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Since 1989, threats to Salman Rushdie have sparked support and debate on free speech

In 1989, after Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie, readings of his works were organized around the United States. At this one in San Francisco, novelist Alice Walker reads aloud from Rushdie's <em>The Satanic Verses</em>.
Eric Risberg
Associated Press
In 1989, after Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie, readings of his works were organized around the United States. At this one in San Francisco, novelist Alice Walker reads aloud from Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.

In a small meeting hall in downtown Manhattan in 1989, more than 20 prominent writers stood in turn to read aloud the work of writer Salman Rushdie and denounce the fatwa that had just ordered his death.

Back then, the fatwa prompted an outpouring of support for Rushdie while also igniting a debate about the complicated collision of art and free expression with offensiveness.

Now, more than three decades later, those outpourings and debates have come back to the fore in the wake of a brutal knife attack on Rushdie at an art and literary retreat in New York.

PEN America, the writers group that advocates for free expression, organized the 1989 Rushdie reading. Among the speakers then were writer Joan Didion, novelist Norman Mailer and essayist Christopher Hitchens — all of whom decried the fatwa in the name of freedom of expression.

"Censorship has been imposed in the United States," said the biographer Robert Caro. "There are issues on which no compromise is possible, and this is one of them."

But not all responses to the fatwa were such full-throated defenses of Rushdie. Perhaps most prominently, former President Jimmy Carter penned an op-ed in The New York Times with a headline proclaiming The Satanic Verses to be an "insult."

"While Rushdie's First Amendment freedoms are important, 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 and are suffering in restrained silence," Carter wrote.

Commenting on Twitter in the days after last week's attack on Rushdie, Iranian American writer Roya Hakakian criticized a response by a U.S. official. Later, while posting a link to Carter's 1989 op-ed, she attributed what she called the abandonment of Rushdie and free speech to "the elites in 1989" and tweeted, "it's the elites today, too, all laying the building blocks of the unsightly cancel culture of today."

The attack on Rushdie comes at a moment when libraries and schools have come under immense pressure from conservatives to remove books about race and LGBTQ issues from their shelves. The publishing industry, too, has faced its share of criticism over issues of representation in literary fiction and young adult books, along with pressure to drop book deals with people like Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, Woody Allen and a Louisville, Ky., police officer involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

"When literature departments refuse to teach Lolita, conferences on Dostoevsky are cancelled over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Oscar winners feel comfortable slapping standup comedians on live television, journalists and cartoonists can be killed because they publish a thought or joke that offends their readers, it is a dangerous world for both artists and art itself," wrote Israeli writer Etgar Keret this week.

Several writers, including Graeme Wood of The Atlantic and David Rieff, have suggested that The Satanic Verses might not be published had it been written today.

The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, includes a section in which the Prophet Muhammad is tricked by Satan into proclaiming a revelation, the titular satanic verses, that he must later retract. Because the sequence portrayed fallibility and human weakness in the prophet, the novel is viewed as blasphemous by some Muslims.

The year after the book was published, Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued an order, known as a fatwa, calling for Rushdie's death and the deaths of anyone involved in the book's publication.

Afterward, Rushdie spent almost a decade in hiding under police protection. During those years, several publishers and translators were attacked, including the book's Japanese translator, who was killed in 1991.

Rushdie gradually reemerged into public life in the early 2000s. He has said he still receives periodic threats, as the fatwa has not been lifted. Over the years, hard-liners in Iran have reportedly pooled together a bounty totaling more than $3 million.

Last Friday, Rushdie, now 75, was preparing to speak at the retreat in New York when a man ran onstage and stabbed him 12 times in his neck, chest, stomach, hand and eye. Rushdie was hospitalized and his condition has since improved, those close to him have said.

The attacker, a 24-year-old Lebanese American man, has been charged with attempted murder. Iran hasdenied involvement in the attack.

Now, on Friday, PEN America will host a new version of the 1989 Rushdie reading: A group of writers will gather on the steps of the main branch of the New York Public Library to read passages of Rushdie's writing in a show of support. The event will include Hakakian, along with actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi, National Book Award winner Colum McCann and others.

"As publishers, we have a collective responsibility to support writers whose books and ideas ensure an open and ever-evolving society," Markus Dohle, the CEO of Rushdie's publisher Penguin Random House, said in a statement.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.