Je suis Salman

Je suis Salman

Knife is a defiant defence of freedom in the face of Islamist terror.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books Free Speech UK

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It’s a ‘miracle’, to use Salman Rushdie’s preferred phrase, that his splendid new book, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, exists at all.

On 12 August 2022, at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, Rushdie was about to give a lecture, ironically enough, on the safety of writers in the US. But before he could start, a young man, clad all in black, hurtled towards the stage and repeatedly stabbed Rushdie in the head, neck and chest. The attack lasted for nearly 30 seconds before the man was subdued.

The attack came 33 years after Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, to be blasphemous against Islam. The novel had already sparked protests and book-burnings in both the Muslim world and in the West. But it was the ayatollah’s decision to issue a fatwa, an execution order, that would change Rushdie’s life forever.

He was forced into hiding. Various attempts were made on his life. The novel’s translators were attacked. One, in Japan, was stabbed to death. In recent years, Rushdie had been living in relative normality in the US. Until that horrific day in Chautauqua.

The immediate prognosis after the knife attack was grim. ‘He’s not going to make it’, medics told Rushdie’s wife, poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, as she rushed to be by his side.

As Knife documents in sometimes stomach-churning detail, the would-be assassin, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, did a great deal of damage. He cut the optic nerve in Rushdie’s right eye, leaving him partially blind. He severed the ulnar nerve in his left hand, depriving him of sensation in his fingertips. He also sliced through Rushdie’s face and mouth, scarring him and permanently impeding his ability to talk and eat. At one point, Rushdie writes, his own ‘saliva was oozing out of [his] cheek’.

Matar did all this all because he was offended by Rushdie’s novel, which he hadn’t even read.

As Rushdie writes in Knife, the attack turned him back into somebody he had ‘tried very hard not to be’. Back into someone ‘defined by the fatwa’. Someone whose freedom to think, to write and to live was once more in doubt. ‘Living was my victory’, he writes, ‘but the meaning the knife had given my life was my defeat’.

In many ways, Knife – part memoir, part excruciating hospital diary, part fictional confrontation with the assassin – is a reckoning with this seeming defeat. A reckoning with this violent assault not just on Rushdie’s body, but also on his liberty – indeed on the liberty of everyone. It’s also an attempt to resist, to stand up to those who hate the existence of those they disagree with. ‘This is bigger than just me’, he recalls telling Eliza while still in hospital. It’s about ‘freedom, whatever that much-battered word now [means]’.

The Islamist storm that greeted the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, culminating in Khomeini’s fatwa the following year, had a similar, life-changing, ‘before’ and ‘after’ quality for Rushdie. Before, he was freely expressing himself, a novelist carving out his place in literary history. After it, he was living under 24-hour police protection, his life and his art stifled by a death sentence.

As Rushdie writes in Knife, what made the issuing of the fatwa so much worse was the response of Western liberals: ‘Many prominent and non-Muslim people had joined forces with the Islamist attack to say what a bad person I was, John Berger, Germaine Greer, President Jimmy Carter, Roald Dahl and various British Tory grandees among them.’

Indeed, as Carter put it in a New York Times column at the time of the fatwa: ‘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 Muslims whose sacred beliefs have been violated.’ (The likes of Carter seemed to ignore the fact that many Muslims were not insulted by The Satanic Verses – indeed, it was insulting in itself to presume they would be.)

The willingness of many writers, intellectuals and politicians in the West to effectively align themselves with Iranian theocrats and their Islamist cheerleaders was of huge significance. It was a cultural inflection point, a moment at which the protection of people’s feelings was elevated above the freedom to express oneself. Islamist aggression may have birthed the fatwa, but liberal cowardice was its midwife.

As Rushdie writes in Knife, it took him a while to find his feet again after the fatwa. He could take the animosity from ‘a brutal regime’ like Iran. However, the ‘hostility emanating from India and Pakistan and from South Asian communities in the UK’, says Rushdie, himself born in India, ‘was much harder to bear… I entered another downward spiral during those years’.

From the mid-1990s onwards, however, he began ‘to find the language with which to fight back, and embarked upon the defence of free-speech principles’. While still in hiding, Rushdie ventured above ground in 1995 to state:

‘If someone is trying to silence me, then I should find a way of speaking back with increased force. If someone is trying to subject me to an attack of what you might call hatred, then I should not return hatred for that hatred. I should try to return all the generosity and openness of heart that is possible through literature and art.’

Rushdie’s intellectual bravery, his determination to be free to express himself, was accompanied by a determination to live freely, too. In 2000, he left the prison of police protection in the UK, to begin life anew in New York City. As part of his efforts to regain his liberty, he writes, he actively went out – to restaurants and parties – to get papped and noticed. He even gained a tabloid reputation as a ‘party animal’. But there was a conscious point to it all: he wanted to advertise his own lack of fear. He wanted to liberate himself and those closest to him from the awful, oppressive shadow of the fatwa. He wanted to be able to live and – as Knife shows in its most heartfelt moments – to love again. He married Eliza in 2021.

In many ways, he succeeded in throwing off the chains of the fatwa. In an interview in 2018, he said that Khomeini’s lethal curse ‘feels like ancient history to me’. Even The Satanic Verses, its aura of scandal diminished, had finally ‘been able to have the ordinary life of a book’.

Of course, as we now know, the fatwa had only seemingly relinquished its grip over Rushdie’s life. And so, on that fateful August day nearly two years ago, it returned with nihilistic vengeance in the shape of a lonely young man radicalised by online videos.

Since the fatwa was issued, the murderous creed of Islamism has only grown in the West. But this is just one reason why Rushdie has been unable to escape the shadow of the fatwa. During the past three decades, many in the West, especially on the left, have given up on freedom. ‘Freedom is everywhere under attack from the bien-pensant left as well as book-banning conservatives’, Rushdie writes. Too many have come to accept that ‘protecting the rights and sensibilities of groups perceived as vulnerable [should] take precedence over freedom of speech’. Thanks to the rise of identity politics, even Islamist fanatics are considered to be a ‘vulnerable’ group whose feelings should be protected.

Rushdie draws attention to an all-too-telling moment in 2015, when a significant number of high-profile writers objected to writers’ organisation PEN International giving the murdered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo its Courage Award:

Charlie Hebdo was characterised by these literary eminences as Islamophobic… even though some of them admitted to never having seen a copy of Charlie and not being able to read French, anyway… Friendships were broken, including several of mine, because I thought, and still think, that failing to stand by our colleagues who had been slaughtered by Islamist terrorists for drawing pictures was a morally confused thing to do.’

The failure to stand by those murdered or threatened by Islamists is now endemic among large swathes of the West’s cultural elite. Convinced that words harm, that ideas ‘trigger’ trauma, too many are now willing to accept that Islamists’ claims of offence are justified – that, at some level, firebombing a publisher’s home, attacking editors of newspapers or decapitating teachers are all understandable responses to cartoons, columns, classroom debates. As this culture of offence-taking has colonised the public sphere, it has encouraged and legitimised a heightened, violent sensitivity to anything that challenges the Islamist worldview. It has reanimated the fatwa.

Rushdie may have suffered a brutal, awful setback on 12 August 2022. But Knife is testament to his defiance. It is passionate, witty and utterly unrepentant. If anything, he is more forthright in his defence of Enlightenment ideas of freedom and tolerance than ever before. He defends religious freedom – ‘the private faith of anyone is nobody’s business except that of the individual concerned’. But in the ‘rough-and-tumble world of politics and public life’, he adds, ‘no ideas can be ring-fenced’. Religions, like all other ideas, Rushdie concludes, ‘deserve criticism, satire and, yes, our fearless disrespect’.

Above all, he makes a passionate case for freedom of expression – and for art itself:

‘Without art, our ability to think, to see freshly, and to renew our world would wither and die. Art is not a luxury. It stands at the essence of our humanity, and it asks for no special protection except the right to exist.’

The right to exist. That is all Salman Rushdie has ever demanded, for himself and his work. Right now, it has never sounded more radical.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Free Speech UK


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