The Rushdie attack shows where the US journey is headed

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Salman Rushdie at the Annual National Book Awards on November 15, 2017 in New York.

Salman Rushdie at the Annual National Book Awards on November 15, 2017 in New York.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

When Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed the death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie in 1989, his fatwa was seen as a direct challenge to the most fundamental of American values.

But when a black-clad assailant stabbed Rushdie multiple times during a speech last week, the attack felt less like an affront to our shared ideals and more a foreshadowing of where we are going.

If you’re too young to remember the late ’80s, you might not understand what a ubiquitous symbol of Western freedom Rushdie became. This came after he published his novel The Satanic Verses, with its portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed, which so enraged Iran’s radical clerics.

Rushdie remained mostly out of sight for many years, although he reappeared one night in 1991 at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he was speaking about the sanctity of the First Amendment. Every public appearance he made in the decade following the fatwa while private security forces lurked nearby was an act of remarkable courage.

If there was any debate in this country about the correctness of Rushdie’s cause, I don’t recall it; even Jimmy Carter, who condemned the book in a faint-hearted New York Times op-ed, defended Rushdie’s right to be heard. At the time, pretty much everyone agreed that democracy required basic tolerance and freedom of expression, although we sometimes argued violently about what was the appropriate way to speak in the public square.

Those were the days when the ACLU defended the right of Nazi sympathizers to march through the streets of Illinois. And when even Republican presidents glorified the American press as a contrast to Communist oppression and theocratic rule—despite their apparent contempt for what journalists wrote.

These were also the days when leaders in both parties dismissed violent rhetoric — let alone actual violence like the Oklahoma City bombing — in response to political or religious grievances. You may recall that former President George HW Bush resigned from the National Rifle Association, a key political constituency, in 1995 after it called federal agents “jack-booted thugs.” (The NRA apologized; Bush did not back down.)

What a different society from the one we have now when the most basic propositions of American life are at stake – if anyone even knows how to do it.

Now the movement’s conservatives, who once professed themselves as a bulwark against mob rule, can’t even find the backbone to distance themselves from an armed assault on the Capitol. Instead, they cringe in front of a leader who would have joined the riot himself if someone had been willing to drive him.

Two days after Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the Republican House of Representatives, responded to the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago last week, he said the Justice Department is in “an intolerable state of armed politicization,” one armed man and obvious Donald Trump supporter, attempted to break into FBI headquarters in Cincinnati.

How close is that to a political fatwa? How long before Trump and McCarthy’s holy war begins killing political opponents and journalists?

Meanwhile, as my colleague at the Post, Margaret Sullivan, notes, cultural conservatives are acting as school librarians across the country, stamping out books by authors like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Maurice Sendak. Mainstream Republicans cheer them on.

The moment calls for a bold, intellectually liberal response. Good luck with it. The left’s commitment to open debate has all but disappeared when we need it most, as a staggering number of activists and academics espouse the idea that free speech is a tool of oppression used by the white elite.

Even the ACLU is no longer really in the free speech business, preferring instead to enforce social justice orthodoxies. First Amendment rights are still celebrated on campus and on social media — as long as you stick to the accepted lexicon of identity and a sanctioned version of American history.

(Yes, I know: “Both Sidesism!” Let it be.)

Is any of this as egregious as inciting violent extremists? On the sliding scale of anti-democratic behaviors, no. But ask yourself this: if Rushdie had written his book in 2022 instead of 1988, and if the blasphemy hadn’t centered around Islam but around, say, left-wing notions of gender fluctuation, how many leading Democrats would champion his artistic freedom?

The answer is: very few. And that’s a problem, because the only successful response to lawlessness and censorship is a renewed commitment to basic democratic ideals — and not just when they affirm your worldview.

Rushdie lies in the hospital in a country that still denigrates Islamist extremists but increasingly embraces the violence and anti-intellectualism that underlies their ideology. In Tehran, newspapers hailed Rushdie’s attackers as God’s heroes – a reaction that would have puzzled us 30 years ago. But now we have our own ayatollahs who whip true believers and punish dissenters.

After all, Rushdie wasn’t safe in America. And I’m afraid neither do the rest of us.

Matt Bai, a Washington Post columnist, is a journalist, author, and screenwriter.

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