Compromising freedoms is no way to react to Rushdie attack - Businesslive

21 August 2022 - I couldn’t help thinking at the time that there was something distinctly prophetic in the idea in Salman Rushdie’s 2001 novel, Fury, that Rome fell not because of any weakening of the empire’s armies “but because Romans forgot what being a Roman meant”.

Michael Morris
I couldn’t help thinking at the time that there was something distinctly prophetic in the idea in Salman Rushdie’s 2001 novel, Fury, that Rome fell not because of any weakening of the empire’s armies “but because Romans forgot what being a Roman meant”.

These words seemed to take on the quality almost of a warning not long after Fury reached the bookshelves in the second half of the year, as they coincided with — and, for me, seemed to frame — the challenge then confronting civilised society across the globe: how to respond to the terror of 9/11.

While it would probably be childish to suggest the answer boiled down to choosing between armies or ideas, the greater question (beyond the tactical imperatives of this or that state agency) was less how to identify and defeat fanatical enemies than how to protect freedom and its many fruits against murderous zealotry.

In the month after 9/11 Rushdie, himself newly settled in New York, sought to answer this very question. Invoking Walt Whitman’s imagery of his new home as that “mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!” and “bright capital of the visible”, Rushdie reminded his readers: “The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his worldview, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong”.

The novelist added: “Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.” That such living — living in freedom — is a risky business was lately demonstrated in the grim attack on Rushdie at New York state’s Chautauqua Institution, a reminder that there can be no complacency about liberty, or about living up to its demands.

This much was markedly true of the aftermath of the 1989 fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination after publication of his novel The Satanic Verses.

Looking back at that time in his penetrating piece, “Free speech reflections”, on Politicsweb last week, Andrew Donaldson writes: “Even more disturbing than the violence of Islamic extremism that followed [the fatwa], the firebombing of bookshops, the murder of translators, publishers, teachers and filmmakers, was the failure, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, to safeguard such fundamental rights as freedom of expression.”

Which is why there is every reason to cheer the sentiments expressed in the New York Times by Chautauqua Institution president Michael Hill in response to suggestions that the venue could or should have had better security measures in place.

While making it plain that there had been “no resistance or no refusal to listen to the counsel of experts” on security, Hill added: “The only way to guarantee nothing ever happens at Chautauqua is to lock it all down and make it a complete police state, and that would, in essence, render what we do at Chautauqua irrelevant. I’m not convinced that lining the place with a small army was going to change what happened.”

As Donaldson argues: “Feelings may be hurt, and there will be offence (where free speech prevails). But it is the alternative, the fear of debate and discourse, that is truly offensive.”

Today — no less than in 1989 or 2001 — the risk lies not in what the fanatic may do next, but in how, fearfully anticipating the worst, we may be tempted by the illusion that compromising our freedoms is the necessary price of preserving what we cherish without seeing that this is precisely the zealot’s design.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-08-21-michael-morris-compromising-freedoms-is-no-way-to-react-to-rushdie-attack/

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