Murderous attack on Salman Rushdie shocks academics, free speech advocates

Ritu Jha-

The attack on celebrated author Salman Rushdie on Friday has shocked university professors and advocates of free speech.

Sunita Viswanath, Executive Director, Hindus for Human Rights and Religious Life Adviser at Columbia University, New York, said she deeply saddened and disturbed. “I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the attack on Salman Rushdie,” she told indica . “I am relieved by the news reports that he will live.”

She said, “The rise in religious extremism around the world, including both in my own country of origin, India, and in my country of nationality, the United States, is terrifying.”´

She added, “We must all fight like hell, despite the risks, to defend and insist on democratic values like freedom of
speech and expression, gender equality and religious freedom. In particular, those of us who are religious and progressive must resist and oppose the extremists of our own religion.”

Audrey Truschke, Associate Professor at the Department of History at Rutgers University, Newark, told indica, that she categorically condemns the attack. “The brutal attack on Salman Rushdie is a horrific assault on freedom of expression,” she said. “It should serve as a wake-up call regarding the visceral danger of demonizing writers for expressing unpopular ideas.”

Kiran Malhotra, board member at Art Forum San Francisco who has hosted scholars sharing her thought, told Indica, “Violence in the name of blasphemy violates the basic principles of Quran. Peace be with you we seek not engagement with ignorance.”

Malhotra stressed that freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right. “Promotion of knowledge, wisdom and free spirit is also a fundamental right.”

“The fatwa against Rushdie was issued on February 14 1989. For someone to carry a grudge against the person for 30-plus years is mind-boggling,” she said. “In my belief, you can read a book, and then like it or dislikes it. Similarly, you are free to laud or criticize a movie after watching it, you may also listen to music you like, but do not try or kill the actor, the musician, or the writer. Without art, literature or music this world will have a resounding
silence where you would have to listen to the rustling of the leaves, crashing of the waves, and so on.”

According to New York State police, Rushdie was attacked at a speaking engagement on Friday, August 12, at at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, in New York State. Rushdie, 75, was being introduced by the moderator Henry Reese, co-founder and president of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, when Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old male from Fairview, New Jersey stabbed him several times.

According to the Chautauqua Institution website, Rushdie was to take part in a discussion about the US serving as an asylum for writers and artists in exile and “as a home for freedom of creative expression.” Matar pleaded not guilty the charges of attempted murder in the second degree.

The motive behind the attack is no known yet.

Rusdhie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, told the media that he will likely lose an eye, and nerves in his arm were severed; and that his liver was stabbed and damaged.

However, Wylie, confirmed on Aug 13, that Rushdie was taken off life support and he could talk, without divulging further details, the Washington Post said.

On Saturday, the suspect’s attorney, public defender Nathaniel Barone, told CNN that Matar has pleaded that he was not guilty.  Matar has also been charged with assault in the second degree, with intent to cause physical injury with a deadly weapon. The suspect was remanded to the
Chautauqua County Jail after his bail plea was turned down.
He is scheduled to appear before a court again on Friday.

The attack on Rushdie is being investigated by FBI with help from local and international authorities. An FBI spokesperson told CNN on Saturday, “The FBI continues to assist our law enforcement partners in both New York and New Jersey to include the New York State Police, New Jersey State Police, and Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office. We are also working closely with our international partners in the United Kingdom to provide additional resources, since the victim is a UK-US dual citizen.”

Rushdie was born into a Muslim family in June 1947 in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, two months before the country gained independence from the British.

His second novel Midnight’s Children is regarded as a modern classic and won the Booker of Bookers honor. The award had pitted all the Booker Prize winners. His fourth novel, Satanic Verses, invited the wrath of the then Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini who issued a fatwa (religious edict) against him for allegedly writing “blasphemous passages.” The novel was banned in many countries with large Muslim populations upon its 1988 publication, including in India.

The Ayatollah’s fatwa called upon Muslims to kill Rushdie.

Iran later backed away from the fatwa, allowing Rushdie to appear in public more often.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, issued a statement in response to the attack on Rushdie: “PEN America is reeling from shock and horror at word of a brutal, premeditated attack on our former President and stalwart ally, Salman Rushdie, who was reportedly stabbed multiple times while on stage speaking at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York.  We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil.”

She added, “Just hours before the attack, on Friday morning, Salman had emailed me to help with placements for Ukrainian writers in need of safe refuge from the grave perils they face. Salman Rushdie has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered.  He has devoted tireless energy to assisting others who are vulnerable and menaced.”

“While we do not know the origins or motives of this attack, all those around the world who have met words with violence or called for the same are culpable for legitimizing this assault on a writer while he was engaged in his essential work of connecting to readers.  Our thoughts and passions now lie with our dauntless Salman, wishing him a full and speedy recovery.  We hope and believe fervently that his essential voice cannot and will not be silenced,” she said.