Needing the Comfort of Writers When the Whole Community is Threatened

August 12, 2022 was a tough day to be a writer.

You always think about what impact your written words will have on any given reader. I have readers who eagerly await my next book, who love my characters, who see their values reflected in my words. I have readers who don’t quite get my strong female protagonist. I have readers who disagree with my paradigm of self, i.e., that my writing reflects my values and the way I see the world.

I have written about the evil in racism and white supremacy. I have crafted a character based on a killer but showed him to be a human being. I have reflected my distrust in law enforcement in specific characters. I have written about my disillusionment with religion. I have written about controversy, and I have written controversy.

I have never had anyone, that I am aware of, threaten to kill me because of something I wrote.

I’m hoping that’s not a box in the writing life that has to be checked.

A Glimpse of the Future?

On August 12, every writer saw a glimpse of his or her possible future when a man rushed a stage where award-winning author Salman Rushdie was about to speak. Rushdie was stabbed between 10 and 16 times. He is alive, but as his agent has said, his road to recovery is a long and difficult one. He will lose one eye, and the nerves in one arm are severed.

The “official” motive of Rushdie’s attacker is as yet unclear, but for nearly 40 years, Rushdie has lived under a “fatwa,” which requires that any Muslim around the world kill him for his “blasphemy.” The fatwa was issued by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatolla Khomeini in 1989 after the publication of Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses.

I first read Rushdie in the early 1980s, and the book was Midnight’s Children. Up to that time, I had known that upon India’s independence, a portion of its land was partitioned and most Muslims forced to leave India and go to Pakistan. It was bloody and horrific, and Rushdie didn’t soften any of that. I thought it was one of the best books I’d ever read, horrific history presented in a way that enlightened and shamed. Rushdie received the Booker Award the year of its publication, and the book has won “Best of Booker” twice.

Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, and part of it is based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The blasphemy, however, may be more that Rushdie satirized Khomeini in book. Hence, the fatwa.

Because of the fatwa, Rushdie lived under police protection in England for a decade or more, shuffled from place to place constantly and losing a marriage in the process. He finally came out of hiding at his own request but always traveled with security when he promoted his books or had speaking engagements. Indeed, he was speaking before an organization that offers a safe haven to persecuted writers when he was attacked.

The attack on him, especially in the early hours when it was unknown if he would survive, garnered comments from many authors around the world. It hit me hard, because given the current atmosphere in America where the extreme right-wing threatens anyone who doesn’t agree with them, you never know who is going to attach what interpretation to your words.

Suppressing Freedom of Thought

Rushdie himself has said, “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

When extremist elements anywhere, even in America, declare that their values cannot be criticised, then no one is free to think for themselves. In some places in America, schools are insisting that anything that presents America’s true legacy of white supremacy be removed from classrooms. In Florida, any books a teacher wants to read in a classroom have to be “approved” before a teacher can use them. Shades of the Third Reich and Russia under Stalin.

The fatwa against Rushdie was allegedly to protect the sanctity of Islam, but suppression of free thought only creates a society incapable of questioning abuse of power. Which perhaps is the whole autocratic point.

How glad I was, then, that I was headed to a writer’s retreat the day after the attack on Rushdie. Rushdie thought he’d be safe where he was. I knew I’d be free to express my thoughts among this community of writers, as they knew they would be as well. Freedom of thought, freedom to write whatever comes into our heads is sacrosanct to us, is sacrosanct to Rushdie, to any writer.

Words motivate. Words explain. Words soothe. Words inspire, enrage, and resound. Words show us the truth of our history, a history that is sometimes squirm-worthy, but history should bother you. The words of any writer should bother you, and if they do, don’t read that writer. However, let them write, let others read those words should they choose. If they agree with you, fine; if they don’t, that’s fine, too. That’s freedom of thought.

Every writer must be free to express themselves without fear of death. Otherwise, we’ll end up suppressed not only in thought but in everything about our lives.

Mr. Rushdie, please get well enough to write again. We need your words.