Iran's proxy terror attacks are a direct hit on free speech - opinion

The correct response to Iran’s toxic efforts to murder dissidents in the West is an utter and complete refusal to be silent.

 AUTHOR SALMAN RUSHDIE is interviewed in London in 2008.  (photo credit: DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS)
AUTHOR SALMAN RUSHDIE is interviewed in London in 2008.
(photo credit: DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS)

Iran’s malign influence has been indisputably proven in the Middle East – from the war in Syria, to the Houthis in Yemen, to terror groups in Iraq, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Israel. But while the West desperately tries to salvage a terrible nuclear deal that would lift sanctions on the world’s largest sponsor of global terrorism, Iran is busy carrying out assassination attempts against dissidents on foreign soil in the United States. 

Iran is proving that the nuclear deal isn’t just about Tehran’s nuclear program, but about an entire ideology that seeks to silence, subvert and even kill those who oppose it. We must not let them succeed – and we must speak out against those enabling them in the name of “tolerance.” 

There is nothing tolerant or progressive about allowing Iran to take advantage of a deluded, illogical, anti-free-speech policy that shuts down genuine dialogue and debate, even if such speech is “offensive.”

This is Iran's track-record:

One year ago, the Iranian regime attempted to kidnap Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad on US soil. Alinejad is known for her successful activism against forced hijab-wearing in Iran, and for being a thorn in the side of the mullahs. The plot was foiled by the FBI, and Alinejad has been under close supervision of the FBI since the incident. A few weeks ago, a man with an AK-47 was found outside her apartment in New York and arrested. Once again, Alinejad was placed in a safe house provided by the FBI. 

 FILE PHOTO: Author Salman Rushdie arrives at the High Court to settle a libel action brought against Ron Evans local media reported, in London August 26, 2008. (credit: REUTERS/LUKE MACGREGOR/FILE PHOTO) FILE PHOTO: Author Salman Rushdie arrives at the High Court to settle a libel action brought against Ron Evans local media reported, in London August 26, 2008. (credit: REUTERS/LUKE MACGREGOR/FILE PHOTO)

Yet, despite the tangible threats to her life, Alinejad has faced pushback from self-declared Western progressives who have attacked her for her bravery in speaking out against forced hijab – with some even labeling her “Islamophobic.” Intentionally or not, attempting to silence an Iranian woman for speaking out against forced hijab is enabling Iran’s speech police.

Similarly, anyone speaking about Salman Rushdie’s “offensive” writing is shifting the blame and responsibility onto the victim for the violent attack he endured this week – blame and responsibility that should be placed on the person who chose to try to kill someone whose ideas he does not like. Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old Lebanese man, stabbed Rushdie at a lecture in New York. As of this writing, the award-winning author is on a ventilator, will likely lose an eye and is suffering from liver damage.

Despite what the responses were on social media, nothing he has ever said “brought this on.” What brought this on is the Iranian regime, which issued a fatwa for his assassination decades ago, and the Iranians who put a $3 million bounty on his head because they don’t like his ideas. 

 Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, who pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault of acclaimed author Salman Rushdie, appears in booking photographs at Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville, New York, US August 12, 2022.  (credit: CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY JAIL/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, who pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault of acclaimed author Salman Rushdie, appears in booking photographs at Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville, New York, US August 12, 2022. (credit: CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY JAIL/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Why is this happening to Rushdie?

The background: In 1989, Rushdie triggered the wrath of the Iranian regime for his book The Satanic Verses, which Iran claimed was “blasphemous” to Islam. Since then, there have been numerous assassination attempts on his life. His Japanese book translator was murdered in 1991. His Norwegian publisher was shot three times. In 2019, Ayatollah Khamenei took to Twitter to emphasize that the fatwa to kill Rushdie was binding and has no retraction – a clear-cut call to murder Rushdie. 

It’s hardly a surprise then that Matar, a known fan of Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, took such violent action. Indeed, within hours of the attack on Rushdie this past weekend, the Iranian regime and state-run media praised the attack.

While social media erupted with the expected condolences for Rushdie, it was also riddled with extremists praising the attack openly. Even more alarming, some claimed that while they reject violence, Rushdie somehow deserved “punishment” for insulting religion. This logic is as toxic and immoral as the logic of the Iranian regime itself. 

No one, and no idea, is inherently exempt from criticism. There is no right to not be offended. Free speech and free expression – when it is not a direct call to violence with a high probability of leading to violent action (such as in the case of the ayatollah tweeting a call to murder Rushdie) – is the most important value that any society has for advancing humankind and living together in peace. 

While it’s true that a government can impose laws, systems of power can only sustain laws against the will of the public for so long. The only thing with the power to change hearts and minds in society is the free exchange of ideas. After all, where would we be today if we silenced criticism of a government that denied the rights of women or blacks to vote? More recently, in the late 1980s, polls found that 84% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Today more than 70% of Americans support it. What changed the public opinion? The free exchange of ideas. 

The truth is that wherever there is censorship and the silencing of dissent, there can be no societal progress. Human rights die in societies where dissent is not tolerated.

These attacks are not merely attacks on individual dissidents, but part of a larger effort to dictate what can and cannot be said (or done) in Western culture, which (generally) respects individual freedoms and expression. For precisely this reason, the correct response to Iran’s toxic efforts to murder dissidents in the West is an utter and complete refusal to be silent, a continuation of open criticism of Iran’s crimes against humanity and a commitment to free and unfettered dialogue about religion and other social issues. 

Also critically important to defending basic freedoms is an absolute rejection of any nuclear deal that allows Iran to carry on these malignant activities around the world – and yes, that includes leaving crippling sanctions in place. 

The enemies of human rights and basic freedoms must not be permitted to determine the laws of society in the West. 

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative LLC and a human rights activist.