Canadian writers, editors and literary figures doubled down on the right to freedom of thought and expression on Saturday, a day after an attack in the United States on award-winning author Salman Rushdie left him on a ventilator in hospital .
Rushdie, whose novel satanic verses drew death threats from Iranian leaders in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen on Friday by a man who rushed onto the stage as the author prepared to give a lecture in western New York.
Louise Dennys, Executive Vice President and Publisher of Penguin Random House Canada, has published and edited Rushdie’s writings for over 30 years. She condemned the attack on her longtime friend and colleague as “cowardly” and “reprehensible in every way”.
“He is without a doubt one of the greatest supporters of freedom of thought and expression, of debate and discussion in the world today,” Dennys said in a phone interview. “I’m hopeful he recovers. He’s a great warrior and fighter, and I hope he fights back.”
Rushdie, 75, from India who has lived in Britain and the United States, is known for his surreal and satirical style of prose.
satanic verses drew death threats after it was published in 1988, with many Muslims considering a dream sequence based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad to be blasphemy, among other objections. Rushdie’s book had already been banned and burned in India, Pakistan and elsewhere before Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa or edict in 1989 calling for Rushdie’s death.
A 24-year-old man is in custody, facing charges in Friday’s attack. The accused was born a decade after the publication of satanic verses. Police said the motive was unclear. Investigators were working to determine if anyone else might be connected to the incident.
After the publication of satanic verses, often violent protests erupted across the Muslim world against Rushdie. At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.
Death threats prompted Rushdie to go into hiding as part of a UK government protection scheme, although he has cautiously resumed public appearances after nine years in solitary confinement, keeping his outspoken criticism of religious extremism in his outfit.
“He couldn’t be silenced by fear”
“We all depend on storytelling, on the power and on the imagination of writers,” Dennys said. Rushdie “came out of hiding because he realized he wanted to play a part in the world we live in, standing up for those rights,” she said.
“He couldn’t be silenced by fear, and I think that’s something he will continue to push for if, as we all hope, he survives.”
The Writers’ Union of Canada joins our international colleagues in deep concern over this attack. We hope for a speedy and full recovery for Mr. Rushdie. https://t.co/mnM2SNKBUD
Dennys said the attack was already having the opposite effect of his alleged intentions given the influx of support from the international literary community, as well as activists and government officials, who cited Rushdie’s courage for his advocacy. longtime supporter of freedom of expression despite the risks to his own safety.
“It brought everyone together to realize how precious and fragile our freedoms are and how important it is to defend them,” Dennys said.
The president of PEN Canada, an organization that defends freedom of expression for authors, condemned the “savage attack” on their “friend and colleague”, Rushdie, who is a member.
I was proud to welcome Salman Rushdie to Ontario 30 years ago. As a long-time supporter of PEN, I was happy to join his friends in celebrating his courage. It is even more important today to support freedom of expression and to show our solidarity and support for Salman. pic.twitter.com/7nDaizQjV8
Canadian writer John Ralston Saul, who has known Rushdie since the 1990s, said the author was always aware someone might attack him, but chose to live publicly in order to speak out against those trying to silence freedom of expression and debate.
“[Rushdie’s] work and whole life remind us of what the life of the public writer is really about,” he said. “It would be the worst possible time to give in or show that we have to be more careful with our words. We’re not really writers if we give in to that kind of threat.”
The accused, Hadi Matar, was arrested after the attack on the Chautauqua Institution, a non-profit education and retirement center. Matar’s attorney pleaded not guilty in a New York court on Saturday to attempted murder and assault.
After the attack, some longtime visitors to the center wondered why there was no tight security for the event, given the threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million to whoever killed him.
Saul, who spoke at the Chautauqua Institution years before Rushdie’s attack, said she had an ‘open tradition’ of debate, free expression and anti-violence dating back more than 100 years .
“It’s one of the freest places to enjoy our belief in freedom,” he said.
WATCH | Witnesses describe Rushdie’s attack:
Roland Gulliver, director of the Toronto International Festival of Authors, tweeted Saturday that literary festivals and book events are “spaces for expression, to tell your stories in friendship, safety and respect.”
“To see this so violently shattered is incredibly shocking,” he wrote.
Expressions of sympathy also came from the political realm, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemning the attack as a “cowardly strike…on freedom of expression”.
“No one should be threatened or harmed based on what he wrote,” read a statement posted on Trudeau’s official Twitter account. “I wish him a speedy recovery.”
Rushdie suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in his arm, and is likely to lose an eye as a result of the attack, the perpetrator’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said Friday night.
A doctor who witnessed the attack and was among those rushing to help described Rushdie’s injuries as “serious but recoverable”.