Why the attack on Rushdie should worry us

"The attack on Salman Rushdie is an attack on us all," writes Tom Slater in Spiked.  This is absolutely correct, but why exactly that is the case eludes many people.  People do sense that the knife attack on a writer during a public performance is serious, but exactly what challenges this event presents to us often remains unsaid.

Even by Rushdie himself.  Rushdie, of course, wrote about the fatwa (de facto death sentence) that Khomeini issued on him 33 years ago.  He did so with some fine pieces in defense of freedom of expression.  He has also looked back on the insane history of his own life under the fatwa in an autobiographical book: Joseph Anton: A Memoir (2012).  There, too, are the countless interviews in which he often answered questions, again somewhat à contre-cœur, about the impact on his life of the fact that an executioner could always emerge to carry out the 33-year-old sentence.  But curious as it may seem, Rushdie did not provide a deep analysis of the ideology or worldview that animated the Ayatollah Khomeini and on the basis of which his followers are willing to commit the murders that they are convinced will find grace in the eyes of the Highest.

In the end, this attack came as a surprise even to Rushdie.  As Slater writes: "Rushdie has been leading a relatively free life in recent years.  "It feels like ancient history to me," he said of the fatwa in an interview in 2018.  He said then he was happy that The Satanic Verses could now be appreciated on its own terms.  "'Now, after all this time, it's finally been able to have the ordinary life of a book.'  But the threat was always there."

How is it possible that after 33 years, the fatwa still "remains in force"?  How can it be that neither the British government, nor the American, nor the European authorities have found an appropriate response to this undermining of their national security?

The answer to this question is twofold.  First, we underestimate the success of the terrorist technique introduced by Khomeini in 1989.  Second, we overestimate the popularity of universal human rights, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), particularly freedom of thought and freedom of expression.

To begin with the latter, Article 18 UDHR states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."  This is by no means a popular right everywhere in the world.  Even more controversial is what follows: "this right shall include freedom to change religion or belief."  According to the UDHR, there is a right to apostasy, or a right to change one's religion.  Implied in that "apostasy clause" from the UDHR is also that punishment of "blasphemy" and "heresy," after being criminalized for centuries, are incompatible with respect for human rights.

What Khomeini did in 1989 is to introduce a terrorist technique (issuing a death sentence on an apostate, blasphemous, and heretical writer) in support of his struggle against art.  Khomeini thus became the ideologue of "theoterrorism."  The killers of Theo van Gogh (2004), Stéphane Charbonnier (2015), Samuel Paty (2020), and probably Hadi Matar, are the executors of the orders of God's spokesman on Earth.  At least they think so.  And that these kinds of people can live right around the corner from you is a disturbing thought.

Paul Cliteur is the author of Theoterrorism v. Freedom of Speech: From Incident to Precedent (2019) and professor emeritus at the University of Leiden (the Netherlands).

Image: ActuaLitté.

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