A week after being viciously assaulted on August 12, 2022, Salman Rushdie remained hospitalized with severe injuries he sustained during the stabbing, but appeared to be regaining strength daily.
According to his agent, the 75-year-old author sustained liver and nerve damage. Moreover, doctors feared that he would lose an eye. But within 48 hours of being seriously injured, Rushdie was already off a ventilator, addressing investigators’ questions and even joking.
A 30-Year-Old Threat Almost Fulfilled
Rushdie had just been about to speak at the Chautauqua Institution in Upstate New York when a 24-year-old man rushed the stage and struck him multiple times about the head and upper body with a knife. Audience members threw themselves upon and subdued the attacker and rendered first aid to Rushdie until authorities took over.
Indicted by a grand jury, the alleged attacker, a New Jersey resident and the American-born son of Lebanese parents, has entered a plea of not guilty. His mother has indicated that he may have absorbed radical ideas on a 2018 visit to his estranged father in a part of Lebanon dominated by the Iran-supporting extremist group Hezbollah.
The young man in question almost achieved what numerous others have aspired to for more than 30 years, namely, to carry out the 1989 death sentence imposed on Rushdie by The Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini for the “blasphemous” content of his critically acclaimed novel, The Satanic Verses. Because the fatwa has never officially been lifted, a $3 million price on the author’s head remains. Iran’s current rulers have denied any direct knowledge of Rushdie’s attacker.
As the horrifying situation unfolded, fellow artists, leaders, and readers from all over the world condemned the attack in print and on social media while praising Rushdie for his extraordinary gifts as a writer and unceasing championship of freedom of speech.
Looking for Light in the Shadows
Shortly after the fatwa’s issuance, Rushdie became a global cause celebre and went into near-complete isolation for several years. His whereabouts near London were a closely guarded secret, and he had round-the-clock protection and communication with Scotland Yard.
Rushdie’s whole life, wrote PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel after the attack, has been “an act of defiance.” At the time of the Chautauqua attack, he had just reached out to Nossel hoping to get help for Ukrainian writers.
Born to a well-to-do Muslim family in Mumbai in 1947, Rushdie was educated in the United Kingdom. He has created lyrical, expansive, surrealistic novels exploring serious philosophical and political issues. In 1981, he won the prestigious Booker Prize with the publication of Midnight’s Children, which deals with the early days of an India free from colonial rule, and in 1983, he went on to write Shame, a novel about political life in Pakistan.
Then, The Satanic Verses came out, and Rushdie’s life changed forever. Issuing the fatwa, the Ayatollah called the book “an affront to Islam.” Riots took place in Muslim communities everywhere, with people burning copies of the book and effigies of Rushdie. “Rushdie, you are dead,” read a handmade poster at one protest.
In 1990, Rushdie told 60 Minutes interviewer Mike Wallace that, though the book had become an international bestseller, he would trade his new fame and fortune for his old life.
Even with so much violent rhetoric directed at him, Rushdie said he did not think the problem lay in Islam per se. The vast majority of his family and friends were Muslims. “What created this,” he told Wallace, “was a specific event in one country.”
Despite his longstanding atheism, Rushdie said, “I’m not an enemy of Muslims.” What he claimed for himself was simply the right to write as his imagination and conscience dictated. Answering the question, “What is freedom of expression?” he said, on behalf of himself and other writers, “Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
“If I felt that I couldn’t write as myself, I would stop writing,” he continued.
In the 1990 interview, Rushdie became visibly emotional talking about being forced to live in isolation away from his 11-year-old son. His first book written from that exile was the children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The main characters are a storyteller, his son, and the Prince of Silence, who attempts to keep the storyteller from telling his stories. The book, said Rushdie, expressed a “war between language and silence,” “light and dark.”
A Life Celebrating Freedom and Creativity
In recent years, Rushdie has appeared to enjoy the normal life of a celebrated writer, apparently without tight security. His more recent books include The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), and The Enchantress of Florence (2008). Shalimar the Clown (2005) delves into the subject of terrorism in North India. Joseph Anton (2012) is a pseudonymous memoir about his life in hiding, referencing the alias he used during that time.
Rushdie’s life had recently become so near-normal that probably neither he nor anyone else around him thought an ordinary literary event at a quiet artists’ retreat like Chautauqua could possibly pose any danger. But the attempt on his life shows that those who fear and hate freedom of expression can’t ever be dismissed.
Rushdie, along with other writers of courage and conscience, and organizations like PEN America that champion the right to write, read, and speak freely, deserve our support. One way to show it is simply to read writers like Rushdie and to stand up for and cherish our freedom to do so.