THE ANGRY ARAB: The Attack on Salman Rushdie

The debate between Muslims and Westerners about the parameters of freedom of speech has been reignited, writes As`ad AbuKhalil.

Salman Rushdie in 2014. (Greg Salibian, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News

The attack on Salman Rushdie in upstate New York on Aug. 13 has brought back the bitter memories of the Rushdie affair in the late 1980s, when Islamic governments and institutions competed to denounce the author of the book, The Satanic Verses

In his book, Rushdie was provocative in his treatment of Muhammad and then a fatwa calling for his death ensued, which completely violates a writer’s free literary license to be imaginative and even provocative without fear of retribution. (Rushdie is knowledgeable of Islamic studies from his undergraduate work at Cambridge). 

At the time, the Saudi government first drew attention to Rushdie and various pro-Saudi clerical groups denounced the author and called for his trial (in Saudi Arabia where there is no justice system).

Soon, the Iranian government joined the campaign and Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa (a religious edict which in this case called for the assassination of Rushdie).  Protests against Rushdie swept the Muslim world while Western governments and intellectuals launched a strong campaign of solidarity.

From the beginning of the crisis, Western liberals in defense of Rushdie — in their media and culture — also reacted with an accustomed arrogance in ignoring Muslim sensibilities. The majority of Muslims — whether they read the book or not — reacted with strong disapproval to what they heard or read about the book’s references to Muhammad and his wives. 

To be sure, the sensibilities of religious groups should not in any way effect literary expression.  That writers have a right to express themselves, even provocatively, should be sternly supported. Moreover, those who are now lobbying for stringent constraints on freedom of speech in Western societies are often enemies of Muslims and Islam (namely, Zionists and Christian fundamentalists who want the parameters of debate to stop at criticizing Israeli aggression and apartheid). 

When Noam Chomsky supported the right of free speech of even a Holocaust denier (the French writer Robert Faurisson), he was defamed and maligned and accused — most unfairly — of being an anti-Semite himself.  Western liberals often support absolute freedom of speech, even if it offends the sensibilities of Muslims.  Western liberalism too often does not hold equal standards of tolerance or of intolerance.

Noam Chomsky in 2011. (Andrew Rusk, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Western liberals and governments understandably supported the right of Rushdie to express himself without regard to reactions in the streets of Muslim capitals. But it must be asked if those same people would support a writer who offended Jewish people, for example? 

Long History of Religious Insults

Of course, it is high time that all religious groups become thick-skinned and understand that religions should not enjoy special treatment from the state or society.  Furthermore, religious groups have a long history of insults against one another: the state of Israel demands (in the name of Jewish people who it bogusly claims it universally represents), that Western governments protect the state of Israel from criticism in the name of combating anti-Semitism, while the state itself has a long history of bigotry and violence against Arabs (Muslims and Christians alike). 

Similarly, some Muslims who express outrage over Rushdie’s book are themselves guilty of bigotry against Jews, Christians and atheists. The Saudi-affiliated World Muslim League was the first Muslim organization to raise alarm about Satanic Verses upon its release and yet it has a history of bigotry and hostility against Jews, Christians and communists. The Iranian regime has a poor record in its treatment or attitude toward other religious groups, the recent arrest of Bahá’ís as an example. 

Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s. (Wikimedia Commons)

We don’t know much about the man who attacked Rushdie, but we know that he most likely was motivated, or influenced, by the outrage that Muslim governments (Sunni and Shiite alike) inculcated Muslims with for decades.  Nevertheless, Western media and liberals (and conservatives for that matter) rushed to directly tie the Iranian regime to the attack although there is no evidence of any link with Tehran, which denied any knowledge or responsibility for the attack. 

Even so, enemies of Iran rushed to blame Iran, while many supporters of Hizbullah in Lebanon expressed joy over what they consider to be the implementation of Khomeini’s ruling, even though they too know nothing of the suspect’s motive or whether he has any links to their cause.  Media reports say the alleged assailant, Hadi Matar, 24, is an American born in California with very superficial ties to Lebanon. 

It is one thing to denounce the attack on Rushdie — which is basic for all, especially writers — but it is another thing to falsely claim that Rushdie has been a longtime champion of Muslim causes and of Palestinians (not that he has to be a champion of either group, but for the sake of accuracy). 

Some  A decades-old interview that Rushdie conducted with Edward Said was unearthed on Twitter on the day of the attack.  Said was adamant in his solidarity with Rushdie when the affair exploded.

But like Christopher Hitchens (another one-time friend of Said), Rushdie underwent a thorough political transformation and he has not said a word about Palestinians in decades.  So, it is disingenuous to use Said to support not only the principle of free speech, but to connect him to Rushdie’s political stances, which have become quite reactionary (to the delight of his friend, Bill Maher, who is a major voice of Islamophobia and for Israel in the U.S.).

The famed orientalist, W.M. Watt, once observed in his book The Majesty That Was Islam: The Islamic World 661-1100 that the Arab-Islamic civilization was most tolerant when it was strong and powerful and that its decline coincided with an atmosphere of strictness and intolerance.  World Muslims feel weak today and most live under oppressive and intolerant governments.  Many complain about the climate of Islamophobia which now prevails in the West. 

It was unimaginable that blatant attacks on Islam and Muslims would prevail in political campaigns in France three or four decades ago.  In present-day France, politicians of the right, center and left compete in their articulation of hostility to Islam and Muslims. 

When the attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo occurred in France, world leaders (including unelected Muslim leaders) rallied to support France and the principle of freedom of speech.  But Western governments and intellectuals rarely exhibit any solidarity with Muslim victims especially when their victimhood is caused by Western wars and policies.  Muslims often highlight that hypocrisy, which should not, however, be used to justify any sympathy for the attack on Rushdie. 

Tribute to Charlie Hebdo in Copenhagen, Denmark, Jan. 9, 2015. (Angel Perez, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. in its war in Iraq actually targeted the offices of Aljazeera and killed a correspondent.  The U.S. does not hide its displeasure toward manifestations of free speech in developing countries when it is directed against its interests or against Israel.

The attack on Salman Rushdie will reignite the debate between Muslims and Westerners about parameters of freedom of speech.  Western liberals insist that Muslims should tolerate insults against them in the name of freedom of speech but that Israel (not the Jewish people who suffered from centuries of repugnant anti-Semitism) should be shielded from any attacks or insults or even criticism of Israel. 

Similarly, many Muslims in their media express hostility and hurl insults against Jews and some even mock the Holocaust or deny it, but defend the attack on Rushdie in the name of protecting their religion from insults.  Clearly, religious groups have enjoyed a special status in terms of protection from criticism or polemical attacks for too long.  It is high time that religious groups enjoy the same limitations of freedom of speech that all governments and societies impose. 

There is no absolute freedom of speech anywhere and Western governments are increasingly restricting freedom of speech either in name of combatting anti-Semitism (to protect Israeli occupation and aggression) or in the name of forms of political correctness and “national security.” 

In the Middle East, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia adhere to high standards of freedom of expression, although there is more debate in the Iranian press than in the Saudi press. But both governments impose strict limitations on what can be expressed on social media. 

Iran, however, has been associated with the campaign against the Satanic Verses, which polluted the image of Islam in the West. World Muslims should realize that the attack on Rushdie was not a defense of Islam but was a gift to the enemies of Islam and Muslims in the West. 

As`ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002) and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He tweets as @asadabukhalil

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

20 comments for “THE ANGRY ARAB: The Attack on Salman Rushdie

  1. Vincent ANDERSON
    August 23, 2022 at 09:17

    Great article, great thread! I’ve unfortunately been semi-joking about Bill Gates’ personal campaign to crash my WORD files yesterday, since my cheap old ‘owned’ Office suite seemed better than his Deep-state-like campaign to lease it. Anyway, no files to draw upon, so just a few unsystematic remarks.

    Edward Said once remarked about the great joy of a Palestinian family who welcomed a reporter who might, finally, get their perspectives into print. That was Judith Miller.

    After 100s of MSM hours’ coverage of the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, Scott Simon failed to mention her in Weekend Edition.

    I’m neither Rushdie expert nor fan. Like him, perhaps; he thinks his wife is a better writer.

    I highly recommend Mark Sleboda’s tireless efforts, both on and off Twitter, to set the record straight on the Dugina murder. As a guest of the USA/Canada Institute’s ‘philosophers for peace’ delegation at Moscow State in late 80s, we were definitely outclassed by our hosts. Myself excepted, of course. Though my old presentation on accidental nuclear war have yielded to a new effort, given the confirmable psycho-dangers foisted onto Ukrainians and others by the US mil/industrial/academic complex, to propose the preventive arrests of the perps of such ‘foreseeable harm to others’ class. (To be cont’d.)

    I haven’t written to Noam Chomsky on his last 2 birthdays; busy guy, must give him space!

    I have supported Assange et al on the Collateral Murder topics since day one. Can only hope that big fat Mike Pompeo, Joshin’ John Bolton et al get their respective come-uppances, and that Assange sees real sunlight soon.

  2. TS
    August 23, 2022 at 08:23

    Another form of censorship:


  3. Georges Olivier Daudelin
    August 22, 2022 at 15:53

    Dans le cas de Rushdie, il semble que ce soit la maladie mentale; dans le cas de la fille de Douguine, nous savons maintenant que c’est un assassinat délibérément et consciemment perprétré, mais il y a eu erreur sur la personne.

    Les compradores washingtoniens Ukro-Nazis sont les auteurs de ce meurtre BESTIAL.

    • Dr. Hujjatullah M.H.B. Sahib
      August 23, 2022 at 23:24

      Oui, exactment !

  4. Ghost Writer
    August 22, 2022 at 13:02

    Salman Rushdie
    Daria Dugina / Alexander Dugin

    It will be interesting to see how these two murder attempts will be treated by people. I suspect, that in typical human fashion, most people will hold completely opposite views on these two crimes.

    And yet, they are the same. Both were attacks on authors. Both were attacks on other people for committing Thought Crimes. They do not think correctly, they even have the gall to write it down, they do not think correctly, therefore they must die.

    We live in a sick and evil world. And if we kill off the people who still try to write and think, then it ain’t going to get any better. It doesn’t matter if you agree with a particular writer or not. If you make everyone who can still think and write hide under a rock for their own self protection, then that leaves the rest of you to go play with your nuclear weapons. Which will be a rather short game.

    Oh well, at least we’ll get some brief amusement from watching some of the same people who think it is horrible that Iran would kill an author then also turn around and celebrate the CIA attempt to kill an author. And so it goes.

    (written anonymously for my own self-protection)

    • TS
      August 23, 2022 at 07:45

      Iran did not kill Rushdie, nor is there any evidence it had anything to do with the stabbing. You have already internalized the State’s choice of narratives which is being pushed so aggressively by the usual suspects. Is it coincidence that Israel is pushing the U.S. to attack Iran militarily? I think not.

    • TS
      August 23, 2022 at 08:08

      Or this form of censorship and murder. Highly recommend this story.


  5. TS
    August 22, 2022 at 12:27

    Rushdie plays at being the bad boy shocking and offending his staid elders for attention. I loved “Midnight’s Children” but haven’t been able to read a word he’s written since because, as a non-Muslim American expat kid born and raised in the M.E., I found the opening paragraphs of “Satanic Verses” offensive. Rushdie knew this kind of racism would sell, and boy, was he right. He is an apostate–originally from a Muslim family so the rules for him are different. Diversity requires generosity of spirit. And an understanding that other cultures may not be entirely accessible to you. Sorry, but Westerners are not the arbiters of good taste or truth. Especially if you have been fed a heavy diet of real anti-Semitism–in this case hatred of Arabic- and Farsi-speaking peoples–since you were in diapers. Racism towards Middle Easterners is so ubiquitous in the West you cannot even see it. And no, neither of my parents was Middle Eastern. The willful ignorance of Westerners never ceases to amaze me.

    The hypocrisy of Western writers jumping to defend Rushdie but remaining silent when expert scientists and medical doctors and researchers are systematically censored and de-licensed is a bit much. Western societies are now engaging in far more censorship than Khomeini. Let’s apply our standards equally. Robert Kennedy Jr. can’t even get a book review. Has PEN complained about this? There are so many people being kicked off social media. Nobody seems to care that high tech companies are hiring ex-CIA employees to monitor and intensify the surveillance system we now live under.

    This very web-site had been de-listed by Paypal, for god’s sake. Meanwhile, Roe V. Wade bites the dust but no one talks about it in terms of censorship. Teachers are quitting because of the censorship they experience. Mainstream media is dying because of the extreme censorship it colludes with. And, yes, don’t mention the manner in which AIPAC is subverting our primary election system, particular in the Democratic Party. Democrats can’t even vote for candidates they might support because of a foreign country censoring our so-called democratic system. And the censorship of Palestinians by the state of Israel, anbd the U.S. government by extension? Perish the thought! They don’t just shut Palestinians up; they assassinate them, including little kids. Where are the complaints in the West about this?

    Too much energy expended on a superficial writer, the bete noir of Bombay. Enough already. He knew exactly what might happen when he wrote that stupid book. He is no victim.

    • August 22, 2022 at 13:52

      Well said. Defenders of freedom of expression/speech are ususally up in arms when the subject is Muslims/Islam but somehow silent on Assange, Shireen Abu Akleh, Hales, Snowden and many others. Somehow Salman Rushdie is a paragon of free speech. His only claim to fame is that he offended over a billion muslims and some people over reacted to his provocation. I wonder where these warriors are when critics of Israel are silenced or if the death toll of Holocaust is questioned (not denied but questioned). How about if people challenge the narratives of Ukraine war or LGBTQ, what then?

    • Newton Finn
      August 22, 2022 at 14:11

      Thank you for a nuanced perspective, a rarity these days. Here’s another facet of the quandary. The abortion issue is intractable so long as many fervently believe that human life begins at conception. Similarly, the free speech issue is intractable so long as many believe that God must not be mocked. It’s no answer to say that you personally need do neither while society allows others to do so, any more than such an answer suffices for murder or child porn. Issues like these cannot be argued out, only lived through in the tension of irreconcilable division.

    • Dosamuno
      August 22, 2022 at 15:56

      “He knew exactly what might happen when he wrote that stupid book. He is no victim.”

      Say what?
      If someone writes a books criticizing a pedophile prophet or a invisible being that lives in the sky, some deranged religious fanatic has the right to kill or maim him?

    • Piotr Berman
      August 23, 2022 at 10:37

      “Meanwhile, Roe V. Wade bites the dust but no one talks about it in terms of censorship. ”

      I do not see as a censorship either. What I see is Supreme Court that was packed by Republicans applying strict litmus test, no reproductive freedom defender among them, who waited years to become bold and overturn the precedent. My theory is that until now, they were afraid of a reaction that would tilt the balance of power toward Democrats — they may be “life defenders” (at least, for fetuses, not so much with death penalty rules) — but Republican first.

      But Biden crew is stupidly imperialist, provoking conflicts that lead to inflation and deepening shortages, so on pocketbook issues, they are doomed anyway. At least it is a plausible calculations of our supreme jurists.

      In short, defending freedoms (a freedom, actually) is impossible if combined with stupid policies in most areas that matter. Green boondoggle (“saving the planet” by creating shortages instead of realistic policies), medical boondoggle (single payer is a necessary step for unravelling it), military boondoggle) and now war boondoggle that exceeds the follies of the previous wars of this century. People who live with consequences will vote to “throw the bums out”, mostly without checking if the new Congress and perhaps Administration will be any better.

  6. Em
    August 22, 2022 at 12:22

    A pertinent collation of previous comments
    The world’s policeman, yet again, leading by example:
    Hypocrisy is a hugely inadequate English idiom for describing inhumane U.S. ruthlessness, in its condemnation of anything and everything its nemesis, Iran, attempts to do.
    There is no defense for the autocratic, fundamentalist religious Iranian regime either, when it comes to their now “blaming Salman Rushdie and his supporters for his own stabbing”. They may not have direct links to the attacker himself, but the ‘fatwa’ — religious edict, issued by the supreme leader, Khomeini, more than 30 years ago, in the name of the Islamic religion, has been the inspiration for fundamentalist believers’ lunatic actions the world over.
    The current twenty-four year old assailant, against Rushdie, was not yet born when the decree was first issued. Divisive, clandestine religious language narration has worked as the indoctrinating tool, all his life.
    The form of Islam practiced in Iran does not necessarily speak for all of the world’s more than 1.5 billion Muslims, just as the claims of hegemonic American style ‘democracy’ does not speak with one voice for all of the worlds blind faith believers in the actual practices of a person named Jesus Christ.
    Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in a statement lauding Salman Rushdie, said that he had “continually stood up for the universal rights of freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of the press”; without even blinking an eye.
    Now that is extraordinary hypocrisy! No mention of the contradiction in their illegal treatment of Julian Assange.
    If Blinkens statement, in and of itself, doesn’t qualify, in like manner to a ‘fatwa’s’ “hate speech, and incitement to violence”, then what does???
    Hadn’t Rushdie established his writing career, which had brought him fame and fortune long prior to the Julian Assange journalism imbroglio?
    Wasn’t it the constant threat to his own life (Rushdie), and the notoriety it brought him, because of the Iranian ‘fatwa’ against him; causing him to resort to live in hiding for the first seven years after its issuance, that gave him a personal right to act somewhat cautiously as a spokesperson for freedom of thought and expression in the aftermath? Yet he has been doing just that for many years, since coming out of hiding.
    What was in his mind about not speaking out on behalf of J.A., no one can say who does not know the man.
    Someone having this opinion about this one individual says sh/e probably sees her/himself as a braver character than most of us other mere mortals!
    Have Chris Hedges, John Pilger or Caitlin Johnstone ever directly confronted Islamic religious practices, in the manner Salman Rushdie did, in his Satanic Verses?
    Were their lives ever directly threatened, in return, by the leader of the Islamic faith of Iran putting a ‘fatwa’ on their heads, for what they have freely written?
    Today there are approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Does the current president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, speak for all of the Muslims in the world?
    Does the head of the Catholic Church’s 1.3 billion adherents, Pope Francis, speak for all of Christianity’s 2.8 billion followers?
    President Joe Biden certainly doesn’t speak for all Americans, perhaps not even for himself!
    Are all journalists, documentary film makers and writers required to speak with one voice?
    If you were the head of an oligarchic state, yet proclaiming a separation of Church and state democracy, you would certainly prefer they did!
    The idea of religious hegemony is as deserving of contempt as any other form of social control by those holding the reigns of power.
    Okay, perhaps Salman Rushdie is not as courageous as some feel he ought to be, simply because he’s not on their personal list of courageous people!
    The more fluid version of the expression of the flag of courage is Walk-the-Talk: “To do what one said one could do, or would do, not just making empty promises.”

  7. Robert Crosman
    August 22, 2022 at 10:54

    I’m troubled by the sentence “It is high time that religious groups enjoy the same limitations of freedom of speech that all governments and societies impose.” It’s odd to say that anyone “enjoys” being limited in what they can say, but assuming the writer means that they “should be subject to” such limitations, it’s contrary to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech to advocate that religious groups should be limited in what they can say. Speech that incites violence is considered criminal in the U.S., and this includes a range of hate speech, which religious zealots are sometimes guilty of, but otherwise they are and should be as free to express their views as any other person or group.

  8. frank mintz
    August 22, 2022 at 10:46

    I think this article will help both Jews and Muslims introspect on the question of what kind and how much criticism of their respective faiths and practices is tolerable, and what is not. However, the underlying question remaining to be answered is “What did Rushdie actually write about Muhammad?” Similarly, are all Holocaust deniers actually total deniers, or are many of their questions directed at the modality of gas-chambers or, literally, fire pits in mass murders?

    • Eric
      August 22, 2022 at 17:42

      “the underlying question remaining to be answered is “’What did Rushdie actually write about Muhammad?’”

      Really? It has been public for decades.

  9. Nathan Mulcahy
    August 22, 2022 at 10:21

    Thank you for publishing this enlightening piece.

    Among other things, W.M. Watt’s comment on tolerance is worth mulling over. Even though, he was referring to the Arab-Islamic civilization, the phenomenon is universal. When a country/society feels it’s decline, it instinctively becomes less tolerant and imposes restrictions on speech. Those phenomena were widespread in the former Soviet Union as well as its satellite states. But today, these phenomena are widespread, and getting worse in this country. The conclusion as to why this is happening is pretty obvious!

  10. Sunshine Head
    August 22, 2022 at 09:51

    Fair argument. Though two factual errors. Attack was on Friday, August 12th. Also the attack, as described in beginning of article, was in western new York, which is true. It happened in Chautauqua, a semi private community, and a liberal bastian. But later in article mentions attack was in NYC…

  11. Harry
    August 22, 2022 at 07:37

    The author navigates the contradictions and hypocrisy quite well; however, I would love an exploration of the way the West has backed, radicalized and armed the most extreme version of Islam in its attempts to control the middle east and its resources. Perhaps it is too obvious to the readers of this site who recognize this. Zionism and Wahhabism – would they be so prevalent if not for the west?

  12. mgr
    August 22, 2022 at 06:21

    If the Western view of freedom of expression is based upon universal principles, and not just partisan preference, then they obviously apply to everyone equally. However, we often find that these stated “universal principles” of free and open expression, including criticism, that are promoted in Western democracies do not apply when it comes to its own sacred cows, in particular to the state of Israel. Legitimate criticism of Israel, which is now recognized as an apartheid state, is due to its actions whereas antisemitism toward the Jewish people is simply base bigotry and racism. But this is no less true when it is directed toward any other people or culture. The actions of states are certainly not above criticism nor reproach, unless of course waving the flag of “universal values” is simply partisan bullshit being promoted for partisan advantage, as it often is.

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