When the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a death sentence for the writer Salman Rushdie in 1989, his fatwa was seen as a direct challenge to the most basic of American values.
But by the time a black-clad assailant stabbed Rushdie multiple times at a speaking engagement last week, the attack felt less like an affront to our shared ideals than a premonition of where we’re headed.
If you’re too young to remember the late ‘80s, you might not understand what a pervasive symbol of Western freedom Rushdie became. This was after he published his novel “The Satanic Verses,” with its portrayal of the prophet Muhammad that so infuriated Iran’s radical clerics.
Rushdie stayed mostly out of sight for many years, though he reemerged one night in 1991 at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he spoke on the sanctity of the First Amendment. Every public appearance he made in the decade or so after the fatwa, with private security lurking nearby, constituted an act of remarkable courage.
If there was debate in this country over the rightness of Rushdie’s cause, I don’t recall it; even Jimmy Carter, who condemned the book in a pusillanimous New York Times op-ed, defended Rushdie’s right to be heard. Back then, pretty much everyone agreed that democracy demanded basic tolerance and free expression, even if we sometimes argued vehemently over what kind of speech was appropriate in the public square.
Those were the days when the ACLU defended the rights of Nazi sympathizers to march down the street in Illinois. And when even Republican presidents exalted the American press as a contrast to communist repression and theocratic rule — despite their evident disdain for what journalists wrote.
Those were also the times when the leadership of both parties rejected violent rhetoric — let alone actual violence such as the Oklahoma City bombing — in response to political or religious grievance. You may recall that former President George H.W. Bush resigned from the National Rifle Association, an important political constituency, in 1995 after it referred to federal agents as “jack-booted thugs.” (The NRA apologized; Bush didn’t relent.)
What a different society from the one we have now, when the most basic propositions in American life are up for debate — if anyone even knows how to do that anymore.
Now the movement conservatives who once proclaimed themselves a bulwark against mob rule can’t even find the spine to distance themselves from an armed attack on the Capitol. They grovel, instead, before a leader who would have joined the uprising himself if anyone had been willing to drive him.
Two days after Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader, responded to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago last week by saying that the Justice Department was in “an intolerable state of weaponized politicization,” an armed man, and apparent Donald Trump supporter, tried to enter the FBI headquarters in Cincinnati.
How close is this to a political fatwa? How long until Trump and McCarthy’s holy war starts taking the lives of political opponents and journalists?
Meanwhile, as my Post colleague Margaret Sullivan notes, cultural conservatives around the country are doubling as school librarians, rooting out books by such authors as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Maurice Sendak. Mainstream Republicans cheer them on.
The moment demands a brave, intellectually liberal response. Good luck with that. The left’s commitment to open debate has all but disappeared when we need it most, as a stunning number of activists and academics embrace the idea that free speech is a tool of oppression, wielded by the white elite.
Even the ACLU isn’t really in the free speech business anymore, preferring instead to enforce social justice orthodoxies. First Amendment rights are still celebrated on campuses and social media — so long as you adhere to the accepted lexicon of identity and a sanctioned version of American history.
(Yeah, I know: “Both sidesism!” Give it a rest.)
Is any of this as egregious as urging on violent extremists? On the sliding scale of anti-democratic behaviors, no. But ask yourself this: If Rushdie had written his book in 2022 instead of 1988, and if the blasphemy had revolved not around Islam but around, say, the left’s notion of gender fluidity, how many leading Democrats would be standing up to champion his artistic freedom?
The answer is: very few. And that’s a problem, because the only winning response to lawlessness and censorship is a rededication to bedrock democratic ideals — and not only when it reaffirms your worldview.
Rushdie lies hospitalized in a country that still reviles Islamist extremists but that adopts, increasingly, the violence and anti-intellectualism underlying their ideology. In Tehran, newspapers hailed Rushdie’s assailant as God’s hero — a reaction that would have confounded us 30 years ago. But now we have our own ayatollahs, whipping up true believers and punishing dissent.
Rushdie wasn’t safe in America, after all. And neither, I fear, are the rest of us.
Matt Bai, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is a journalist, author and screenwriter.
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