Atwood: If we don’t defend free speech, we live in tyranny: Salman Rushdie shows us that

I was in working at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran when Rushdie spoke in Toronto and appeared on stage with then premier Bob Rae. We were worried regarding potential fall-out and possible threats but fortunately none materialized. (I read The Satanic Verses in Tehran, adding another personal twist to my time there).

Usual trenchant commentary by Atwood:

A long time ago – 7 December 1992, to be exact – I was backstage at a Toronto theatre, taking off a Stetson. With two other writers, Timothy Findley and Paul Quarrington, I’d been performing a medley of 1950s country and western classics, rephrased for writers – Ghost Writers in the Sky, If I Had the Wings of an Agent, and other fatuous parodies of that nature. It was a PEN Canada benefit of that era: writers dressed up and made idiots of themselves in aid of writers persecuted by governments for things they’d written.

Just as the three of us were bemoaning how awful we’d been, there was a knock on the door. Backstage was locked down, we were told. Secret agents were talking into their sleeves. Salman Rushdie had been spirited into the country. He was about to appear on stage with Bob Rae, the premier of Ontario, the first head of government in the world to support him in public. “And you, Margaret, as past president of PEN Canada, are going to introduce him,” I was told.

Gulp. “Oh, OK,” I said. And so I did. It was a money-where-your-mouth-is moment.

And, with the recent attack on him, so is this.

Rushdie exploded on to the literary scene in 1981 with his second novel, Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker prize that year. No wonder: its inventiveness, range, historical scope and verbal dexterity were breathtaking, and it opened the door to subsequent generations of writers who might previously have felt that their identities or subject matter excluded them from the movable feast that is English-language literature. He has ticked every box except the Nobel prize: he has been knighted; he is on everyone’s list of significant British writers; he has collected an impressive bouquet of prizes and honours, but, most importantly, he has touched and inspired a great many people around the globe. A huge number of writers and readers have long owed him a major debt.

Suddenly, they owe him another one. He has long defended freedom of artistic expression against all comers; now, even should he recover from his injuries, he is a martyr to it.

In any future monument to murdered, tortured, imprisoned and persecuted writers, Rushdie will feature large. On 12 August he was stabbed on stage by an assailant at a literary event at Chautauqua, a venerable American institution in upstate New York. Yet again “that sort of thing never happens here” has been proven false: in our present world, anything can happen anywhere. American democracy is under threat as never before: the attempted assassination of a writer is just one more symptom.

Without doubt, this attack was directed at him because his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, a satiric fantasy that he himself believed was dealing with the disorientation felt by immigrants from (for instance) India to Britain, got used as a tool in a political power struggle in a distant country.

When your regime is under pressure, a little book-burning creates a popular distraction. Writers don’t have an army. They don’t have billions of dollars. They don’t have a captive voting block. They thus make cheap scapegoats. They’re so easy to blame: their medium is words, which are by nature ambiguous and subject to misinterpretation, and they themselves are often mouthy, if not downright curmudgeonly. Worse, they frequently speak truth to power. Even apart from that, their books will annoy some people. As writers themselves have frequently said, if what you’ve written is universally liked, you must be doing something wrong. But when you offend a ruler, things can get lethal, as many writers have discovered.

In Rushdie’s case, the power that used him as a pawn was the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. In 1989, he issued a fatwa – a rough equivalent to the bulls of excommunication used by medieval and renaissance Catholic popes as weapons against both secular rulers and theological challengers such as Martin Luther. Khomeini also offered a large reward to anyone who would murder Rushdie. There were numerous killings and attempted assassinations, including the stabbing of the Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi in 1991. Rushdie himself spent many years in enforced hiding, but gradually he came out of his cocoon – the Toronto PEN event being the most significant first step – and, in the past two decades, he’d been leading a relatively normal life.

However, he never missed an opportunity to speak out on behalf of the principles he’d been embodying all his writing life. Freedom of expression was foremost among these. Once a yawn-making liberal platitude, this concept has now become a hot-button issue, since the extreme right has attempted to kidnap it in the service of libel, lies and hatred, and the extreme left has tried to toss it out the window in the service of its version of earthly perfection. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee many panel discussions on the subject, should we reach a moment in which rational debate is possible. But whatever it is, the right to freedom of expression does not include the right to defame, to lie maliciously and damagingly about provable facts, to issue death threats, or to advocate murder. These should be punished by law.

As for those who are still saying, “yes, but …” about Rushdie – some version of “he should have known better”, as in “yes, too bad about the rape, but why was she wearing that revealing skirt” – I can only remark that there are no perfect victims. In fact, there are no perfect artists, nor is there any perfect art. Anti-censorship folks often find themselves having to defend work they would otherwise review scathingly, but such defending is necessary, unless we are all to have our vocal cords removed.

Long ago, a Canadian member of parliament described a ballet as “a bunch of fruits jumping around in long underwear”. Let them jump, say I! Living in a pluralistic democracy means being surrounded by a multiplicity of voices, some of which will be saying things you don’t like. Unless you’re prepared to uphold their right to speak, as Salman Rushdie has done so often, you’ll end up living in a tyranny.

Rushdie didn’t plan to become a free-speech hero, but he is one now. Writers everywhere – those who are not state hacks or brainwashed robots – owe him a huge vote of thanks.

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