What western liberals get wrong about the attack on Salman Rushdie

30 September 2022
The author Salman Rushdie in Berlin, in 2019.
Christoph Kockelmann/ Wikimedia Commons
The author Salman Rushdie in Berlin, in 2019.
Christoph Kockelmann/ Wikimedia Commons

The brutal attack on novelist Salman Rushdie at a public lecture in Chautauqua, New York, in August prompted a flood of revealing responses from liberals in the West. In the New Yorker, the writer Adam Gopnik decried the enduring “terrorist” threat to “liberal civilization” in rhetoric that might well have been issued by the administration of former US president George W Bush. (Even law enforcement has declined to link the assault to terrorism.)

Meanwhile, the author Graeme Wood, writing in the Atlantic, likened criticism of texts to complicity in assassination, while the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy’s predictable diatribe against fanaticism called for a “campaign” to “ensure” that Rushdie wins this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature—a cause New Yorker editor David Remnick later joined, too. If it shocks us that the novelist was attacked after so long, it should also shock us that this commentary looks much the same as it did when his life was first threatened more than thirty years ago.

The defining feature of this genre of liberal exasperation is a dogmatic repudiation of history. In place of careful analysis of particular (and therefore changing) circumstances, it relies on stereotype and anecdote to depict a metaphysical conflict between religious fanaticism and liberal tolerance—one that is always and everywhere the same.

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    Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. His books include The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics and Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea.

    Keywords: Salman Rushdie Writing Free Speech