August 15, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 403

After Rushdie, Can A Decadent West Truly Defend Free Speech?

August 15, 2022 | By Y. Carmon and Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 403

State-run Iranian media gloating over Salman Rushdie's loss of an eye in August 12 attack.

It has been a busy summer for the Islamic Republic of Iran, amid reports that Iran is very close to a nuclear bomb and that the West is very close to a nuclear deal with the regime in Tehran.[1] After months of speculation that the Biden administration intended to remove the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), the Biden Department of Justice indicted a member of the IRGC with plotting to kill former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.[2]

There was also a new plot targeting prominent regime critic Masih Alinejad in Brooklyn with assassination (in 2021 the U.S. government revealed the foiling of an elaborate plot to kidnap her and smuggle her to Iran by way of Venezuela). And on August 12, an American citizen of Lebanese Shia origin (whose Facebook page was filled with images and praise for the Iranian regime and its leaders) attempted to assassinate visiting British writer Salman Rushdie, the subject of a notorious 1989 fatwa (Islamic legal ruling) by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for Rushdie's killing on charges of blasphemy. Unlike Iran's famous nuclear fatwa, the ruling on Rushdi actually does exist.[3]

It is early days, but this couldn't have happened at a worse time for Washington. The administration has spent much of the past two years easing up pressure on Iran in pursuit of a new nuclear deal. Lax sanctions enforcement netted Iran at least an additional $17 billion in 2021-2022, a rise of 77% compared to the previous year.[4] The Biden administration also offered carrots to Iran's proxies in Yemen and Lebanon, removing the former from the U.S. terrorism list while beguiling the latter with the possibility of newfound wealth from offshore natural gas fields.

Initial reaction by the Biden administration to the Rushdie assassination attempt was muted. Nothing at first from the State Department (over 48 hours after the attack, and unlike Sullivan and Biden, Secretary of State Blinken issued a statement that even mentioned Iran[5]). The first statement by a senior official, National Security Advisor Sullivan on the night of the attack, was interesting – no mention of Iran or the fatwa or Islamism, just that the attack was "appalling."[6] President Biden's statement a day after the attack praised the victim but said nothing of the attacker or his possible motivation, and noted that Rushdie "stands for essential, universal ideals. Truth. Courage. Resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear. These are the building blocks of any free and open society."[7]

In contrast, French President Emmanuel Macron's statement came a day earlier and was a bit sharper, describing Rushdie as an embodiment of "the fight against obscurantism" and the victim of a "cowardly attack by the forces of hatred and barbarism" (some on the right in France still criticized Macron for not using the words 'radical Islamism"[8]). U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also responded strongly the day of the attack – in contrast to the elderly Biden.

Of course, all three officials – Macron, Johnson and Biden – lead governments working feverishly towards an agreement that would shower Iran, the fons et origo mali[9] of the attack on Rushdie, with tens of billions of dollars in cash (up to $131 billion) in order to slow down its progress towards acquiring a nuclear bomb.[10] Human rights advocates like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights were immediately silent on the attack (although when the Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned it immediately).[11]

In terms of the volume of online of praise for the attack, much of it came from Pakistan, where blasphemy laws are a frequent political bludgeon used by Islamists. It came also from Lebanon and, of course, from Iran itself, where official media was giddy with praise for it.[12] Iran's official Fars News Agency published an interview with a theology professor at Tehran's Shahed University clarifying that the killing of Salman Rushdie would not be terrorism but a completely legal execution of an apostate.[13]

The West, and the U.S., face several challenges in their response to this and other recent outrages, whether it was carried out by an Iran-inspired "lone wolf" or indirectly through Iran or one of its proxies like Hizbullah. The first challenge is the ongoing attempt to bribe Iran not to go nuclear right away. To reward Iran now is to reward those cheering on the assassination attempt, who are also calling for it to succeed and who assassinate free voices in the region such as the Lebanese Lokman Slim and Iraqi Hisham Al-Hashemi. It is to reward Iran for restraint on nukes while simultaneously funding improvements on ballistic missiles and drones and death squads and terror operations in the West.

The second challenge is even greater, if that were possible, than the risks and rewards of a new JCPOA nuclear deal. It is an internal challenge tied to a West, especially a U.S., which seems to have lost its way when it comes the "truth and ability to share ideas without fear" called for in Biden's statement on Rushdie.

Freedom of expression in the U.S. and in the West in general is decaying, compared even to when Khomeini issued his fatwa over 30 years ago.[14] Cancel culture has seen people lose their livelihoods because of unpopular speech or unwelcomed remarks, or even certain gestures.[15] A 2021 poll found that 80% of American college students self-censor what they say, at least part of the time. A third – 33% – believed that it was acceptable to use force to shut down certain types of speech on campus.[16]

The U.S. government and the big social media companies seem to share a belief that certain types of speech – on COVID-19, on politics, on gender – need to strictly policed, and that the "wrong" people who spread "misinformation" should be silenced (while Iran's Supreme Leader has a Twitter account while former President Trump was silenced on Twitter, to broad acclaim by liberal voices[17]). All too often, it seems that freedom of speech is, in practice, regarded as a "right-wing" cause rather than a national one.[18] And as the free speech consensus declines among Americans, new arrivals from overseas may only accelerate that decline.[19]

This deterioration in the space given to "offensive speech" means that the lines have been blurred. Some religions and some ethnicities seem to merit greater protection and respect than others. The U.S. is still more free than Western European countries, but the trend throughout the West is towards greater scrutiny, control, and punishment over offensive or unpopular speech.[20] The list of "phobias" needing to be combated seems to inexorably grow longer.

Western rhetoric on freedom can still shine brightly in the aftermath of the Rushdie attack. But in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and Samuel Paty and so many other cases, it is the voices of critics and mockers and reformers that are eventually being silenced in the West, and over time we will all self-censor in our societies just like those American college students.[21] As for Muslim reformers and heterodox thinkers in the West, the attack will have an inevitable chilling effect, while Iran's Salafi and Islamist rivals will take heart and seek to garner the same attention.

The best revenge for the attack on Salman Rushdie is to make sure that there is more rather than less free speech in the West. This requires brave Western leaders willing to go against the prevailing tide. Unfortunately, the trajectory – from the university campus to social media platforms to government to the corporate boardroom – has all been going in the wrong direction for some time now.


*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI; Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.  


[1], August 13, 2022.

[2], August 11, 2022.

[4], August 1, 2022.

[5], August 14, 2022.

[6], August 12, 2022.

[7], August 13, 2022.  

[8], August 12, 2022.


[10], March 9, 2022.

[11], June 24, 2022.

[13], August 13, 2022.

[14], August 14, 2022.

[15], June 15, 2020.

[16], 2021.

[17], August 12, 2022.

[18], May 1, 2018.

[20], December 20, 2021.

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