Speech must be freed
WASHINGTON: You have no right not to feel offended,” Salman Rushdie was fond of saying, a sentence that implied – even if in a somewhat convoluted manner – the idea that speech is never free if it always has to be non-offensive.
While people are free to be offended by speech, they are not free to respond by committing violence and attempting to silence the voices of those they disagree with.
This distinction was certainly lost on the young Iranian man, Hadi Matar, who brutally knifed Salman Rushdie at a public function in New York, leaving the celebrated author badly injured and in intensive care.
Even more unfortunately, it is a distinction that has been lost on his cheerleaders in Iran, and Islamic fundamentalists in other parts of the world, who have declared Matar a martyr and are celebrating his violence.
While the motives for Matar’s attempted assassination needs to be fully unravelled, we know he is a supporter of Shia extremism and the hardline Iranian regime.
If he was influenced by the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the India-born author, who carried a bounty of over $3 million on his head, then Rushdie has paid a tragic price for the publication of his controversial The Satanic Verses.
The novel, which the Indian government rushed to ban in 1989, was to wreak many changes in Rushdie’s life, including a long period in hiding, which he recounted with chilling effect in his book Joseph Anton.
Announcing himself as a major literary sensation with the publication of the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, Rushdie has followed it up with a string of novels and works of non-fiction.
He was a champion of free speech and a critic of illiberalism and religious fundamentalism, irrespective of whether it was Islamic, Christian or Hindu.
If there has been no official response from the Indian government to the attack on him, it is probably because he was a strong critic of the Modi regime, which he felt was repressive and authoritarian.
The evasive silence among most Indian political parties reflects their concerns about retaining vote banks rather than standing up for free expression.
The savage attack on Rushdie has occurred at a time when there is a raging debate in India about hate speech and religious insult.
It should serve as a reminder of the dangers of accepting the idea that people should be punished for merely what is said.
The only condition for proscribing speech, as John Stuart Mill famously wrote, is if it causes actual harm to others, and not merely because it is offensive.
Unfortunately, this is a liberal principle that has been much too easily forgotten by those on the right as well as the left.
As a result, they pick and choose what or who they want to shut down depending on their ideological beliefs. It is time that champions of free speech rose above such narrow considerations.