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Kathy Sheridan: Rushdie shows us what free speech means and its price

Writer once said said `the moment somebody says “yes I believe in free speech but” I stop listening’

If the savagery perpetrated on Salman Rushdie serves any purpose, it should be a reminder that when anyone calls for death for any cause, there will always be someone willing to have a go.

Think of the masses who answered the whine of a cynical, power-crazed old man and attacked the US Capitol with their sharpened flagpoles, nooses, hidden guns and cable ties on January 6th.

Think of the 24-year-old New Jersey native, Hadi Matar, who attacked Rushdie and the legions of gullible young men before him who were fired up by a cynical, calculating old Iranian cleric and a death sentence pronounced 17 years before Matar was born.

Just as Trump was adept at dead cat distractions when the people got restive, the culture war was a handy device for the ailing, old Ruhollah Khomeini in his death year, following the grinding Iran-Iraq war of attrition that had destroyed the country’s economy.


Think of the smirking hard men of Brexit and the impact of their anti-immigrant rhetoric on a reclusive white supremacist, his mind already snared by the notion that white people were facing an existential threat and that the liberals, the left and the media – “the collaborators” as he called them – were the cause. Only hours after Ukip unveiled its infamous “breaking point” poster, Thomas Mair armed himself with a sawn-off shotgun and a dagger and murdered the MP Jo Cox.

Culture wars

The culture wars or the politics of identity did not begin in 2015 with the 12 murders at Charlie Hebdo. It’s the fact that Brexit leaders and Trump intentionally set out to weaponise that division – that so-called clash of values – that makes their actions all the more repellent. They knew precisely what they were doing.

The planned chaos ensued. Some free speech absolutists wobbled when they saw that same freedom being turned against vulnerable minorities. Some began belatedly to interrogate the porous borders between free speech, hate speech and incitement to violence. Terms such as deplatforming and cancel culture took wing, making liberals sound silly and snowflakey. Liberals did what they inevitably do. They stepped up the hunt for Liberal Most Pure. They savaged and cannibalised each other while the conservative right reset itself in Trump’s image and marched on.

The semi-miracle is that Ireland has come through two pivotal referendums and various eruptions in those years and remained relatively stable. Relatively. A book by John Boyne that set out to be sympathetic to trans teenagers resulted in death threats, solicitors and a review of his home security. Following the Rushdie attack last weekend, a poster (zero followers, Manchester address) tweeted that “if anyone wants to do the same to John Boyne then the drinks are on me”. It’s by no means the worst that Boyne will have witnessed on the great democratiser that is social media.

If there is a modern tinder box comparable to Rushdie’s situation in 1989, it is the toxic, decontextualised atmosphere around the trans issue. During several years of death threats against JK Rowling for her lengthy, personal pieces on sex and gender, the UK Society of Authors declined to intervene – until Monday when it couldn’t avoid mentioning her, albeit in passing, while addressing the “hateful attack” on Salman Rushdie: “this assault against one man was also an assault on the creative process, and on authors’ rights to express ideas and opinions… For every high-profile death threat – like those targeted at JK Rowling only hours after the attack on Rushdie – scores of others go unreported.”

It took Rushdie’s near-assassination to remind people of that.

`Dubious protection`

Rushdie, a free speech absolutist who once said that “the moment somebody says ‘yes I believe in free speech but…’ I stop listening”, has lived up to his mission. In August 1990, when a ridiculous Pakistani film was released, depicting a debauched, criminal playboy called Salman Rushdie out to destroy Islam and was (possibly) incinerated by flame-throwing Korans, the British film board denied it a certificate saying it was “designed to inflame an audience which is susceptible to such influences”.

Far from thanking the board for its consideration, Rushdie stated that he had seen the film and although it portrayed him as “a murderer and a sadist” he did not wish to seek “the dubious protection of censorship… Censorship is usually counterproductive and can actually exacerbate the risks which it seeks to reduce.”

The film got its certificate.

A remarkable feature of this episode was his assumption that viewers, Muslim and non-Muslim, would recognise the film “for the distorted, incompetent piece of trash that it is” and that the Rushdie character “is ludicrously unlike the real me”.

For a man with full-time, armed protection officers forced to move from one rental to another in armoured cars, it was an astonishingly positive take on human nature. He hadn’t just attracted a fatwa, remember. There were book burnings, store bombings, violent riots and deaths among protesters who had probably never even read the book since it had been banned in 13 largely Muslim countries.

Three of the book’s translators around the world were subjected to knife and gun attacks in which one was actually killed. His Norwegian publisher was shot three times but survived.

Yet Rushdie the survivor still retained his sunny assumption of good faith from his fellow humans.

We can only hope that he’s still holding on to that faith in his hospital bed.