The vicious knife attack on author Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua literary festival last week was horrifying. And for all who love literature and count free expression as among the highest of values, the news this week that he is awake, talking and beginning the road to recovery is a relief.
Back in 2007 Rushdie accepted a lifetime achievement award in cultural humanism from Harvard University. In his remarks he noted how honored and “slightly overwhelmed” he was to be getting it. “People like being praised,” he said, “but sort of in their absence. I just like to hope that people would say this kind of thing when I wasn’t there. But I guess I’ll never know.” With the outpouring of concern and outrage that followed Friday’s attack (not to mention The Satanic Verses shooting to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists), it would be nice to think that Rushdie now knows.
Moment Book & Opinion Editor Amy Schwartz shared her impressions this week, commenting that the attack on Rushdie was not only a setback for the forces of freedom and enlightenment but also for creative engagement with religion. “American Jews of all flavors, liberal Christians, modernizing Muslims…take note: Without the ability to freely interpret our religious sources, our holy books and commentaries, and to publish the results, a vast tradition would cease to exist, everything from Philip Roth to feminist midrash.”
In addition to “going there” on religion, writers must be able to include all manner of confounding, risqué or otherwise controversial things in their made-up stories precisely because these things happen in real life.
And as we lament attempts to quiet fiction writers, it’s equally important to acknowledge the dangers journalists face when their reporting lifts the veil on authoritarian regimes. In a welcome update to our story last spring on the Myanmar government’s imprisonment of Danny Fenster, he returned home to Michigan in November and continues his work for Frontier Myanmar magazine. In a very different outcome, we revisit the mockery of justice for Daniel Pearl and the overturning of his killer’s conviction by a Pakistani court in 2020.
From murder, disappearance or imprisonment on foreign soil to a bloody attack at a bucolic book event in Upstate New York, there are so many brave voices that deserve our deep appreciation. Let’s keep buying, reading, reviewing and discussing their words.
I had a chance to interview Salman Rushdie at his NYU office in 2019, back when I was an editor at a different magazine. (And right now, come to think of it, you’re probably thinking, who is this person writing? Allow me to introduce myself as a new member of the Moment editorial staff who is thrilled to be here!) I referenced a column Rushdie had written in The New York Times on February 14, 1999, the tenth anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for his death. On that anniversary, Rushdie posed this question:
“Amid the cacophony of the professionally opinionated and the professionally offended, may a voice still be heard celebrating literature, highest of arts, its passionate, dispassionate inquiry into life on earth, its naked journey across the frontierless human terrain, its fierce-minded rebuke to dogma and power, and its trespassers’ fearless daring?”
Yes, such voices can and must still be heard. And, in the face of your own fearless daring, Sir Salman, we wish you godspeed.