If you're being silenced, ask yourselves: What would Salman Rushdie do? - opinion

Clearly, these Islamist totalitarians were not just trying to silence Rushdie. They wanted the $3 million (NIS 9.85 m.) bounty on his head to have a chilling effect.

 SALMAN RUSHDIE addresses an audience before a book signing event in Bucharest, in 2009.  (photo credit: ROMANIA SOCIETY MEDIA/REUTERS)
SALMAN RUSHDIE addresses an audience before a book signing event in Bucharest, in 2009.
(photo credit: ROMANIA SOCIETY MEDIA/REUTERS)

In 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa demanded Salman Rushdie’s execution – and many Muslims echoed his cry – I learned that we all must fight on the front lines between democracy and totalitarianism, between civilization and barbarism, and between decency and degeneracy. Last Friday, when a 24-year-old whom the New York Times described as a “New Jersey native” stabbed Rushdie ten times, this thug of Lebanese extraction confirmed these lessons, decades later.

Back then, I had just completed my PhD in History at Harvard. Five years of training in following scholarly formulas primed me to spend my career coloring within the lines. Academia was less political then, but liberal groupthink still dominated, as did clear marching orders to write in a bland conformist way. Salman Rushdie’s courage when so many Muslim extremists canceled his novel, The Satanic Verses, taught me that if it’s not worth fighting for, it’s not worth writing.

Clearly, these Islamist totalitarians were not just trying to silence Rushdie. They wanted the $3 million (NIS 9.85 m.) bounty on his head to have a chilling effect, discouraging anyone from criticizing anything about Muhammad, Muslims or even Islamist fundamentalism.

For me, this controversy had the opposite effect. It enhanced my appreciation of our freedom to think, to challenge, and yes, to offend. Anytime someone tried bullying me, silencing me or discouraging me from taking a stand, I have asked myself a simple question we all should ask today: WWRD – What Would Rushdie Do?

His empowering effect encouraged me to continue teaching and writing about American history in as nonpartisan a way as I could, even as more professors, hijacking their podiums to push far-left ideologies, deemed my politically-neutral stance “establishment,” then “treasonous,” and today, “white supremacist.” Rushdie also inspired me to start standing up publicly for Israel and Zionism twenty-one years ago, when the academic and media pile-on against Israel resumed with a vengeance.

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

Today, with Salman Rushdie hospitalized, facing years of anguish and rehabilitation – if he’s lucky – from his damaged liver, severed arm nerves and mangled eye, all of us should ask WWRD – What Would Rushdie Do? Instead of perpetuating today’s culture of coercion whereby 62% of Americans censor themselves politically, they and every other citizen in healthy democracies should ask “WWRD?”

Why we should ask this question

INSTEAD OF tolerating Republicans, who cannot criticize Donald Trump’s assault on democracy and Democrats who can never criticize fellow Democrats, no matter how woke, they all should ask “WWRD?” Instead of subsidizing an academic world that increasingly propagandizes instead of educating, students, parents and thinking professors should ask “WWRD?”  and take their stand.

Here in Israel, rather than applauding right-wing bigots who demonize Arabs, proud nationalists should ask “WWRD?” And rather than encouraging left-wing apologists, who ultimately rationalize terrorism, thoughtful liberals should ask “WWRD?” And before anyone breaks up with anyone else for daring to disagree with them, let them ask themselves “WWRD?”

Iran’s ayatollahs, the countries that banned The Satanic Verses and the twitterdummies, who applauded Rushdie’s butchering, all want to create what the Soviet-born human rights activist Natan Sharansky calls fear-societies. Traditionally, fear-societies, like Iran, impose terror from the top down. Increasingly in Western democracies, fear-societies are springing from the bottom-up, as peer-censorship and self-censorship spread. Even if they defend basic liberties, democracies falter if their loudest and most influential citizens lose faith in the free marketplace of ideas.

Building trust combats such grassroots fear and bullying. We need to trust one another. We must remember the basic democratic lesson that those who come to different political conclusions are not evil, while fostering more faith in the democratic process. Vigorous, respectful debate among different political factions can keep us talking together, then building together.

In that spirit of candor, we also should acknowledge that we are in a civilizational war with brutal enemies. As hard as it is to imagine any 24-year-old attacking a 75-year-old author, it is even harder to imagine anyone stabbing a person again and again in the eye, the abdomen and the chest, as the blood spurts and people yell. What kind of incitement riles someone up like that and what kind of people cheer such evil?

Similarly, closer to home, it’s hard to conceive how a 26-year-old east Jerusalemite this Sunday morning could shoot a pregnant woman in the stomach, an older man in the neck and head, and five other Western Wall worshipers waiting to board a bus and a taxi also wins applause.

It’s not just Hamas and so many others who have called that terrorist heroic, the masquerading moderates of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) called this latest attack proof that “the resistance of our people continues in all forms and throughout the occupied Palestinian land.” Although their Western enablers don’t like noticing, these maximalists define “the occupied Palestinian land,” as every inch of territory they covet, leaving zero room for Jews or anyone else they detest.

Ultimately, we can only fight fear and cultivate trust by regaining confidence in ourselves and our Western democratic values. Confidence is not arrogance. It can include self-criticism. But today’s new nihilism, with unpatriotic patriots and illiberal liberals, with conservatives who don’t conserve institutions, progressives who don’t appreciate progress and uber-partisans who don’t respect their rivals’ democratic rights, reflects a crisis of democratic faith, a vacuum of trust and totalitarian culture of fear that spawned Rushdie’s attacker. Right now, only doctors can save his body, but all of us must preserve and expand Rushdie’s bold, freedom-fighting, democracy-affirming legacy.

The writer is an American historian, the author of The Zionist Ideas and the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People, to be published this August marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress.