Salman Rushdie during a lecture. Alexander Baxevanis (Wikimedia Commons).

A short phrase came to my mind once I saw – much with shock, but not surprise – that Salman Rushdie, the excellent novelist and free speech champion responsible for The Satanic Verses, an atypical work so remarkable and ingenious that it led Iran’s then Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, to issue a fatwa for Rushdie’s execution, had been stabbed ten times by an American citizen and extremist sympathizer in an apparent assassination attempt. The phrase, which I repeat to myself through daily reminders, is simple: the mouth is mightier than the musket – although, perhaps it is better said that, regarding Rushdie, the pen is more potent than the sword:

        Despite an entire country’s efforts towards capturing and executing him, Rushdie – although placed under protection, receiving 24/7 security from members of London’s special police unit, and assuming a fake name – continued to defend his novel, concurrently making himself an international symbol of free speech and a fierce proponent of free thought, however offensive it is: in a BBC interview following Khomeini’s fatwa, announced on February 14th, the day of the funeral for Rushdie’s friend, he responded, saying, “Frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book.” 

I first heard of Rushdie while reading Christopher Hitchens’ “Assassins of the Mind” on Vanity Fair, which excoriated fundamentalist Islam’s targeted violence, acted and threatened, against Salman Rushdie and fellow writers. Hitchens, a proud opponent of fundamentalist Islam and Christianity, criticizes the “climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal,” referencing the assault on Rushdie, his editors and translators, and others who speak against or whose work offends fundamentalist Muslim thought.

Hitchens recounted Rushdie’s pure intelligence and craft, remarking on his enamour with The Moor’s Last Sigh, a portrait of Bombay portrayed before its controversial name change to Mumbai, and Midnight’s Children, the first piece to bring Rushdie international fame. Indeed, at that point, I had yet to read any of his novels or essays.

Since, I have read two of his works – one essay and one short story. The Prophet’s Hair, a short story on the September 1981 issue of The Atlantic, which I read upon hearing of the attack, is a remarkable piece of literature; his craft, a blend of constant metaphor, vivid imagery and mature diction that forces even the greatest readers to reread his sentences, resembles Virginia Woolf with its brilliant, almost anxious prose, so specific and refined that every word resembles a well-thought, carefully implemented brush stroke in a work of Van Gogh or Dali. The piece resembles his style – magical realism – which combines a realistic setting with magical elements; a slum in Srinagar of Kashmir with the holy hair of the prophet Muhammad, for example.

Well before the stabbing, I also read a short essay of his, an assignment of a class I cannot remember, regarding what he considered the positive ends of migration (beyond that, I cannot recollect the essay in great detail; I cannot even recall its name). The essay, although unpleasantly followed by a terse response that vilifies his piece and exposes the broader nativism of American society, clearly demonstrates Rushdie’s romance with the thrills of transplantation and his belief in the benefits of migration and globalization. 

Both pieces, though strikingly different, exemplify the grand combination of experience and literary excellence that Rushdie displays in his work; his experience with India – his home country – his mastery of the English language, combined with his knowledge of global society, history and religion (he himself was, once, a Muslim – he is now, unsurprisingly, an atheist).

This combination led him to his greatest honors – knighthood, the Golden PEN Award, the Aristeion Prize – and made him a prime target of nations where freedom of speech and common sense have long since been abandoned.

Rushdie, in The Satanic Verses, gave what he considered to be an accurate rendition of Muhammad, after whom the novel was inspired; he believed, certainly correctly, that the Quran, as it was written by humans, was errant, and that Muhammad himself, as he was human, was, too, imperfect. He called Muhammad “one of the great geniuses of world history,” but stressed that Islamic doctrine makes him imperfect.

The Satanic Verses, nevertheless, unleashed public outcry in the Muslim world; many took to the streets to burn his books, firebomb bookstores and, as Iran did, declare a fatwa for his execution. Some considered the novel an “irreverent description of the prophet Mohammad,” leading some countries to ban the novel – including Rushdie’s home country, India – and Iran to issue, as was aforementioned, the fatwa for Rushdie’s assassination.

For several years after the Iranian government’s edict, Rushdie lived under police protection and assumed the alias Joseph Anton, the namesake for his book recounting the time he spent in hiding. The rhetoric of the Iranian government, too, was so dangerous and anti-democratic, that the British government ceased its diplomatic relations with Iran from 1989 until 1998 (which were restored once Iran committed to neither encourage nor discourage Rushdie’s execution).

Rushdie, despite the purging efforts of a sect of the world’s second-largest religion, never once regretted writing his novel, and continued to defend it even as it was criticized. He became simultaneously an international celebrity and pariah, a symbol of free speech and a blasphemous infidel, a militant supporter of free literature and a target of extremist fundamentalism.

And this stabbing, committed at a haven for spiritual guidance and artistic excellence, alongside the outpouring of support for Rushdie following it, represents the dichotomy of Rushdie’s image: so hated that assassins show up to his lectures, yet so lauded that the world,  whether they knew him or not, cried their support for his life and his defense of freedom.

Beside the murderous sect of those who dislike The Satanic Verses, it is difficult to choose a position on the continuum of this dichotomy; I have never read The Satanic Verses, nor have I ever listened to Rushdie’s lectures or read his most articulate defense of the freedom of expression – I have as much insight as those who claim to write like Hemingway after reading A Farewell to Arms (which, by the way, is the most poorly written book I have ever read; Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham was a more sophisticated piece of literature than most of Hemingway’s works). 

Yet, I have come to find Rushdie as a representative of the importance of the freedom of expression, regardless of whether it is sympathetic to a particular position. He represents free speech in its truest form: enshrined to all and unregulated for all, even if it does offend.

Yet, despite the West’s critical response to the assassination attempt, the West is, too, guilty of repressing political and anti-institutional speech – the same speech the West purportedly protects is also that which it attacks.

As we all rushed to laud Rushdie and consider ourselves free speech warriors like him, some of us found in our reactions a ruthless hypocrisy – when a country halfway across the world tries to silence a man critical of their institutions, we are quick to defend that man’s human right to free speech; yet, when we do the same, we disguise our repression as cutting out on dangerous rhetoric, like threats of war or insurrection, or we justify that our efforts are in the name of social justice, even if repressing such speech does not influence either.

Let me be clear, however, that the acts of the United States versus those of Iran are not the same, or even remotely close: in the United States, repression against critics of establishment biases is individual (i.e. through boycotts, cancellation, threats, or business activities, including employment), whereas in Iran it is institutional (i.e. government sanctioned). Repression of political speech in the United States often occurs by harassment or individual threats, rather than fatwas or threats of execution. 

It is thus in both our culture and Iranian culture to repress free speech, although it appears that they have done a much better job than we have in doing so. This cultural repression of speech comes with, unfortunately, far too many examples, from personal anecdotes to national controversies, both against leftists and rightists. From the silencing of conservative voices at school to the canceling of democratic voices on the national stage, our country continues to attack free speech in a way antithetical to Rushdie’s promotions.

It is evident at the very corners of American society that we have become a country of censorship: our efforts to combat disinformation have led only to censorship of personal political opinions, an idea so disastrous that it actually has led to more disinformation, more extremism, and more violence; our efforts to combat discrimination have made us a society in which even criticizing a black Supreme Court nominee is instantly viewed as racist (although, yes, KBJ was certainly more than qualified to be on the Court), or where worries about transgender athletes in college sports are transphobic and immediately lead to criticism; our efforts for democracy have turned us against democracy, as even us liberals have played into partisan politics so dangerously that we, too, have contributed to the dismantling of democracy in our country, even as we allegedly are fighting to maintain democracy against the anti-democratic conservatives (who, yes, are in a similar position as we are); and we have, as is evident on every Facebook comment section regarding politics, continually silenced and bullied those who disagree with us into utter submission.

Although our government did not seek to murder its dissidents, we as a nation are, too, guilty of those same wrongful deeds: the widespread silencing of voices, whether they be anti-institutional, conservative, or liberal, all because they are offensive or misinformative. Our choices, as they were in Iran, have put our nation in a dangerous crossroads: the avalanche to a society devoid of the freedom of expression, or the unregulated and potentially dangerous frontier of true free speech and freethinking.

So, as we watch Rushdie recover from this unspeakable horror, let us not revel in our assumed state of free democracy; rather, let us realize the fatal mistakes we have made with the freedom of thought and the freedom of expression in our country, and fix those mistakes before they become incorrigible. We must consider democracy more important than our own political opinions, and we must allow those who disagree with us to disagree. As Rushdie himself said, “The defense of free speech begins at the point when people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech.”

          Freedom is not free – to achieve a truly American freedom of expression, we must first learn to accept our differences.


Hitchens, C. (2009, February 01). ASSASSINS OF THE MIND: Vanity Fair: February 2009. Retrieved from

Rushdie, S. (2022, August 17). The Prophet's Hair. Retrieved from

Salman Rushdie. (2022, August 21). Retrieved from