Attack on Salman Rushdie is Shocking Tip of the Iceberg

15 August, 2022
Salman Rushdie in New York in 2019 (pho­to Christo­pher Lane for The Times of London).


Jordan Elgrably


Let us be bru­tal­ly hon­est with our­selves — Friday’s brazen attack on nov­el­ist Salman Rushdie is a threat to free­dom of expres­sion every­where, but it is mere­ly the lat­est inci­dent in thou­sands of cas­es where writ­ers, poets, jour­nal­ists and film­mak­ers are cen­sored, impris­oned and even killed. They are hound­ed as crit­i­cal thinkers who dis­sent from the par­ty line, blow the whis­tle on repres­sive gov­ern­ments, or because they dare to offend con­ser­v­a­tive sensibilities.

While we don’t yet know 24-year-old Hadi Matar’s motive for set­ting upon Rushdie with a knife, is there real­ly any doubt that he did so because of the fat­wa against the author of The Satan­ic Vers­es? As much as he might deny it, one would have a hard time believ­ing him. I view this attack as emblem­at­ic of the kind of intol­er­ance repres­sive states have for any crit­i­cism. The Sau­di-sanc­tioned tor­ture and mur­der of jour­nal­ist Jamal Khashog­gi in 2018 and the shock­ing assas­si­na­tion of Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Shireen Abu Akleh by an IDF sol­dier this May are two of the most egre­gious cas­es in point.

Turkey in the last sev­er­al years has become one of the great­est oppres­sors of writ­ers, aca­d­e­mics and intel­lec­tu­als, with the largest prison pop­u­la­tion of polit­i­cal detainees in con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, con­sol­i­dat­ing his pow­er, has fired over 5,000 aca­d­e­mics and 50,000 school­teach­ers, whose pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics or Kur­dish her­itage he dis­liked, or who as journalists/editors/publishers have been too out­spo­ken, such as wide­ly trans­lat­ed nov­el­ist and news­pa­per edi­tor Ahmet Altan, 72. The author of such inter­na­tion­al­ly admired works as the nov­els in his Ottoman Quar­tet and the prison mem­oir I Will Nev­er See the World Again, Altan was sen­tenced to life in prison in 2016. He spent four years behind bars but was unex­pect­ed­ly released last year. He said recent­ly, “Prison didn’t extin­guish my desire to write.”

Ear­li­er this month, the Kur­dish poet, writer and edi­tor Mer­al Şimşek, a PEN Inter­na­tion­al pro­tégée, fled Turkey to Berlin seek­ing asy­lum, as she was fac­ing anoth­er stiff prison sen­tence in her home town of Diyarbakir. Her case was to have been decid­ed on July 18, but a judge post­poned it to Sep­tem­ber 16, giv­ing Şimşek the oppor­tu­ni­ty to escape cer­tain con­vic­tion. In a text to this writer on August 8th, she lament­ed, “I am now in exile. I miss my homeland.”

Syr­i­an writer Faraj Bayrak­dar, author of the recent­ly-trans­lat­ed col­lec­tion of poet­ry A Dove in Free Flight, is a jour­nal­ist and award-win­ning poet. In 1987 he was arrest­ed by Hafez al-Assad’s regime on sus­pi­cion of belong­ing to the Par­ty for Com­mu­nist Action. Held incom­mu­ni­ca­do for near­ly sev­en years, he was tor­tured and even­tu­al­ly sen­tenced to 15 years in prison, but 14 months shy of com­plet­ing his sen­tence, he was grant­ed amnesty and obtained asy­lum in Swe­den. Sim­i­lar cas­es include Iraqi writer Has­san Blasim, who found refuge in Fin­land, and Iraqi Assyr­i­an writer Samuel Shi­mon, who after spend­ing time in Iraqi, Syr­i­an and Lebanese jails, found his way to Lon­don and, with Mar­garet Obank, found­ed Ban­i­pal.

Mean­while the jails of Egypt­ian pres­i­dent Abdel Fat­tah El-Sis­si are over­flow­ing with thou­sands of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Accord­ing to a New York Times sto­ry last week, many are sub­ject­ed to tor­ture and refused life­sav­ing med­ica­tions, and “more than a thou­sand peo­ple have died in Egypt­ian cus­tody.” Well-known cas­es of Egypt­ian writer Ahmed Naji (now a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Markaz Review) and hunger-strik­er and author Alaa Abd El-Fat­tah (You Have Not Yet Been Defeat­ed) are just the tip of the iceberg.

One would be remiss in not point­ing out that while U.S. Pres­i­dent Joe Biden pub­licly con­demned the attack on Salman Rushdie over the week­end, he is a friend and ally to the lead­ers of Sau­di Ara­bia, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. Talk­ing out of both sides of his mouth, Biden has refused to inves­ti­gate Israel’s mur­der of Shireen Abu Akleh and con­tin­ues to do brisk busi­ness with Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), Erdoğan and El-Sis­si. Are we to there­fore under­stand that human rights are expend­able when weighed against the demands of geopolitics?

Alas, yes, so what are we to do about lip ser­vice when it comes to free­dom of expres­sion, enshrined in the First Amend­ment of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, yet read­i­ly dis­missed where Amer­i­can and Euro­pean allies are concerned?

Apart from sup­port­ing the work per­formed by NGOs such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and PEN, we might lend our back­ing to Democ­ra­cy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a non­prof­it found­ed by Jamal Khashog­gi that pro­motes democ­ra­cy, the rule of law, and human rights for all of the peo­ples of the Mid­dle East and North Africa. DAWN “focus­es its research and advo­ca­cy on MENA gov­ern­ments with close ties to the Unit­ed States and the mil­i­tary, diplo­mat­ic, and eco­nom­ic sup­port that the US pro­vides these gov­ern­ments, as that is where we have the great­est responsibility.” 


Taxi por­trays direc­tor Jafar Panahi as he cours­es through the streets of Tehran while pre­tend­ing to be a share taxi dri­ver. Trail­er.

Film­mak­ers at Risk

Iran­ian cin­e­ma is wide­ly appre­ci­at­ed as among the best in the world, but in July, dis­si­dent Iran­ian film­mak­er Jafar Panahi — pre­vi­ous­ly con­vict­ed of “pro­pa­gan­da against the sys­tem” — was ordered to serve out a six-year sen­tence in Tehran. He was one of three promi­nent Iran­ian film­mak­ers who were arrest­ed in June — the oth­er two were Moham­mad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Amad.

The Inter­na­tion­al Coali­tion for Film­mak­ers at Risk exists to advo­cate for direc­tors such as Panahi, Rasoulof and Al-Amad. The ICFR is also going to bat for Iran­ian film­mak­ers Mina Keshavarz and Firouzeh Khos­ra­vani, who in May were “were arrest­ed in Tehran after their homes were searched and their per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al belong­ings such as mobile phones, hard­drives and lap­tops were con­fis­cat­ed. On 17 May, Keshavarz and Khos­ra­vani were released on bail and banned from leav­ing the coun­try for six months. There has been no offi­cial charge since their arrest.”

It’s hard to know what prompt­ed the arrests; the Islam­ic Repub­lic has remained tac­i­turn on the mat­ter. How­ev­er, rumors from Tehran sug­gest that Khos­ra­vani was arrest­ed for attend­ing a doc­u­men­tary fes­ti­val in Istan­bul that was also attend­ed by an Israeli doc­u­men­tary filmmaker.

With such intim­i­da­tion tac­tics, one might well won­der whether self-cen­sor­ship is a grow­ing con­cern for all those who would dare to crit­i­cize their own gov­ern­ment in their cre­ative work.

On Sat­ur­day, in a Guardian col­umn, for­mer Eng­lish PEN direc­tor Jo Glanville argued that there has already been a ter­ri­ble “retreat from free­dom of expres­sion — self-cen­sor­ship replaced tol­er­ance as desir­able behav­ior in a soci­ety where free speech was still sup­posed to be a bench­mark for human rights. And we’re all still suf­fer­ing from that shift in all areas of pub­lic debate.”

Salman Rushdie has been among the most vis­i­ble advo­cates for free­dom of expres­sion since he came out of hid­ing, after the 1989 fat­wa against his life and the nov­el The Satan­ic Vers­es, issued by a dying Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni. He not­ed in a 2012 talk in New York that ter­ror­ism is real­ly the art of fear. “The only way you can defeat it is by decid­ing not to be afraid,” he said. But as a Jacobin colum­nist not­ed on Sat­ur­day, Rushdie has “faced much harsh­er con­se­quences for his work than most artists ever will — par­tic­u­lar­ly the psy­cho­log­i­cal harm of enforced iso­la­tion and con­stant threat.”

The ques­tion is, will Rushdie’s stab­bing inhib­it oth­er writ­ers, film­mak­ers and jour­nal­ists from speak­ing truth to pow­er — artists who crit­i­cize sacred cows includ­ing gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions and reli­gion? Will we see our courage fur­ther erod­ed by extrem­ist and repres­sive forces, which abound the world over, or will this strength­en our resolve?



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