After the near-fatal stabbing of the novelist Salman Rushdie—prompted by a religious edict issued by the Iranian government—there was an outpouring of sympathy, along with many declarations from the literary world about the sanctity of freedom of speech. But to the Anglo-American writer Lionel Shriver, these declarations tend to “fall sneakily flat.” She explains why:
When couched in generalities, defenses of free speech tend to come across as dreary and obvious. Only in the particular do these discussions get interesting. . . . Our we-shall-not-be-moved resolve is a self-flattering delusion. In truth, the nut jobs do push us around and have been doing so for years. The Anglosphere’s cowed acquiescence to Islamist bullies was vividly on display during the 2005 Danish cartoons hoo-ha. While numerous Continental newspapers defiantly republished those satirical depictions of Mohammad to demonstrate that they couldn’t be intimidated, mainstream print media in the UK, the U.S., and Canada refused to—thereby crippling articles about an essentially pictorial story.
Tact or fear? British newspapers especially have no reputation for tact, so let’s go for fear. These folks frighten the bejesus out of us, and we’ll do just about anything to keep from upsetting them. Terrorism works. Thus the . . . lesson most of my literary colleagues will derive from Rushdie’s hideous mutilation is: “avoid writing about Islam at all costs, and never step on Muslim toes.” Multiple writers and editors have already observed that The Satanic Verses, [the 1988 novel that earned Rushdie his fatwa], would never be published today. Rushdie himself might think better of writing it now. Contemporary publishing imposes a de-facto fatwa on criticism of Islam.
Besides, absent jihadists, we push one another around. The UK abandoned the principle of free expression the moment it brought in laws against “hate speech,” which in legal terms lies entirely in the eye of the beholder. Unsurprisingly, hate-speech laws have continued to expand, vigorously enforced by constabularies who find persecuting Twitter perps more rewardingly trendy, and less dangerous, than arresting armed burglars. Britain has formally elevated the non-right not to be offended over the real right to say what you like.
As many Muslims claim the book hurts their feelings, legally The Satanic Verses is hate speech [by the UK’s standards]. It’s a small step from there to the conclusion that last week Rushdie got what he had coming.