Nobody should be attacked for expressing their ideas and opinions. We are free beings and, as such, we must express ourselves through free speech. No retaliation and no bloodshed. These statements are not mine but the writer Salman Rushdie, who is currently connected to a respirator and fighting for his life after being stabbed by a young man when he was about to give a talk to 2,500 people at a literary festival held in Chautauqua, an idyllic town located in the state of New York. The reasons why a young man from New Jersey got on stage with a dagger in order to kill a man who always defended the freedoms of others are unknown; as a writer, as president and later a member of the PEN America writers’ association, as a teacher, as a columnist, and as a person.
In 1989, Rushdie was 42 years old when his novel the satanic verses came into the hands of the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini and was sentenced to death for blasphemy. The fatwa spread throughout the Muslim world and Rushdie spent the next 12 years in hiding, protected by the British secret services. Hitoshi Igarashi, an expert on comparative Islamic culture who translated the satanic verses to the Japanese, was assassinated. The book’s publisher in Norway, William Nygaard, was shot several times near his home in Oslo, but managed to survive. Unfortunately, the attack on Igarashi bears similarities to the horror experienced yesterday in Chautauqua. The Japanese scholar was repeatedly stabbed in the face and arms by an unknown assailant while he was working in his office at a quiet university on the outskirts of Tokyo. Three decades later, this murder is on the list of famous unsolved crimes.
Salman Rushdie moved to New York in 2000. When he started a new life in the United States, he left behind the strict security measures that had accompanied him for a decade in the United Kingdom, and which were reflected in joseph anton, his memories. The attacks of September 11, 2001 did not change his mind and he continued moving around the city and attending literary events as normal.
I met Salman Rushdie in 2005. As president of PEN America, he organized a massive rally in Manhattan to denounce that the George W. Bush administration was torturing prisoners in the context of the global war on terror. I had just published a book on the Guantánamo prison and PEN invited me to participate in an event that, if memory serves me, did not have great security measures either. It was an act to denounce torture and arbitrary arrests; abuses committed mostly against Muslim prisoners. It was also an event organized by friends who loved and admired each other and fought together to defend the values they believed in. Paul Auster, Philip Gourevitch or Don DeLillo were some of the participants. The first two likely traveled to the Cooper Union building by subway. Who would want to attack a writer no matter how famous he was? Two years later we met again at a literary festival organized by the Cervantes Institute in New York. No one considered that a metal detector was necessary either, and at the end of the act the attendees stayed chatting in the institution’s garden.
Rushdie, who suffered bullying during his adolescence in a British boarding school, he has always been a strong defender of the right to disagree. His uncompromising defense of writers, journalists and intellectuals who are persecuted and punished for expressing opinions that annoy certain regimes or, simply, the mainstream, has been linked to PEN America’s projects. This Friday, without going any further, he had sent an email to the director of PEN to share with her the need to support Ukrainian writers and journalists.
After the attack on the newsroom of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in 2015, Rushdie promoted an event in New York to defend freedom of expression. This cost him friendship with several PEN members who considered that the cartoonists of the weekly had made “racist” illustrations. “Charlie Hebdo workers died because they used the same instrument as me, pencil or pen,” Rushdie said at the time. “I believe in freedom of expression even when the opinions expressed may be offensive.”
Rushdie had repeated on numerous occasions that no one should claim “I believe in freedom of opinion, but…”. “From the moment you limit freedom of expression, it stops being free. You may not like an opinion, but this cannot lead to limiting freedom of expression, ”he indicated in a conference he gave in Vermont in 2015. In an interview with Guardian, shortly after, he repeated that freedom of expression “is indivisible”: “Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela used to repeat that freedom is indivisible. If you try to break it into little pieces, it is no longer freedom.” “Freedom of expression should be like the air we breathe: a no-brainer,” he stated that same year at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
In fact, as a teacher, in recent years he had expressed to his students that he was completely against the culture of cancellation; a movement or attitude that consists of silencing or ignoring those writers, artists or other opinion makers with whom you disagree. In an increasingly polarized society, Rushdie defended the need to listen to opposing opinions and promote a culture of freedom of expression against cancellation or censorship.
“We now live in a country where people seem to be forgetting the importance of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. [que consagra la libertad de expresión]”, Rushdie said about the culture of cancellation at an event organized at Brown University a few months ago. “In particular, young people seem increasingly willing to accept that certain types of ideas should not be allowed to exist. And that worries me… Ideas don’t disappear because you suppress them. In fact, sometimes they are reinforced. So it is better to know what the enemy thinks so that we can discuss with him and defeat him.”
This same vision inspired a wonderful story that he published in the magazine new yorker in 2020, The old man in the Piazza. In this writing, Rushdie describes a town square where citizens gather to drink coffee, express their opinions and disagree.
In the round table in which he participated at Brown University last November, the author explained that he considers this town square to be a sacred place. “It is that place where you can go and say what you want and others will contradict you,” he said. “The important thing is not that someone wins in the debate, but that [ese debate] can happen, and can continue to happen. People can change their minds, or… stand firm in their convictions. But that place for debate exists. That space… must be preserved.” “No”, “I don’t agree” or “what you said is nonsense” is an accepted reaction in this idyllic Piazza de Rushdie. In his story, the idyllic Piazza is dominated by a large water fountain. Yesterday the Piazza was covered in blood.