Salman Rushdie — like Jewish history — shows how wars against ideas end in bloodshed
I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
A man wearing all black stood in the center of the bustling restaurant during the evening rush, conspicuously aiming his smartphone camera directly at our table. As soon as he noticed me notice him, he lowered the phone and scurried away.
My friend, who the man was likely there to record, laughed it off. “They just want to remind me that they’re watching,” she chuckled. A fierce critic of and activist against the hijab mandate in her home country of Iran, Masih Alinejad and her family are regularly targeted by the regime.
This incident occurred last autumn. A few weeks ago, a man with a loaded AK-17 showed up outside of her door. She’s been in hiding ever since.
My friend is just one of the countless writers and activists who have sought refuge from persecution in the United States. She is also one of the many who have faced violence that, despite outspoken denunciations, our country has unwittingly allowed to fester.
On Friday, the author Salman Rushdie, who has long been a target of the Iranian regime because of his writing, was stabbed repeatedly at an event in upstate New York; as of Monday he remained in critical condition. In Milan, Tokyo, Turkey, Oslo, Mumbai, Islamabad and Cairo, translators, editors and others who assisted Rushdie in his work or supported him have been killed or suffered brutal attacks, their assailants often covered for by the Iranian regime.
For leaders who aim to hold their own people hostage, censorship of free expression is the quickest way to fake absolute power, dominance and control. And the first step in the genocide of a people, as we’ve seen time and again, is often a war against their ideas. As the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote in his 1822 poem “Almansor”: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”
In May 1933, just three months after Adolf Hitler’s election, the Nazis mobilized students across the country to hunt down and burn tens of thousands of books written by Jewish, pro-LGBTQ and American authors in an attempt to root out any “extreme Jewish intellectualism” or “un-German spirit.” The German Student Union occupied and looted, among other places, the Institute of Sexology, founded by Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish pioneer in advocating for gay and trans rights. A copy of Heine’s “Almansor” was among the first works they threw onto the pyre.
There isn’t just a deep narcissism in attempting to regulate the culture and beliefs of others — there’s a serious danger in doing so, as Rushdie himself has written about at length. As Rushdie recovers from his brush with death, we must reckon with the growing calls for censorship and waging war against ideas in our own midst.
Both ends of our polarized culture are to blame. Republican legislators in virtually every state are banning books that challenge their beliefs. But it’s not just them: left-wing staffers in publishing are also increasingly refusing to work on book projects whose authors they deem offensive.
In 2015, a high-profile group of luminaries even bristled at the press freedom organization PEN America’s decision to honor the journalists murdered in the Charlie Hebdo massacre, shamefully accusing their slaughtered peers of causing “further humiliation and suffering” to the “marginalized, embattled, and victimized” devout Muslims of the world.
Rushdie was horrified. “If the attacks against The Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority,” he told the French magazine L’Express. “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.”
I am sure that each generation and camp of censors sees themselves as protecting others, not utilizing the tools of authoritarian regimes. But for all of these good intentions, waging war against ideas — or even tacitly excusing one — only ever results in harm.
“It is our duty to condemn the threat of murder,” wrote former president Jimmy Carter in 1989, addressing the fatwa the Iranian regime had recently issued against Rushdie. “At the same time, we should be sensitive to the concern and anger that prevails even among the more moderate Muslims” — a version of the timeless slippery logic used to justify violence.
There’s a reason that every oppressive regime in history has taken great strides to limit both dissenting speech and access to information: With knowledge comes the opportunities to empower oneself, to challenge authority, and to thoughtfully give voice to one’s own conclusions.
If we in the U.S. continue to treat taking offense as a sacred rite as foundational as the freedom of expression, the lives of everyone who dares to challenge the prevailing wisdom are at risk.
“Where will writers and dissidents go if even the United States is no longer a safe haven for freedom of expression?” asked my friend Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, an Iraqi refugee and human rights activist. “When large swaths of the population begin to believe that words are violence, we are all in trouble.”
We owe it to each one persecuted for their own ideas, whether we share them or not, to take seriously our role in this fight.
“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas,” Hellen Keller wrote in a 1933 open letter to the German students preparing to burn her books. “Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.”