'If Rushdie hasn’t quite lived up to the hopes invested in him, his liberal critics have even less to recommend them.' (Cindy Ord/Getty Images for PEN America)

April 22, 2024   8 mins

Why did he do it? Hadi Matar, 24 — dim, lugubrious, incel-y — had by his own admission “read, like, two pages” of The Satanic Verses. Judging by his slacker patter, one wonders whether he fully understood them. Yet there he was, “a squat missile” — as Rushdie describes him in Knife, his new memoir — charging at the elderly novelist like a crazed villain in a crude slasher flick. It was the last thing Rushdie saw through his right eye before Matar stabbed him — not once, not twice, but 15 times.

“Was it performance art?” Rushdie wondered. Or a case of magical-realist memory? It had been, in August 2022, 33 years since Ayatollah Khomeini’s call to kill Rushdie, well beyond the bounds of Matar’s lifetime. Or a hair-raising exercise in irony? Rushdie was at the Chautauqua Institution, in upstate New York, to talk about “writer safety”. Matar’s own mutterings suggest nothing quite so sophisticated. The picture that emerges from his interview with New York Post is that of a bumbling Four Lions type completely out of his depth. What of his politics? “I respect the Ayatollah. I think he’s a great person.” And Rushdie? “I don’t think he’s a very good person.” Why? “He’s someone who attacked Islam. He attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.” Their beliefs? It doesn’t sound like Matar cared much for them himself.

Matar evidently isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer (Rushdie missed a trick there). I suppose he would react to a subordinate clause in much the same way as a deer would to headlights. Schooled in sunny California before settling in suburban New Jersey, Matar’s locutions are to me yet another reminder of how the American education system is failing its citizens. He grew up in a comfortable $700,000, four-bed home with his twin sisters and mother, and saw no reason to earn a living until a few months before the botched assassination, when he took up a gig at Marshalls, America’s version of Poundland. For most of his late teens and early 20s, Matar led an inverted life, “sleeping during the day”, and, at night, “playing video games, watching Netflix, stuff like that”. The Italians would have called him a bamboccione, the quintessential man-child, eking out a lumpen existence in his mum’s basement.

He was, in short, hardly an unreconstructed, ideologically driven Islamist. He had no contact with the Revolutionary Guard. Nor was he of Iranian heritage. His parents were in fact from Yaroun in southern Lebanon — Hezbollah heartland. His mother, who has since disowned her son, wanted nothing to do with that world, to which his father returned after their divorce. In 2018, the young Matar visited him in Yaroun, where he developed a heightened awareness of his cerebral shortcomings. Indeed, he chafed at this on his return. “He was angry that I did not introduce him to Islam from a young age,” his mother would later say to the Daily Mail.

Still, the Koran and Hadiths were not for him. He instead sought identification with a couple of Hezbollah militant apparatchiks, two of whose names he fused to adopt the nom de guerre Hassan Mughniyeh, the alias under which he arrived at Chautauqua. In Knife, Rushdie recounts a doctor’s remark: “You’re lucky that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife,” as clueless about murder as he was about Rushdie’s oeuvre or Islam. Clearly, his motivations were less theological and more political. Notice how he has nothing to say about the sharia or the actual beliefs of Muslims. Rushdie’s sin rather seems to be that he “attacked their beliefs”. This is not the language of Islamists, but rather the impeccably liberal — if you like “Western,” even “woke” — language of minority rights and safe spaces, of hate speech and minoritarian victimhood.

Matar has given his grievance an adventitious, exotic colouring, but the truth is that his sense of wounded entitlement is of a piece with the general hostility to free speech we see around us in the West. There is, no doubt, something deeply illiberal about this declension of liberalism — with its stress on silencing those cruel children of the Enlightenment, with their unfeeling, universalising, secularising ways — but I suspect its votaries aren’t over-bothered by the contradiction. Contrary to what critics of wokery think, this isn’t a new development. As Faisal Devji has argued, much the same was true of the original controversy around The Satanic Verses. Rushdie’s critics, then as now, were not Islamist fundamentalists but woke — avant la lettre — Western Muslims. As Devji put it, their grievance turned more on “secular hurt than sin”.

Indeed, Rushdie’s book was burned in Bradford and Bolton and banned in Delhi long before it was noticed in the Muslim world. Khomeini was late to the party. Then again, his fatwa against Rushdie (properly speaking, a hukm since fatwas are juridical pronouncements made by religious authorities to clarify points of Islamic law, whereas hukms are ordered by government figures in a purely secular capacity) had more to do with his geopolitical wooing of Sunnis invested in the Prophet (the Shias by contrast revere Imam Ali more) in the wake of the First Gulf War than “Islamist” outrage. Meanwhile, British Muslims were using the thoroughly modern language of blasphemy — ironically a concept of Christian vintage. In the Muslim world, as Sadakat Kadri reminds us in Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law, “prosecutions for blasphemy” have been “extremely infrequent in the historical record”. Indeed, in their last 1,400 years of existence, Muslim societies have for the better part done without them. It is no accident that the first time blasphemy rears its head in the Muslim world is in Eighties Pakistan, under the Islamicising rule of General Zia-ul-Haq; Bradford, and Yorkshire more generally, boasts a significant Pakistani Muslim population.

The very first year of Zia’s rule — 1978 — saw the release of a hagiobiopic celebrating the carpenter Ilm-ud-Din, widely regarded as South Asia’s first modern blasphemy murderer. Hung aged 20 in 1929 for killing a Hindu publisher who brought out a book apparently blaspheming the Prophet, Ilm-ud-Din languished in relative posthumous obscurity until Zia passed a slate of blasphemy laws. These days, Ilm-ud-Din is revered as a martyr, as I recently learnt at his Lahore shrine. This was the milieu that bred resentment, not the real theological dispute at heart of Rushdie’s novel — the titular “Satanic verses”. Of doubtful historicity, in this narrative of early Islam, Muhammad proclaims a revelation demanding the adoption of three polytheistic deities, but later recants as having been of “Satanic suggestion”. But it was not this, nor the two other prosaic but blasphemous details in Rushdie’s novel (that the Prophet Abraham was called a bastard, and that his wives were depicted as prostitutes) that mobilised Yorkshire’s Muslims.

What they really wanted was to have their country’s blasphemy laws extended to Muslims as well; at the time, they only covered Anglican beliefs. It was, in short, a very British demand. The debate has since died down, if only because blasphemy laws were abolished in 2008 in England and Wales, and in 2024 Scotland, where they were replaced by a hate crime law that is, by all accounts, as ecumenical as it is Orwellian (the lineage is telling: hate crime laws are, properly speaking, the blasphemy laws of today). Across the pond, too, it is the new lexicon of hate speech that has animated the most sustained assaults on the First Amendment — some of it with good reason (in a world of swastikas and fasces, it would be churlish to be a free speech absolutist), some of it patently not. Hadi Matar only represents the more extreme, extrajudicial end of the hate speech spectrum. But distrust of the marketplace of ideas is a common enough reflex in our time.

The current obsession with hate speech and cancel culture owes to two developments. The first is the retrenchment of the authoritarian state, the second the retrenchment of the church in the West. Both effectively passed the business of policing opinions from the hands of Big Brother-style governments and God’s earthly mediators to crusading individuals. This is just as John Stuart Mill predicted would transpire in the age of democracy. “Society can and does execute its own mandates,” he wrote, by imposing conformity on the non-conforming — or the “eccentric” as Mill called them. And the cancelling of “eccentricity” isn’t a singularly Left-wing phenomenon. Take the cancelling of Palestinian novelists, artists, and musicians on both sides of the Atlantic since the war. Or, for that matter, the Kulturkampf playing out in American universities. One study has revealed that out of 1,080 attempts made to cancel academics since 2000, just over half — 52% — were made by the Left. The rest were the work of Right-wing snowflakes.

If the likes of Hadi Matar are more visible in this intolerant landscape, it is for two reasons. The first — the obvious — is the act itself. Knifing novelists is both unusual and unhinged, so newsworthy on at least two counts. The second is his chosen idiom. That he plumped for Islam tells us more about the poverty of 21st-century radicalism than anything else. Time was such energies were channelled into avowedly progressive causes. Think the Weather Underground, Brigate Rosse, the Baader Meinhof Group. These days, a young chap itching for the violent overthrow of the ruling dispensation isn’t exactly spoilt for choice. To some migrant youths, or more accurately some youths of migrant extraction, the attraction of Islam isn’t feasibly resisted. It helps that their communities are often the only pious holdouts in an increasingly godless world: West Africans and South Asians in Britain; Maghrebis in France. For French orientalist Olivier Roy, what we have witnessed since the end of the Cold War, then, is the “Islamicisation of radicalism”, and not, as it were, the radicalisation of Islam.

Rushdie, poor chap, has fallen victim to the zeitgeist. His efforts to fight so valiantly against it are, of course, nothing short of heroic. Now, more so than ever, he has become the metonym for free speech. Yet one wonders how justified this honour is. “Language was my knife,” he observes in Knife, “the knife I could use to fight back.” A great sentiment, surely, though in the paragraph that follows Rushdie lets on that he’s unsure of its efficacy: “but was that just a consoling lie I was telling myself?”

“Now, more so than ever, he has become the metonym for free speech.”

The “intimate encounter” with Matar prompts some tormented reflection: “Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I run? I just stood there like a piñata and let him smash me.” These are questions that ought to have dogged him much sooner. In 1990, far from being a martyr for free speech, Rushdie rushed to apologise to Khomeini, loudly affirming his Muslim faith. Later, he went as far to implore his publisher, Viking, to halt the publication of The Satanic Verses in paperback. It’s only because none of this cut any ice with the Iranians that Rushdie returned to free speech. It was left to others to take one for the team. The following year, Rushdie’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in Tsukuba; his Italian translator, too, was stabbed in Milan, though he survived. Rushdie meanwhile got to make jokes about “fatwa sex” on Curb Your Enthusiasm, as he set about accruing a bevy of spouses, as if a male Zsa Zsa Gabor.

If Rushdie hasn’t quite lived up to the hopes invested in him, his liberal critics have even less to recommend them. Indeed, compared to them, Rushdie shines like a beacon of moral clarity. Liberal uneasiness with free speech is proverbial. The Royal Society of Literature, for instance, refused point blank to condemn Matar. Here’s Bernardine Evaristo, its president: “the society cannot take sides in writers’ controversies and issues, but must remain impartial”. Rushdie spelled it out with greater clarity: “Just wondering if the Royal Society of Literature is ‘impartial’ about attempted murder?”

It would be too simple to pin down liberal equivocation to a generational quirk — that the young are woke and spineless, whereas the old are unwoke and tough as nails. Not so. Just a cursory glance at the roll call of Rushdie’s detractors at the time of The Satanic Verses should disabuse us of such notions. John Le CarrĂ© in the Guardian: “I don’t think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity.” Jimmy Carter in the New York Times: Rushdie’s book was “a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Hugh Trevor-Roper in the Independent: “I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit, and literature would not suffer.” George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury: “we must be more tolerant of Muslim anger.”

None of them, it hardly needs saying, were Islamists. Yet they were, on balance, more sympathetic to Rushdie’s “Islamist” detractors than to Rushdie himself. Perhaps there is nothing “Islamist” about the Rushdie-hating Islamists in the first place. Perhaps this was never really a battle between Western liberalism and intolerant Islam, but rather between — as Rushdie puts it in Knife — “those with a sense of humour and those without one”. And the latter, it must be said, are a homegrown menace.

Pratinav Anil is the author of two bleak assessments of 20th-century Indian history. He teaches at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.