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Rex Murphy: Trudeau, Biden won't name actual threat to Salman Rushdie

National Post logo National Post 2022-08-16 Rex Murphy
A view of banners depicting Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in the town of Yaroun, southern Lebanon August 15, 2022. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah © Provided by National Post A view of banners depicting Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in the town of Yaroun, southern Lebanon August 15, 2022. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah

It is welcoming to see and hear so many Western leaders, writers and newspapers offering condolence and support for Salman Rushdie after the savage and barbarous knife attack on the famous author.

Who could not be both outraged by the attempted murder and deeply sympathetic to the victim? Think about it. Here was a 75 year old man gracing something as innocent as a talk about books and writing in the heart of a great democracy and he was stabbed at least 10 times.

Most world leaders, after the due expressions of concern and sympathy, went on to praise Rushdie for his commitment to free speech, free expression, the right to say and write what one thinks, which — for a long while at least — has been the crucial hallmark of every democracy. And that view is the correct one. For free speech, unfettered by governments or institutions, (or faddish causes) is the very seed principle of the democratic way.

Joe Biden for example expressed presidential thanks to “Rushdie and all those who stand for freedom of expression.” Our prime minister placed a similar stress on the horrible event: “The cowardly attack on Salman Rushdie is a strike on the freedom of expression that our world relies on.” The same emphasis on the cardinal value of freedom of speech and expression may be found in the statements of many other leaders.

I have no doubts that the expressions of sympathy were absolutely genuine. I am far less impressed by the — to me — new found reverence for freedom of expression. Especially since so many leaders, including Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau were rather stringent, laconic even, in its exercise.

It is true that Rushdie was attacked for what he had written. All the throat clearing about “the motive is still unclear” in the early hours, was startling and genuinely incredible. For has not Salman Rushdie been under a sentence of death — that is what a fatwa in Islamist fundamentalism is — since 1989? It was in that year that Ayatollah Khomeini declared The Satanic verses a “blasphemy” and issued the fatwa. And to give energy to the call for the author’s beheading, a religious organization put a US$2.7 million dollar on its head, swollen to nearly US$4 million by 2016.

So in all this reverential talk about “freedom of expression” why was that freedom not deployed to make the very necessary point that Rushdie’s life has been in danger because fundamentalist Islamists have been calling for his murder, and offering a huge reward for his death, for over 30 years. That is the most egregious and particular factor — the central fact of the villainous onslaught.

To listen to Mr. Biden or Mr. Trudeau, for example, he was stabbed for standing up for the generalized idea of “freedom of expression.” No, he was not. He was stabbed because a fundamentalist strand of Islam and the leaders of Iran regarded his book as a “blasphemy” for in their words “insulting the prophet.”

And for public statements by these two leaders, and others, not to reference that most salient fact, not to reference that an intolerant and fanatic faction had been urging his death, was — to use Orwell’s term — “objectively” a form of self-censorship, “objectively” again, to pay deference, by limiting comment, to the very intolerance and anti-expression of fundamentalist Islam. Which would not be paid by these same leaders to any other religion and emphatically not to the Christian faith.

Rushdie was not attacked not as the Governor of New York so evasively put it for “speaking truth to power,” a phrase which has become trite from overuse and sloppy application to trivial and consequence-free protest. He was attacked for speaking “offensively” in the judgement of fanatics of their prophet.

Say it. Name the actual cause. And do not be content with the empty pieties about freedom of expression which evade the predominant motive.

These same pieties are mere lip music. Freedom of expression in the West has been seriously impaired by faddish concerns over “safe spaces.” falsely labelling as “racist” or “phobic” what are mere objections to current causes, and universities, in particular, which used to be seen as its ultimate defenders, the Bethlehem cradle of its very logic, are now ostracizing and even firing professors for wrong speech.

Here in the West over the last decade freedom of speech has been choked by wokeism, political correctness, the cancel-culture craze, imperious rulings from Twitter, and most recently by the hyper-agitated activists who have showered J.K. Rowling with vicious abuse and death threats, for who comments on trans issues.

The novel doctrines that “speech is violence” and “giving offense” have gutted the idea of real free speech.

Here in Canada, it is under hearty and eager threat from the Trudeau government’s brazen ambition to police online communication, with their dubious and vague so-called “anti-hate” legislation.

Rushdie, one hopes will survive and be lauded further. How serious the leaders of the West are about freedom of speech is for the next column.

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