Canadian literary figures double down on free speech following Salman Rushdie attack
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Canadian writers, publishers and literary figures doubled down on the right to freedom of thought and expression on Saturday, one day after an attack on award-winning author Salman Rushdie that left him hospitalized and on a ventilator.
Rushdie, whose 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” drew death threats from Iran’s leaders in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday by a man who rushed the stage as the author was about to give a lecture in western New York.
Louise Dennys, executive vice-president and publisher of Penguin Random House Canada, has published and edited Rushdie’s writing for over 30 years. She condemned the attack on her longtime friend and colleague as “cowardly” and “reprehensible in every way.”
“He is without doubt one of the greatest proponents of freedom of thought and speech and debate and discussion in the world today,” Dennys said in a telephone interview. “I have hopes of his recovery. He’s a great warrior and fighter, and I hope he is fighting back.”
Rushdie, a native of India who has since lived in Britain and the U.S., is known for his surreal and satirical prose style. “The Satanic Verses” was regarded by many Muslims as blasphemous for its dream sequence based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. The book had already been banned and burned in India, Pakistan and elsewhere before Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.
Investigators were working to determine whether the attacker, born a decade after the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” acted alone. Police said the motive for Friday’s attack was unclear.
After the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” often-violent protests erupted across the Muslim world against Rushdie. At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.
The death threats prompted Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, though he cautiously resumed public appearances after nine years of seclusion, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism overall.
“We all depend on the storytelling, power and imagination of writers. He came out of hiding because he realized he wanted to play a role in the world we live in, defending those rights,” said Dennys.
“He couldn’t be silenced by fear, and I think that point is something he will continue to make if, as we all hope, he survives,” she said.
Dennys said the attack is already having the opposite effect of its suspected intentions given the outpouring of support from the international literary community, as well as activists and government officials, who cited Rushdie’s courage for his longtime free speech advocacy despite risks to his own safety.
“It’s brought everyone together to realize how precious and fragile our freedoms are and how important it is to speak up for them,” Dennys said.
The president of PEN Canada, an organization defending authors’ freedom of expression, condemned the “savage attack” on their “friend and colleague” Rushdie, who is a member.
Canadian writer John Ralston Saul, who has known Rushdie since the 1990s, said the author was always aware that someone might attack him but he chose to live publicly in order to speak out against those trying to silence free expression and debate.
“(Rushdie’s) work and whole life are a reminder of what the life of the public writer is in reality,” he said. “This would be the worst possible time to give in or show any sense that we must be more careful with our words. We’re not really writers if we give in to that kind of threat.”
Rushdie’s alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, was arrested after the attack at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and retreat centre. Matar’s lawyer entered a not guilty plea in a New York court on Saturday to charges of attempted murder and assault.
After the attack, some longtime visitors to the centre questioned why there wasn’t tighter security for the event, given the threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million to anyone who killed him.
Saul, who spoke at the Chautauqua Institution years before Rushdie’s attack, said it has an “open tradition” of debate, free-expression and anti-violence going back over 100 years.
“It’s one of the freest places to take advantage of our belief in freedom,” he said.
Director of the Toronto International Festival of Authors Roland Gulliver tweeted Saturday that literary festivals and book events are “spaces of expression, to tell your stories in friendship, safety and respect.”
“To see this so violently broken is incredibly shocking,” he wrote.
Expressions of sympathy came from the political realm as well, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemning the attack as a “cowardly … strike against freedom of expression.”
“No one should be threatened or harmed on the basis of what they have written,” read a statement posted to Trudeau’s official Twitter account. “I’m wishing him a speedy recovery.”
The 75-year-old Rushdie suffered a damaged liver, severed nerves in his arm and is likely to lose an eye as a result of the attack, Rushdie’s agent Andrew Wylie said Friday evening.
A physician who witnessed the attack and was among those who rushed to help described Rushdie’s wounds as “serious but recoverable.”
— With files from the Associated Press.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2022.