Canadian Literary Figures Double Down on Freedom of Speech After Salman Rushdie Attack

Canadian writers, publishers and literary figures doubled down on freedom of thought and expression on Saturday, a day after an attack on award-winning author Salman Rushdie, which left him hospitalized and on a ventilator.

Rushdie, whose 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” faced death threats from Iran’s leaders in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen on Friday by a man riding onstage as the author was about to deliver a lecture. give in western New York.

Louise Dennys, executive vice president and publisher of Penguin Random House Canada, has been publishing and editing Rushdie’s writings for over 30 years. She denounced the attack on her longtime friend and colleague as “cowardly” and “reprehensible in every way”.

“He is without a doubt one of the greatest advocates of freedom of thought and speech and debate and discussion in the world today,” Dennys said in a telephone interview. “I’m hopeful for his recovery. He’s a great warrior and fighter, and I hope he fights back.”

Rushdie, a native of India who has lived in Britain and the US ever since, is known for his surreal and satirical prose style. “The Satanic Verses” was considered blasphemous by many Muslims because of its dream sequence based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. The book had been banned and burned in India, Pakistan and elsewhere before Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa or edict in 1989 demanding Rushdie’s death.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the attacker, born ten years after the publication of “The Satanic Verses”, was acting alone. Police said the motive for Friday’s attack was unclear.

After the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’, violent protests against Rushdie often broke out in the Muslim world. Riots over the book have killed at least 45 people, including 12 in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot at three times and survived.

The death threats prompted Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, though he cautiously resumed his public appearances after nine years of isolation, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism in general.

“We all depend on the stories, the power and the imagination of writers. He came out of hiding because he realized he wanted to play a part in the world we live in and defend those rights,” Dennys says.

“He couldn’t be silenced by fear, and I think he will continue to make that point if, as we all hope, he survives,” she said.

Dennys said the attack is already having the opposite effect of its presumed intentions, given the massive support from the international literary community, as well as activists and government officials, who cited Rushdie’s bravery for his long-standing advocacy of free speech, despite risks to his own safety.

“It has brought everyone together to realize how precious and fragile our freedoms are and how important it is to stand up for them,” Dennys said.

The president of PEN Canada, an organization that defends the freedom of expression of authors, condemned the “cruel attack” on their “friend and colleague” Rushdie, who is a member.

Canadian writer John Ralston Saul, who has known Rushdie since the 1990s, said the author was always aware that someone could attack him, but he chose to live publicly to speak out against those who want to silence free speech and debate.

“(Rushdie’s) work and whole life are a reminder of what the public writer’s life really is,” he said. “This would be the worst possible time to give in or show any sense that we need to be more careful with our words. We’re not really writers if we give in to those kinds of threats.”

Rushdie’s alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, was arrested after the attack on the Chautauqua Institution, a non-profit education and retreat center. Matar’s lawyer presented a not-guilty plea in a New York court on Saturday on charges of attempted murder and assault.

After the attack, some longtime visitors to the center wondered why there wasn’t tighter security for the event, given the threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head that paid more than $3 million to anyone who killed him.

Saul, who spoke at the Chautauqua Institute years before Rushdie’s attack, said it has an “open tradition” of debate, free speech and nonviolence dating back more than 100 years.

“It’s one of the freest places to take advantage of our belief in freedom,” he said.

Toronto International Festival of Authors director Roland Gulliver tweeted on Saturday that literary festivals and book events “are spaces of expression, to tell your stories in friendship, safety and respect.”

“It’s incredibly shocking to see this break so violently,” he wrote.

Expressions of sympathy also came from the political realm, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau denouncing the attack as a “cowardly… strike against free speech.”

“No one should be threatened or harmed based on what they have written,” said a statement on Trudeau’s official Twitter account. “I wish him a speedy recovery.”

Rushdie, 75, suffered a damaged liver, tore nerves in his arm and is likely to lose an eye as a result of the attack, Rushdie’s agent Andrew Wylie said Friday night.

A doctor who witnessed the attack and was among those rushing to help described Rushdie’s wounds as “serious but recoverable.”

— With Associated Press files.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press

Leave a Comment