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Rethinking Salman Rushdie

We can condemn Salman Rushdie’s attacker without celebrating Rushdie.


If someone insults your mother, you clock him. As a man, at least, there’s really nothing else you can do. It may not be strictly legal, but it’s perfectly honorable. Conversely, if you don’t want to get clocked, don’t insult anyone’s mother. Legally, he may be in the wrong. Morally, though, he’s right.

Free speech has limits—legal, yes, but also moral. You can’t shout fire in a crowded movie theater without legal consequences, and you can’t rip on someone’s mom without having to square up.


Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses didn’t violate the legal limits of free speech. But, as even his staunchest defenders will admit, it was deliberately insulting to Islam. Though Rushdie now calls himself a “hardline atheist,” he was born to a Muslim family in Mumbai, a city with a large Muslim minority. He knew what he was doing. He knew that he was offending the deepest convictions of two billion Muslims around the world. He wasn’t offering an intelligent critique of their faith. He was mocking it. That’s not incidental to the book. For Rushdie’s biggest fans (like Christopher Hitchens), it’s part of the appeal.

No, he didn’t deserve to be stabbed last week. That should go without saying. But getting stabbed doesn’t make him a hero, either. On the contrary. Rushdie is a first-rate wordsmith, but a very banal blasphemer. His treatment of Islam was shallow and flippant, and Muslims have every right to be angry with him. We’re not obliged to lionize him because some have overreacted so terribly.

It feels a bit low making this argument just a few days after the attack. I’d prefer not to make it at all. But as soon as the news broke, libertarian pundits began working to canonize Mr. Rushdie as a living martyr for free speech. 

Over at National Review, Charles Cooke issued an ultimatum: “You either support free speech or you don’t.” According to Cooke,

Certainly, the people who don’t believe in free speech have different reasons for their opposition: They want to protect people’s feelings or to aid public virtue; they think that the religion they believe in is too important; they fear the consequences of bad people hearing bad words. But, really, who cares? The root question is whether or not we are to have a clerisy of people who, via direct violence (murder, acid) or indirect violence (government) are able to tell everyone else what they may or may not say.


If any fundamentalist Muslims happen to read Cooke’s blog, I’m sure they’re duly chastened and won’t do it again. But what about the rest of us? What are we supposed to take away from this argument? That anyone who doesn’t uncritically support Rushdie is cut from the same cloth as Ayatollah Khomeini.

Later, Cooke mentions the Charlie Hebdo shooting of 2015. The comparison is apt, but not for the reason he thinks. The magazine’s offices were targeted by radical Muslims over their crude, satirical drawings of Mohammed. Twelve people died in the attack, while eleven more were injured. 

And what was the point of it all? For what cause did those twelve give their lives? The answer is, insulting Muslims. Speaking to the press after the attack, Charlie Hebdo’s editor said they would go on mocking the faith “until Islam is just as banal as Catholicism.” That’s it. But dying for a cause doesn’t make it right, and Charlie Hebdo doesn’t even have a cause. They give offense for the sake of being offensive. How tragic.

Likewise, the fact that someone tried to kill an author doesn’t make that author's books any good. To most people, I think, that is just common sense. But apparently, Douglas Murray disagrees. He thinks we should respond to the attempt on Rushdie’s life by reading The Satanic Verses. “The illiterate cannot be allowed to dictate the rules of literature,” he writes. “The enemies of free expression cannot be allowed to quash it.”

Yet the point of a novel isn’t “free expression.” Anyone can “express” himself by putting words on a piece of paper. That’s why teenaged girls keep diaries. Literature has to aspire to something more. And the irony is that none of the tributes to Rushdie explain what exactly makes him a great novelist. Reading them, you have no clue whether there’s anything good or true or beautiful in The Satanic Verses. All you can glean is that it pissed off a bunch of Muslims in the '80s.

As it happens, the majority of Muslims—however pissed off—have responded to The Satanic Verses quite peacefully. Yet folks like Charles Cooke and Douglas Murray don’t give them credit for practicing “free expression.” Why? Because they’re just so earnest. Making fun of people’s religion is cool; getting offended when someone mocks your religion is square. 

This is what Rushdie’s champions are really getting at. Whatever Cooke may say, most critics of The Satanic Verses don’t think the book should be banned or its author beheaded. They are saying that human beings should be more respectful of each other’s convictions. Religion shouldn’t be treated as something banal. Art shouldn’t be flippant. 

These are moral judgements; they are also literary criticisms. 

And they’re perfectly fair. If Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited ended with Charles Ryder still mocking the Flyte family’s Catholicism, it would fail as a novel—not because Catholicism is true (though it is), but because mocking other people’s religion is childish. And it’s boring. It doesn’t make for good art.

Rushdie’s defenders obviously don’t care about his literary merits, though. This has nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics. They only care about “free speech.” They reduce The Satanic Verses to a propaganda piece. This does a disservice to Rushdie’s craft. It misses the whole point of literature. It also undermines the cause of free speech.

Except for libertarian ideologues, no one really believes that all “expressions” should be treated as equals. Most folks aren’t willing to divide humanity between Rushdie fanboys and Khomeini acolytes. We can condemn violent extremism without endorsing a frivolous nihilism. We can support the right to free speech while urging our countrymen to exercise that right more responsibly. 

We can, and we should. Because, if we don’t, this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cooke tells Rushdie’s critics they may as well join up with the Ayatollah; the trouble is, eventually they might believe him. Give people a choice between violent extremism and frivolous nihilism and most of them will choose the former. In fact, they already are.

This is the problem with libertarian conservatives. Their deepest loyalties are to legal abstractions. If someone insults your mom (or your God), they expect you to shake his hand and cry, “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it!” 

That is why Russell Kirk referred to J.S. Mill, that most classic of classical liberals, as a “defecated intellect.” And it is why they are more dangerous than violent extremists, even violent Islamic extremists. Because when a man is willing to fight for his God (or his mom), it means he loves something more than himself. He might do terrible things in the name of that love. His heart may be in the wrong place. But at least he’s got a heart. What do the classical liberals have? Theories. White papers. A brain in a vat. 

I don’t want the kind of freedom Rushdie’s supporters are offering, and neither should you. It erases any distinction between beauty and ugliness, between good and evil, between truth and lies. It is the enemy of poetry, art, music, romance, community, worship—of everything that makes us human. It is the freedom to scoff and sneer, never to love or hate. And while it may keep us safe from death, it gives us no reason to live.

Natural rights do exist. But only because so does human nature. If we ignore the latter, we are sure to lose the former. If we force men to choose between liberty and loyalty, most will choose loyalty. So, you can write endless blog posts insisting on your First Amendment right to insult other people’s mothers. But if you try to exercise that right, you are going to get clocked.