Consequences of Fundamentalism: Lessons from the Attack on Salmon Rushdie

Consequences of Fundamentalism: Lessons from the Attack on Salmon Rushdie

Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times before he was scheduled to speak at a literary event in Chautaugua New York on August 12, 2022. As of this writing, it is reported that Rushdie is on a ventilator, cannot speak, and is likely to lose an eye. The nerves in his arm were “severed” and there is damage to his liver.

The perpetrator of this act was Hadi Mater, 24, of Fairview New Jersey. As of this writing, the Mater’s motive is unclear.  It is likely, however, that his motive is linked to the 1989 fatwa brought against Rushdie by Iran’s then leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  (A fatwa is a legal ruling based on the interpretation of Islamic law.) The fatwa was issued after the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which was Khomeini and many others judged to be blasphemous in relation to the Islamic faith.  Although the Iranian government distanced itself from the fatwa in 1998, the bounty against Rushdie has never been lifted. Indeed, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently affirmed that the religious order was still in place.

The effects of the fatwa extended beyond threats to Rushdie. In 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese translator of The Satanic Versus was stabbed to death.  In that same year, Ettore Capriolo, and Italian translator, was also stabbed. In 1993, William Nygaard, who published the book in Norwegian, was shot.  The attack on Rushdie also brings to mind the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine that published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in ways that were regarded by some factions of Islamists as blasphemous. (Images of Muhammad are forbidden in many expressions of Islam.)

Consequences of Fundamentalism

The attack on Rushdie is a product of fundamentalist thinking.  Any fundamentalist system is founded upon core beliefs and assumptions that are taken to true, certain, inviolate, undeniable. Such inviolate beliefs provide a foundation for moral certainty. If I believe that in the fundamental moral correctness of my moral convinctions, your beliefs are morally inferior or simply wrong. To the extent that I have access to moral truths, I can disregard your moral avowals. I can even claim the right to impose my moral beliefs on you — and if need be — even kill you.

Fundamentalism is inherently illiberal.  A liberal is one who believes in liberty – in the freedom of individual determination.  A liberal is who believes that the individual must be free from the arbitrary intrusions of the state.  The liberal tradition embraces the right to freedom of speech and freedom of thought.  Such a view relies upon some form of moral humility – the idea that no matter how strongly I hold any set of moral beliefs – I might actually be wrong.  As a result, I must give you the right to develop your thinking free from arbitrary constraint. If I want to influence you, I must do so through speech – and not through fiat, decree or violence.   

Home Grown Illiberalism

What do we think when we think of the violence perpetrated against Rushdie?  It is tempting to think that such acts are the products of backward modes of thinking, ways of thinking that occur in backward cultures and nations that exist over there — in far off places or distant times.

But this thought raises two sets of questions. First, is the thinking that spawns violent and illiberal acts typical of “far off” cultures and nations that exist in distant lands “over there”?  For example, it would be a mistake to assume that the fatwa against Rushdie is representative or typical of the beliefs of people around the world who practice Islam. While many (but not all) Muslims in Iran may embrace such beliefs, the vast majority of Muslims around the world are unlikely to do so.  We need to be very careful not to paint any group with a single brush. 

Second, is it true that the United States and other Western nations have put fundamentalist and illiberal ways of thinking behind us?  Not in the least. All social groups have factions who embrace extremist beliefs and call for violent or otherwise harmful actions.  It would thus be a mistake to think that the types of thinking that motivate the attacks on Rushdie could not be found in the United States and other Western nations.  After it has only been 80 years since the rise of Naziism and the promulgation of the most strident form of fundamentalist thinking.

The Illiberal Next Door

The fundamentalism and illiberalism that many may associate with authoritarian and theocratic regimes are not to limited to far off places and peoples.  Instead, they are happening in the here and now of contemporary Western society.  We can identify fundamentalism and illiberalism on both the left and the right extremes of the political spectrum in the form of self-contained beliefs based on unquestioned religious or political ideology.

On the right, fundamentalism can take the form of rigidly held beliefs in ethno-nationalism, natural social hierarchies, free market ideology, authoritarianism, traditional social roles, freedom from government intrusion, and so forth. The best example of illiberalism comes in the form of the January 6th insurrection, the refusal of the former President to acknowledge defeat in the 2020 election, and in the promulgation of ideological narratives that are directly refuted by reliable facts (e.g., the myth of massive election fraud in the 2020 election).

On the left, fundamentalism can the form of beliefs in radical egalitarianism, the malleability of individual and society, a belief in the social construction of human qualities, and beliefs that inequalities are necessarily the result of entrenched power relations, sexism, paternalism, heterosexism, transphobia, and the similar “isms”. Illiberalism takes the form “cancel culture” and implicit or explicit demands that social and political speech conform to particular ideological norms.  The enforcement of such norms takes the form of “de-platforming”, informal and formal censure in organizational and academic contexts, and termination of employment for expressing political positions at odds with prevailing political orthodoxy.

The polarization of political discourse is a deep threat to democracy. When partisans and factions retreat under the protective cover of echo chambers, ideological silos and the certainty of their moral convictions, dialogue ceases to be a vehicle for resolving socio-political conflict.  A population that is allowed to splinter into a multitude of identity groups, each with its own intransigent agenda, risks devolution and intergroup violence.

The choice is not between unity or diversity.  Unity without diversity and dissent is fascism.  However, in the absence of unifying principles, diversity can produce a void that attracts the attention of authoritarians. The fundamentalisms that we decry in others are not limited to the Other. They are emerging from our failure to confront the contradictions of our own culture, and are threatening us from within.  

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