. Twitter/@SalmanRushdie

The trouble with liberals, says Janan Ganesh in the FT, is that they’re hopeless at conflict. “When a liberal says, ‘There is no culture war’, what I hear is: ‘Please let there be no culture war. Otherwise, I shall have to fall out with my friends.’” It was the same in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie’s death over The Satanic Verses. An old clip of Liberal Democrat Shirley Williams shows her “almost physically pained” at having to stand by her free-speech convictions; John le Carré, “at his relativising worst”, said Rushdie had “nothing to prove but his own insensitivity”. It’s telling that in the end his staunchest supporters – Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens – were not liberals but radicals. “Knowing the extremist temperament from the inside-out, they had no illusions about it.”

Rushdie also drew fire from England’s patriotic right, says Will Lloyd in UnHerd. In the 1980s, the writer denounced “the Augean filth of imperialism” and described the British police as representatives of “the colonising army”, even praising the Iranian revolution as “a genuine mass movement”. Perhaps no surprise that, with “dark, malicious glee”, Auberon Waugh wondered “just how much we should exert ourselves, as deeply stained white imperialists, to protect him from his own people”. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said he wouldn’t lose much sleep if British Muslims decided to “waylay” Rushdie in an alleyway and “improve” his manners.

Last week’s attempted assassination prompted fellow authors and “countless columnists” to mount “dreary”, generalising defences of free speech, says Lionel Shriver in The Spectator. But this “we-shall-not-be-moved resolve is a self-flattering delusion”. Islamist “nut jobs” have been pushing us around for years. When a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in 2005, many European papers republished them in solidarity against intimidation – but mainstream print media in Britain, America and Canada failed to follow suit. As plenty of people have pointed out already, The Satanic Verses would never be published today; even Rushdie himself might think better of writing it. The grim truth is that “these folks frighten the bejesus out of us, and we’ll do just about anything to keep from upsetting them. Terrorism works.”