The Ripple Effects of The Salman Rushdie Fatwa

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For 33 years, Sir Salman Rushdie has been forced to look over his shoulder in fear.

In 1988, Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, decried by many in the Muslim world as heretical. The following year, Iran’s then-supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered a fatwa against the author.

That death warrant finally caught up to Rushdie earlier this month when a man stabbed Rushdie during an appearance in Western New York.

Because of Salman Rushdie, fatwa is one of the better-known aspects of Sharia law in the Western world. A basic tenet of it is to punish those who criticize Islam and to silence speech considered to blaspheme Islam or the prophet Mohammed.

The fatwa issued against Rushdie has had ripple effects. Ettore Capriolo was stabbed multiple times for translating The Satanic Verses into Italian. Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death for translating the book into Japanese. William Nygaard was shot three times for publishing a Norwegian translation of Rushdie’s novel.

The list goes on and on.

Of course, Salman Rushdie is not the first or the last person to have a fatwa issued against them. Nor is he the only one affected by the fatwa. In addition to the risk to human life, the fatwa against Rushdie results in the silencing of free speech. The horrific and violent response to truth prevents others from engaging in honest, healthy reflection on things that may be wrong or bad, and how they can be fixed for everyone’s benefit.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – AUGUST 19: People hold up signs as they gather at the steps of the New York Public Library to show support for Salman Rushdie on August 19, 2022 in New York City. The New York literary community gathered at the New York Public Library in solidarity with Salman Rushdie a week after he was attacked and stabbed multiple times while giving a talk at the Chautauqua Institution. His attacker pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges of second-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Those who issue fatwas do not want us to have those conversations. And in that desire, they’re joined by the “woke”—those who think talking about the theological motivations behind Islamist terrorists is Islamophobic. Those who deride as “anti-Muslim” a video about the risks to Palestinian children’s lives inherent in a society that teaches them to kill.

When religion is used as a motivation to murder innocent men, women, and children, the world needs to stand up in protest. When doctrine becomes the basis for violence, we become accomplices by remaining silent.

That’s not Islamophobia, or xenophobia, or blasphemy. Salman Rushdie’s novelistic assertion that Islam views Mohammed as an imperfect human is not cause for the death sentence Rushdie has carried around his neck for more than three decades.

It is free speech.

And while the right to free speech is a luxury not afforded every person outside of the United States, those of us in this country should be fighting for it the world over. It is critical that we ground ourselves and our lives in truth. We all deserve that, and we all benefit when everyone is free to deal in honesty.

Salman Rushdie survived his attacker’s knife, but his survival means that the fatwa against him has not ended. Rushdie will leave the hospital in the coming days to continue living a life spent looking over his shoulder in fear.

The least we can do is continue to fight for a world where he no longer needs to do that, just for expressing his beliefs.

Brooke Goldstein is a human rights attorney, the founder and executive director of The Lawfare Project, and the author of Lawfare: The War Against Free Speech.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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