In 1989, the death threats against Salman prompted many of us to come together to show our protest and support. In the months and years that followed, we learned and perfected a vocabulary to defend freedom of speech, thought and writing. We understand that freedom of expression is the cornerstone of all our freedoms. All the rights and freedoms we possess had to be declared and written down.
We could hardly tell at the time, but the fatwa was promulgated when the world began to open up. In the 1990s, democracies flourished in South America, Eastern Europe and South Africa. With the end of the Cold War, political optimism was very present.
Today things are different. Democracy is a target of attack. China may soon have the technical means to perfect its totalitarian model. Openly hostile to open society, Putin’s Russia is looking more and more like a fascist state. In two years we may even see the end of the republic in the United States. Hungary, Turkey, Pakistan, the Gulf States: The space for free thought is slowly shrinking worldwide. The pressure comes not only from the established power of a state and its security services or from religious groups, but also from the extreme right and parts of the left. Sometimes it seems the world has forgotten how to dissent without resorting to a weapon or, in the mildest of cases, cultural repression. The institutions of the rich West, afraid of losing their reputation, rush to join the mob that is chasing them.
The 1989 fatwa appeared as a last-ditch attack on modernity and its secular self-awareness. Now that the illiberal spirit is gathering all its strength, the assassination of Salman Rushdie seems hideously timely. Our defense of the open society needs to be even more vigorous.
Ian McEwan He’s a writer.
© Ian McEwan 2022. This article was first published in The Times. Reproduced with permission of the author c/o Rogers, Colleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, UK.
translation of Maria Luisa Rodríguez Tapia.
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