The attempted murder of Salman Rushdie is an attack on all writers | Benjamin Myers



I’d wager my next royalty statement, as meagre as it may be, that Hadi Matar’s understanding of The Satanic Verses is about as deep as my own – which is to say: I haven’t read it. As a writer and a reader, I have always believed it is best to be honest about these things, as sooner or later one’s ignorance is laid bare.

Sadly, such unacknowledged ignorance sits at the centre of so much modern discourse around notions of free speech – though “discourse” is perhaps no longer the correct term, as it implies some sort of conversation based around archaic concepts of give and take, of listening as well as speaking. It does not involve pulling a knife in a carefully coordinated attack, as Matar did against Sir Salman Rushdie this week.

The notion of “free speech” has become a particularly pliable concept of late; hate-filled human megaphones who stalk both the corridors of power and the internet, and who have made social media such an irrational and toxic place to be, evoke it at every turn, conveniently overlooking the fact that with free speech comes great responsibility. Just because you can attack people, doesn’t mean you should attack people.

The attempted murder of Salman Rushdie is an attack on free speech in the most basic and barbaric manner. It is the act of a nobody attempting to eradicate an intellectual giant whose every novel, interview and public speaking engagement is approached from a place of reason and compassion. It is also an attack on all writers everywhere.

Even typing these words now I pause for a few moments to consider – perhaps for the first time in 25 years as a writer and journalist – whether such a column could bring trouble to my door. It is good to pause though. We live in heady, heavy times, and perhaps we should all stop and take a breath before opening our mouths. Pausing, thinking, considering, reasoning, articulating – these are the writer’s strengths in a hysterical, hot-headed world.

Let us not forget that Rushdie is, above all, a storyteller, and in centuries to come his work and life will be regarded as providing vital steps towards the ongoing need for free speech and sensible discussion, but also that even the most egregiously-opinionated writer should be allowed to publish their work without violent recourse.

We must also be mindful that Rushdie’s attacker Matar cannot be a well man, and that he cannot possibly represent Islam in any way – or at least not my understanding of it. In the coming weeks we will surely learn more about the life of someone driven to kill over the contents of a novel published 10 years before he was even born, and to what extent personal trauma, manipulation and indoctrination has played a part in his dire actions; but today, anything else is pure speculation.

My first thought upon hearing about the attack on Rushdie was horror, closely followed by a recollection of the enjoyment at his appearance on season nine of the US comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David’s misanthropic character is the subject of a fatwa, and soon begins to appreciate some of the benefits of being a man with a price on his head (not having to go to dinner parties, for starters).

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Wearing a comical disguise, Larry meets with a very game onscreen version of Salman Rushdie to discuss their respective fatwas, with the latter confiding that, “Yes, it can be scary, it can be bewildering – all of those things. But there are things that you gain.” When Larry enquires as to what they might entail, a straight-faced Rushdie remarks, “You are a dangerous man. There are very beautiful women that like that. It’s not exactly you – it’s the fatwa wrapped around you, like kind of sexy pixie dust.”

Here, in collusion with one of the greatest living satirists, Rushdie transcended the longstanding threat on his life to do something that no fundamentalist can: he laughed at both himself and the absurdity of a fatwa. He sent himself up. He turned it into comedy gold.

Because religious leaders may issue bounties on their enemies with the certainty of men (and it is always men) on a divine mission, but let us remember who they really are: people with credit card bills to pay, haemorrhoids, cats they adore, allergies, bins to put out on Tuesday, widescreen televisions they cannot operate without assistance, people who may not have read The Satanic Verses. Flawed human beings, basically, as we all are to differing degrees.

Saddam Hussein harboured a fondness for Doritos. Osama bin-Laden had the ‘Charlie bit my finger’ meme and crochet tutorials on his hard-drive. We have to laugh at them, all of them, because in laughter there is truth, and in truth there is freedom.

Benjamin Myers’ latest book The Perfect Golden Circle is out now on Bloomsbury. His novel The Gallows Pole is currently being adapted for the BBC by director Shane Meadows