Years ago, I attended a reading at the University of Toronto. The reader was Mr. Rushdie whose publicist had organized a literary event for his new book. Afterwards, I bought a copy of the book and he signed it. I didn’t notice if there was security detail (or not.)
In 2015, twenty-six years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa upon Rushdie’s head for alleged blasphemy in The Satanic Verses – (imagine calling for the execution of a novelist!) – Rushdie said this to the French newspaper, L’Express: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”
France’s nightmare year of 2015 needs to be put into context, because the subjects of blasphemy and the French terrorist attacks are linked –
On January 7, 2015, a dozen staff members of Charlie Hebdo were murdered by two terrorists in their offices. Armed with assault rifles, the Islamist militants burst into the magazine’s Paris offices and shot their victims in cold blood as they sat around a large table during their weekly staff meeting. Over the following 48 hours, six more people were killed in attacks in and around Paris. The terrorists were a pair of radicalized French-Algerian brothers who pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, across town, Amedy Coulibaly killed a police officer before murdering four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket. He pledged allegiance to ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS.)
Ten months later, in November 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks took place in Paris on the evening of November 13th. 130 innocent civilians were killed and more than 350 were injured by nine Islamic extremists. Calling the attacks “an act of war”, the then President Hollande declared three days of national mourning and a state of emergency for all of France.
Dark days, indeed, but that’s not exactly what Rushdie was referring to when he said “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”
America’s literary group, PEN, had decided, months earlier, to honor the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, with an award after the murder of a dozen of its staff members.
But 145 writers opposed the free speech award – Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Michael Cunningham, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Peter Carey and Junot Díaz among them. In their letter, they accused the French satirical magazine of mocking a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized”.
To this day, and for a number of reasons, that declaration deeply shocks me. Firstly, the illustrators of Charlie Hebdo were inclusive and all-embracing in their satirization: they satirized the Catholic church and the Pope too (just like Monty Python satirized Jesus and the Bible in their movie, Life of Brian.) No one from the Vatican ordered a decree to have John Cleese and his team executed. Secondly, the issue isn’t about “differing” views, it’s about mass murder: people getting shot and killed by radical Islamists because they drew pictures. And, thirdly, rather than express horror/outrage over the issuance of a fatwa towards an author who wrote an allegedly blasphemous dream sequence in a fictional novel, these privileged, pampered, protected authors – none of who lives in France and who, I’m sure of it, didn’t even know of the existence of Charlie Hebdo before the killings – went on to say that for certain segments of French society – “a population shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims” – Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the prophet “must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering”.
Further humiliation and suffering? Embattled and victimized? If anyone causes suffering to the million migrants/refugees/asylum seekers desperate to come to Europe (often in extremely perilous conditions), it’s the governmental-religious-cultural practices of the dysfunctional countries they left behind (or are wishing to escape.) Furthermore, if France is such a terrible place to live for certain groups, why do they clamor to come here? When members of the “colonial” population go home during summer vacation (those who can) – laden with gifts, flaunting their “French privilege”, and happy to return to France at the end of vacation, coveted resident cards in hand – one could hardly call that suffering, embattled or victimized.
What is “French privilege”? Important things they didn’t have (and would never have) back in their homelands. Subsidized housing where a large 3-bedroom apartment costs them only 300 euros a month. Free healthcare. Generous family benefits (as of April 1st, 2022, a baby bonus of 965,34 euros is accorded (awarded?) to every new mother just for having a baby. I’m not aware of such a benefit existing in Sudan, Libya, etc.) If they work, 16 weeks maternity leave, increased to 26 weeks if it’s the third child. Civil liberties. Human rights. Freedom of speech, sexual orientation and religion where death is not mandatory in cases of blasphemy. Where forced marriages, forced FGM (female genital mutilation) and honor killings are outlawed. And so much more.
More than 25,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Channel to the UK so far this year (2022), government figures show. In small boats. (The Guardian, August 2022)
One in three migrants in the world relocate to Europe. That’s a staggering statistic considering there were more than 250 million migrants globally in 2017. But it also highlights the desire of millions of people for a higher quality of life – in pursuit of better education, jobs, healthcare, or simply a safer place to live. (Worldbank.org)
France remains one of the most generous countries in the world committed to social benefits, with almost a third of French GDP spent on social services. I know this because I pay high taxes and contribute (and benefit) from those services.
And yet those 145 authors signed a letter of protest and chose to boycott the PEN gala. If anyone needs to be boycotted, it’s those authors.
Rushdie responded in this way: “This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” What he saw was the weakening of the very Western values—the ferocious commitment to free thought and free speech—that had saved his life.
Rushdie, an Indian Muslim, was born into a secular Muslim household, and grew up open-minded, immersed in books.
“If the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place in 2015 rather than 1989,” Rushdie said to L’Express, “those writers would not have defended me. I would have been accused of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”
That’s a chilling statement. Cancel culture. A form of boycott.
France abolished the offence of blasphemy in 1791. Canada ended its blasphemy law in 2018. Blasphemy and blasphemous libel were formally abolished in England and Wales in 2008 and Scotland in 2021. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the New York State blasphemy law was an unconstitutional restraint on freedom of speech. The court stated “It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.”
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO JEALOUSY GUARD OUR COMMITMENT TO FREE SPEECH? Because if we don’t, the people you see in this photo and in the opening scene of the documentary film below will win.
A new DW documentary that came out ten days ago after Rushdie was stabbed multiple times on stage at a literary event in western New York –