15 August 2022

The attack on Salman Rushdie calls for political courage – not hearts, flowers and pointless platitudes


Ronald Reagan was right. Freedom is not free. Forty years after his presidency, the foul attack on Salman Rushdie reveals an era where freedom has been bargained away by the West in search of an accommodation with medieval fanatics who hate us. The pen is not mightier than the sword when the shield around it is eaten with rust, corrupted by fear and complacency.

The theocratic fascists who inspired and now gloat over Rushdie’s assault for daring to stand up for the Enlightenment know the value of tenacity. They also know that the bleak joy of quasi-religious intolerance is a monster already inside their opponent’s castle. The decadence of an Anglosphere that cannot even defend the immutability of sex, whether divinely or scientifically ordained, is not lost on ideological extremists who are happy to have the Kuffar do their softening up for them.

Minutes after Reagan took power from the hapless Jimmy Carter, Iran released 52 US hostages it had been holding after the American embassy was stormed by students over a year before. This act of state-sponsored terrorism began with the elevation of the Ayatollah Khomeini to that country’s Supreme Leader. In 1989, it was he who issued the fatwa on Salman Rushdie – effectively inviting Muslims to murder him for publishing The Satanic Verses. Khomeini, who reputedly never read the book, proclaimed that whoever was killed in that cause would be a ‘martyr’ and just in case heavenly reward wasn’t enough, the Iranian state offered a $3m bounty. 

The international crisis the fatwa on Rushdie provoked has caused huge diplomatic and economic harm to Iran itself and many observers saw it as a cynical stunt to divert attention from a pointless eight-year war of attrition with neighbouring Iraq that had left almost a million casualties. Intolerance became that benighted countries greatest export. The divine permission to kill for belief endures and pollutes decades later, helped not least by some on the left with their cringing anti-Western pieties. Their insistence that Rushdie brought this on himself for the impertinence of free expression is a shameful, cowardly footnote to this bloody affair. It wasn’t unnoticed by the enemies of civilisation. It never is.

The answer to intolerance isn’t simple, because freedom is inherently messy. It requires the accommodation of a whole range of beliefs and values that are often antithetical to each other. That accommodation requires vigilance and protections that go well beyond the platitudinous candle-lighting and ‘more in common’ political response to assaults against it.

More than anything, I’m talking about courage. When Sir David Amess was stabbed to death by an Islamist extremist in October last year, the Westminster response was to debate online safety. When a school teacher in Batley showed a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed during an RE lesson, he was suspended and is still in hiding after a mob surrounded the school. Perhaps it was the same mob that later forced a British cinema chain to cave in and self-censor a perfectly legal film on the grounds of religious offence. When J K Rowling stood in defence of women’s rights and the safety of girls, largely as a result of her own trauma, she was targeted for cancellation, rape and death threats by deranged activists who have now been joined by Islamists because of her public support of Rushdie. Don’t tell me there’s no connection. Don’t tell me it’s not being exploited by forces that want dissent, unity and rationality on the back foot.

We should at least expect our political class to quit the careful, aching  triangulation that too often follows such outrages and be plain about the red lines that separate us from the worldview of sectarian death cults. While Keir Starmer presumably laboured for hours over a form of condemnatory words that could insulate him against ‘Islamophobia’, that noticeable void  was being filled by online neo-fascists who don’t need any more help to get their toxic message over.

Our obeisance to progressive delusions produced one of the greatest child protection scandals in modern history across northern England, where thousands of young white girls were made prey to mainly Pakistani gangs, on the basis that even naming the problem would be bad for community cohesion. For the extreme right, that sort of institutional timidity is the gift that keeps on giving. 

The attempted murder of Salman Rushdie is not shocking. That’s the shocking thing about it. In due course we will see whether, as is alleged, his assailant was acting in conjunction with the Iranian Islamist impulse to attack the apostate – a widening net, knit faster by our own secular fanatics, which  drags in and dehumanises anyone who dissents from a fundamentalist worldview. 

When Reagan delivered the Iranian hostages he believed that it was ‘morning in America again’. The possibilities he spoke of then for a renaissance of freedom are now shadows in the gathering dusk. The message for politicians who have a responsibility to defend those messy freedoms is clear. Hearts and flowers are not stab-proof. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is a Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.