Author Salman Rushdie warned that freedom of expression is at risk in a rare public speech since he survived a stabbing attack last year.
“We live in a moment, I think, at which freedom of expression, freedom to publish, has not in my lifetime been under such threat in the countries of the West,” he said in a video message at The British Book Awards on Monday. “Obviously, there are parts of the world where censorship has been prevalent for a long time. Quite a lot of the world: Russia, China, in some ways, India as well. But in the countries of the West, until recently, there was a fair measure of freedom in the area of publishing.”
He continued, “Now, I mean, sitting here in the United States, I have to look at the extraordinary attack on libraries and books for children in schools – the attack on the idea of libraries themselves.”
Rushdie, 75, was referencing efforts by conservative politicians to ban books that deal with themes of race and gender identity. A recent report from PEN America, for which Rushdie previously served as president, found that book bans in public schools continued to rise in fall 2022 and that nearly one-third were the direct result of new state laws. Meanwhile, libraries around the country are being targeted for closure.
The Booker Prize-winning author is intimately familiar with threats to free expression. He underwent emergency surgery last August after he was stabbed several times before his scheduled lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. In the message that played at Monday’s event, he wore glasses that concealed one of his eyes, which he lost sight in following the attack.
Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” was met with demonstrations and bans in several countries, with some Muslims criticizing his depictions of Islam as sacrilegious. Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or a religious decree, calling for Rushdie and his collaborators to be killed in 1989. Rushdie was forced into hiding for about a decade after, and others who worked on the novel were also targeted – in 1991, a Japanese translator was killed.
The bounty against Rushdie has never been lifted. While the Iranian government sought to distance itself from the fatwa in 1998 by pledging not to seek to carry it out, its position on the issue has been ambiguous over the years. And in 2019, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted that the fatwa was “solid and irrevocable.” Still, Rushdie had been living more freely in the years before last August’s attack.
During his speech at the British Book Awards, Rushdie spoke out forcefully against censorship. In addition to addressing book bans by conservative politicians, he also criticized recent plans to remove insensitive material from new editions of texts by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, calling attempts by publishers to “remake yesterday’s work in the light of today’s attitudes” alarming.
“I think that has to be resisted. Books have to come to us, from their time and be of their time,” he said. “And if that’s difficult to take, don’t read it. Read another book.”