The history of the price of free speech

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After publishing his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was condemned to death by former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini in early 1989, and he was forced into hiding. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)
After publishing his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was condemned to death by former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini in early 1989, and he was forced into hiding. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)

Author Salman Rushdie spent years hiding because Iran's religious leaders wanted him dead for a book they didn't like.

Rushdie remained a fierce defender of free speech. In 2015, when gunmen killed 12 at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, he spoke out.

"The moment you limit free speech it’s not free speech. The point about it is that it's free! You can dislike Charlie Hebdo," Rushdie said. "Not all their drawings are funny, but the fact that you dislike them has got nothing to do with their right to speak."

Last week, Rushdie was brutally attacked. He's in critical condition. And our guest says, so is the concept of free speech.

"We're living through a free speech recession. Free speech has been in retreat around the globe," Jacob Mchangama, lawyer and human rights advocate, said.

"Even open democracies are adopting standards to counter undesirable material on social media or hate speech or disinformation."

Today, On Point: The history of the price of free speech.


Jacob Mchangama, lawyer and human rights advocate. Executive director of the Copenhagen-based think tank Justitia. Author of Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media. Host of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech. (@JMchangama)

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Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. (@SuzanneNossel)

Transcript: Highlights From The Show's Open

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: What is so threatening about free expression? The writer Salman Rushdie, speaking last year at the New York Public Library, offered this answer. He said in a world of increasing authoritarianism, quote, 'writing at its best has freedom. It belongs only to the artist.'

SALMAN RUSHDIE [Tape]: I think that's one reason why authoritarian regimes have so often gone after poets and novelists, people who have no armies, the people who often don't even command gigantic crowds. And yet the danger of the voice speaking freely.  

CHAKRABARTI: One week ago, Salman Rushdie was brutally attacked while on stage in western New York State. He remains in critical condition. His attacker expressed admiration for the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who more than 30 years ago had called for Rushdie's death.

And while the Iranian government denied any involvement in last week's attack, the vitriol against Rushdie in Iran has not abated. On Monday of this week, Mohammad Sadegh Koushki, on the faculty of law and political science at the University of Tehran, said on Iranian television, quote, 'People like Rushdie who want to do such a stupid thing will not dare, from now on.'

'Khomeini had the wisdom to issue this verdict back then,' Koushki said on Iranian TV.

Quote, 'Rushdie will go to hell. We don't want anyone else to dare so similar acts of insolence. Look, we respond to ideas with ideas. But when insults are hurled, we respond according to the law, according to Islamic law. Apostates are sentenced to execution.'

This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Truth has always been a battle, Salman Rushdie once said. He believes that battle is more intense today than it has ever been.

So we're going to take a look at the long struggle over freedom of speech and expression, the history of how people fought to protect their ability to speak and the price they have paid for centuries. And we'll begin with more on Salman Rushdie.

Suzanne Nossel is CEO of the American Chapter of the Worldwide Writers Association, PEN. She's known Salman Rushdie for a decade, and they were emailing each other on the morning that Rushdie was attacked. She told us about the books that first brought him global acclaim, and then condemnation.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: He had kind of a breakout success in the early 1980s with the novel "Midnight's Children" that won the Booker Prize, which is one of the most prestigious international prizes for a literary work. And he continued to be prolific. And then in 1988, he published "The Satanic Verses," a novel that includes episodes based on Mohammed's life. And that book sparked a firestorm.

CHAKRABARTI: Parts of the Islamic world believed that Rushdie's depiction of a character based on Muhammad was an insult to the prophet. Protests. Some deadly, broke out in India, Pakistan, England and other nations. And then in 1989, Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling Muslims everywhere and anywhere to kill Rushdie, and anyone associated with his book. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for more than a decade.

NOSSEL: Bookstores were targeted for carrying "The Satanic Verses." One of the translators of the book in Japan was assassinated because of his role in bringing the book to a public. And so it was this earth shattering event in the literary world. And very prominent writers rallied around Salman Rushdie. And it was a kind of a cause where he was seen as standing for everyone who takes the risk of telling the stories that they want to tell and then may have to pay a price for it.

CHAKRABARTI: In 2013, I actually had a chance to speak with Salman Rushdie, and he told me that even though British police provided him with protection for years, he had also come under blistering criticism from many leaders in the West.

RUSHDIE [Tape]: A kind of religious gag. You know, so if you were to look at the religious leaders, not just in England. Yes, in England there was this unfortunate remark by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but also by the chief rabbi of Britain.

Meanwhile, something very similar was being said by the cardinal in New York. ... This group of people who all believe in different religions, you know, when a religion says it's under attack, they all join up.

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: The God squad.

RUSHDIE [Tape]: The God squad. I've afraid that really exists. And it made me feel even more contemptuous of it than I did before.

CHAKRABARTI: That was a conversation I had with Salman Rushdie in 2013. By 1998, the danger to Rushdie's life seemed to wane. The Iranian government said it would not threaten his life, nor encourage others to. And again, here's PEN America's CEO, Suzanne Nossel.

NOSSEL: Rushdie came to live more out in the open. He moved to New York City. He became the president and board chair of the organization I work with PEN America. And became a firm fixture in the literary culture of New York City in the world, speaking at literary events. Very prolific with his writing. Many more novels.

CHAKRABARTI: Then, in 2015, terrorists attacked the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The magazine had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The gunmen claimed they were members of an al-Qaida affiliated group, and they murdered 12 cartoonists, editors and writers.

NOSSEL: So what happened was at PEN America, we made the decision right after the attack that we were going to give a Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo. And it's an award that we present every year at our annual gala. And ... the gala was about a week away. And suddenly we began to hear from writers who thought this award should not be conferred.

They were concerned that Charlie Hebdo was a racist magazine, it was Islamophobic and deserve to be honored in this way. And Salman had a very strong reaction to that.

RUSHDIE [Tape]: Charlie Hebdo attacked everything. It attacked Muslims. It attacked the pope. It attacked Israel, rabbis, Black people and white people and gay people and straight people. It attacked every kind of human being, because it was making fun. Its strategy was to make fun of people. But the fact that you dislike them has got nothing to do with their right to speak.

The fact that you dislike them certainly doesn't in any way excuse their murder. And now the moment somebody says, 'Yes, I believe in free speech, but.' I stop listening. I believe in free speech, but people should behave themselves. I believe in free speech. But we shouldn't upset anybody. I believe in free speech, but let's not go too far. The point about it is the moment you limit free speech, it's not free speech. The point about it is that it's free.

CHAKRABARTI: Salman Rushdie in 2015. Well, last Friday morning, Salman Rushdie was attacked by a knife wielding fanatic in New York State. On that day, that very morning, Suzanne Nossel was exchanging emails with her friend.

NOSSEL: A few hours later, I was just absolutely stunned to hear about the attack. I mean, I really thought it was something in the past. I couldn't fathom that there were people still ready and willing to carry out such a threat. And so I think he did not live in fear, and I did not live in fear for him.

Related Reading

Foreign Policy: "Censorship’s Global Rise" --  "The roots of free speech are ancient, deep, and sprawling. The Athenian statesman Pericles extolled the democratic values of open debate and tolerance of social dissent in 431 BC."

This program aired on August 19, 2022.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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