Op-Ed: 25 years after the Salman Rushdie fatwa, how is free expression faring?

Indian born British author Salman Rushdie.
Indian born British author Salman Rushdie.
(Pedro Armestre / AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years ago, in 1989, four big things happened that still shape our world. The Berlin Wall came down, and with it the empire that Vladimir Putin would love to restore. The Tiananmen Square massacre launched China on a new trajectory, which has made it what it is today. A then little-known British scientist named Tim Berners-Lee invented what would become the World Wide Web. And Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini delivered his fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

Last Sunday, I sat down with Rushdie in New York, at the American PEN World Voices Festival, to discuss the consequences of those events for freedom of expression around the world. How had he experienced the velvet revolutions of 1989, and where had he been when the Berlin Wall came down? He could not exactly remember — some safe house, presumably — but he confessed to having felt a tinge of envy at watching others, including Nelson Mandela a few years later, walking to freedom while he was still in durance vile.

There is no hint of that now, and the current normality of one writer’s life, which for so long seemed an unattainable dream, is a victory. The larger question is whether the struggle for free speech against fanatics and oppressors of all kinds is moving in the right or wrong direction.


In Britain, and in Europe more generally, a majority of Muslims accept the basic rules of peaceful coexistence in a liberal pluralist society. Yet in 1989, while some of his co-religionists were burning copies of “The Satanic Verses,” a British Muslim called Iqbal Sacranie said that death might be “a bit too easy” for Rushdie.

One small symptom of this improvement was the mildness of most British Muslim reactions to the 2007 award of a knighthood to the controversial novelist. (Rushdie recalls that after tapping him with the sword of honor, the queen asked, “Are you still writing books?”) But then Her Majesty — or rather, Prime Minister Tony Blair through her — had also knighted Sacranie two years earlier. A very British solution: Give ‘em both a knighthood.

The serious point stands: In many Western countries, the overall evolution among the great majority of Muslims has been toward an acceptance of, and even an active support for, freedom of expression, which necessarily includes the right (though not a duty) to offend.

On the other hand, Rushdie argued — and research supports this view — that a small minority in European Muslim communities is still being dangerously radicalized. And self-censorship out of fear keeps gnawing away at the edges of Western cultural life. The satirical musical “The Book of Mormon” continues to delight audiences in New York and London. No one seems to be planning another called “The Book of Muhammad.”

In many majority Muslim states, the constraints on freedom of expression remain horrendous. Saudi Arabia has this year issued new laws that treat atheists as being on a par with terrorists. The New York Times recently carried a report about Alexander Aan, imprisoned in Indonesia on a charge of inciting religious hatred. His crime? Declaring himself online to be an atheist.

Intimidation is by no means a Muslim monopoly. In Rushdie’s native India, Hindu extremists are the tops at taking offense. The publisher Penguin India recently withdrew American scholar Wendy Doniger’s alternative history of the Hindus, under pressure from a Hindu protest group. The situation seems likely to get worse if Narendra Modi wins India’s still-unfolding parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, across the border in Burma, it is people who describe themselves as Buddhists who have been lynching Muslim Rohingya.


In China, the post-1989 system has produced what will soon be the world’s largest economy and what is already its largest censorship apparatus. One reason the apparatus is so vast is that there is simply much more speech to be monitored because of the Internet. WeChat, the Chinese mobile messaging system, has well over 300 million users. The winner of American PEN’s first Digital Freedom Award, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, noted that the site hosts more than 500 million tweets a day.

This is a huge quantitative gain for free speech, but it brings its own dangers. It is not just authoritarian regimes that abuse the Internet as a tool for mass surveillance. A PEN survey of American writers found them not only worried about the NSA surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden but also, in some cases, confessing to self-censorship as a result. In other words, it has had a chilling effect.

“As to the battle over ‘The Satanic Verses,’” Rushdie wrote in his memoir, “Joseph Anton,” published in 2012, “it was still hard to say if it was ending in victory or defeat.” The same may be said of the consequences of all those four giant events of 1989. But that is the way with the battle for free speech — never entirely lost, never conclusively won.

Timothy Garton Ash is a contributing writer to Opinion. He is writing a book about free speech and directs the 13-language website