The Vile Attack on Salman Rushdie Reminds Us of the Value of a Free Society — But is Our Outrage More About the Criminal Than the Crime?

When it was published in 1988, The Satanic Verses wasn’t immediately controversial. But the charged politics of Islam and the West meant some kind of blowback to Salman Rushdie’s novel was likely: The Iran-Iraq War had just ended and the Soviets were retreating from their brutal occupation of Afghanistan. Still, few expected the incendiary outburst that ensued, let alone a violent attempted murder more than 30 years later.

Back in 6th grade, I read the book. Not many kids that age would, let alone Muslim ones. But with my mother’s help, I borrowed a copy. She wasn’t pleased with what she’d heard about The Satanic Verses, but I benefited from her confident faith: she believed we must not hide from that which upset us—especially not in the world we lived in. Unfortunately, being all of twelve, I understood next to nothing. 

I went back to The Satanic Verses in college, when I could make sense of it.

And yes, I found parts of the book offensive. Some of the language, descriptions, and references concerning Islamic history, pieties, and personalities drew on Orientalist or otherwise distasteful and even derogatory language, arguably subverting (or actively  maligning and undermining) deeply-held Muslim ideals and commitments in an environment of immense cultural sensitivity compounded by intense historical trauma. 

Yet that did not and does not mean I wished to see Rushdie censored, let alone attacked. 

My conviction in Rushdie’s right to express himself doesn’t just come from my being an American, however. Or even an American writer. That conviction also emerges from my understanding of Islam. Though, since mine is a faith often shortchanged in mainstream conversations, as well as by plenty of fellow Muslims—jointly denying a sophisticated religious tradition the complexity it deserves—allow me to explain why.

So far as I can tell, the Prophet Muhammad (after whose name, pious Muslims invoke divine blessings and wishes for peace) never used the words “Islamic” or “un-Islamic” to describe an action, to say nothing of an entire government. Rather, scholars argued, the Prophet assigned all deeds to one of at least five categories, a spectrum that runs from obligatory to prohibited, and includes categories like recommended, permissible, or discouraged and disliked. Prayer, for example, is obligatory from the age of maturity (other conditions apply too), while the consumption of mind-altering substances like alcohol is forbidden (haram), unless needed medicinally. 

But plenty of things people might assume fall into one category belong to another. 

God and Muhammad strongly recommended marriage, for example, but did not require it. (Specifically, meaning monogamy—polygamy was not actively encouraged and was subject to strict restrictions.) In making moral choices, context also mattered enormously. Fasting in Ramadan is obligatory for healthy adults. But if you live in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), for example, where a genocide is underway, then saving one’s life takes precedence. 

I point all this out not only to underscore that the Muslim tradition is often far more human, humane, and humanistic than many current approaches assume and propose. But also because obligations are inseparable from the consequences of their performance. Which is to say, these aren’t rules meant to be applied irrationally or unthinkingly. Impacts and effects matter.

That’s not even to get into the assumptions Islamic fundamentalists (and sometimes Islamophobes) depend upon. The most critical and confounding of these is the idea that because the Muslim tradition proscribes certain actions, the state—or non-state actors—must vigorously enforce those. Human agency, which for so many is at the heart of Islam’s ethics and eschatology, disappears. 

But while, for example, Muslim scholars would probably nearly unanimously argue that for a Muslim to marry an atheist falls under the “forbidden” category, it’s another thing to believe, model, or preach that this should therefore be law. For the health of Muslim communities and the cultivation of individual piety, a far better approach would be to live out our moral obligations in autonomous and voluntary communities. 

In other words, a case for civic pluralism and a religiously neutral state. 

The ideal is a robust civil society, neither captured by the state nor seeking to capture the state. A public square that has space for plural religious voices—but not only these different religious voices. Even speech widely deemed blasphemous serves a larger purpose: If others don’t have their freedoms, I won’t have mine. Yes, some of Rushdie’s language was religiously abhorrent to huge numbers of Muslims. 

But the same freedom of speech that permitted The Satanic Verses made it possible for me to attend a thoughtful, and exceptionally relevant, sermon at my local mosque, here in Cincinnati. The preacher discussed how the Prophet Muhammad clarified that ritual observance of religious law did not prove genuine piety. That if our deeds do not equal our wordsand our words our deedssomething is missing.

We—all who hold religious liberty dear—must condemn the attack on Rushdie. 

But that’s not enough. Because sometimes our professed piety is performative or partisan; that is, our outrage is more about the criminal than the crime. Undeniably, the Ayatollah Khomeini was wrong to call for Rushdie’s death. To be morally consistent, however, we must also admit that we supported regimes—in part because they opposed his brutal regime—that murderously restricted free speech as well.

When a writer is accused of blasphemy, it’s easy for us to be outraged. But when a writer is punished by a government we support, perhaps because that support advances our national security interests, we have rather less to say. Only recently, The New York Times extensively reported on the abuse, torture, solitary confinement, and even executions that await critics of Egypt’s dictatorship, a longstanding US ally. Islamists, secularists, socialists. It didn’t and doesn’t matter. 

Their crimes were as outrageous as liking Facebook posts mildly critical of the government. We sometimes argue that if our country didn’t support such regimes, powerful nemeses would step into the “vacuum” and deprive us of our influence. We seem to be saying that the ends justify the means. It’s not clear, however, at what point we become the less savory actors we’re convinced we’re saving the world from. 

A bearded, turbaned man calling on an ancient tradition to justify violence—that we easily and quickly dismiss as medieval and barbaric. But when fatwas are reframed as security considerations, and when, instead of robes and turbans, the dictators wear suits and ties, is it less offensive? When religion becomes factionalism, it becomes hypocrisy. But all discourses can become factional and therefore hypocritical. 

This is why every serious ethical tradition demands constant introspection. That might mean repeatedly drawing attention to our own moral failings or pointing out the privilege we benefit from (or both). A worldview that isn’t reflexive inevitably becomes oppressive. My understanding of Islam teaches that it’s not so much about the ends as it is the intentions and means. 

It’s not about whether we got it done, but about what we did to get or keep ourselves there. 

That is foundational in Islam: The Qur’anic genesis narrative describes Adam and Eve, and by implication all human beings, as Caliphs, as stewards of God’s creation and representatives of God’s compassion in the world. However, humans only ascend to this moral station by failing and admitting fault, acknowledging the imperfect and contingent nature of all our actions, requiring a firm and constant commitment to fairness. 

And applied especially to ourselves.

Friday’s vile attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us of the value of a free society. It should also remind us of the dangers of the increasing embrace of incendiary rhetoric within our own society—as if actions don’t have consequences. It should further remind us of the wisdom of another sage, one who more Americans are probably more familiar with: If we want a plural society for ourselves, at the very least we should not deny it to others.