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Attack on Salman Rushdie underlines threats to free speech

Until the terrible assault on Salman Rushdie last weekend, it was tempting to believe that the “Rushdie affair” had been consigned to history. The original fatwa against the author was issued more than three decades ago — by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was then Iran’s supreme leader. But in recent years, the threat against Rushdie had seemed to recede. The novelist took to the stage in New York state last Friday unprotected by security.

Pointedly, when he was attacked Rushdie was giving a speech about the importance of protecting writers in peril. Over the decades, the novelist has become both a symbol and a champion of freedom of speech. Free speech remains a core principle of a liberal society. It needs to be defended with even more vehemence in the aftermath of the attack on Rushdie.

Khomeini’s fatwa marked a dangerous departure from global norms. Here was the leader of a state calling for the death of a foreign citizen over a work of fiction, The Satanic Verses, which the cleric deemed blasphemous. Giving in to a threat like that, by withdrawing the novel, would have been profoundly dangerous to free speech around the world.

Even if the immediate threat to Rushdie seemed diminished in recent years, the threat to free speech posed by Islamist extremists, both Shia and Sunni, has never disappeared. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered in 1991. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker, was murdered in 2004. In 2015, extremists murdered 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine.

Threats continue. Last month a man was arrested after being found with a loaded assault rifle outside the New York home of Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American women’s rights activist.

On many occasions, voices in the west qualified condemnation of attacks with suggestions that the likes of Rushdie, Van Gogh or the editors of Charlie Hebdo had also been at fault by being gratuitously offensive to Muslims. Some of those who failed to support Rushdie in the 1990s were conservatives, who had long disliked his leftwing views. These days, it is more likely to be the left who are squeamish about offending the supposedly downtrodden.

There are some legal restrictions on free speech — such as incitement to violence or libel. But, beyond that, freedom of speech in a liberal society must include the prerogative to say upsetting or offensive things. It can be uncomfortable or even dangerous to defend the right to give offence. But the opposite reaction is far worse, opening the door to a society governed by fear, conformity and stagnant ideas.

The Islamist extremist threat to free speech remains especially dangerous because of its ability to inspire radicals all over the world, with explicit exhortations to murder. But sometimes governments have also resorted to undercover assassinations to stamp out dissident voices — witness the slaughter in 2018 of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Less brutal, but more insidious, perhaps, has been the effect of “cancel culture” on freedom of speech. In 2020, Rushdie himself signed the celebrated Harper’s letter, which declared that the “free expression of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constrained.”

The letter’s signatories included heroes of the left, such as Noam Chomsky, and of the right, such as JK Rowling, both of whom have faced death threats. In a liberal society, one principle that all political camps must unite to defend is free speech. That is true when challenging those who seek to silence others. But death threats and assassinations that aim to punish free expression are in an abhorrent category of their own.

hello, I am Flora Khan and i work journalist in allnewshouse website i work in other sites like forbes and washington post with 5 years in experience.

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