Salman Rushdie on the Edge of Freedom

When pushback arose against Salman Rushdie, a complicated interplay between neoliberalism and Islamophobia emerged, and the freedom of expression and religion proved to be feeble defenses.

Feb 14, 2023By Monisha Choudhary, BA Art History
salman rushdie edge of freedom
Rushdie in the PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award Ceremony in Boston, Massachusetts in 2016 via Reuters.


The following article covers sensitive topics related to current events: post-colonialism, islamophobia, and violence. Some readers may find the contents of this article controversial or upsetting.


Salman Rushdie is an Indian-born Muslim author popularly known for being condemned to death by the Irani leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for his book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie has spent his days in hiding from the followers of Khomeini ever since. There have been attacks not only against Rushdie, but the translators of his works as well.


The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was revoked in 1998, and he began making (rare) public appearances. In 2022, however, Rushdie was stabbed in New York by Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old Shia Muslim man who reportedly acted alone in his attacks against Rushdie. Although Matar has pleaded not guilty, it was known that he disliked Rushdie for his stances on Islam.


This article doesn’t decide on the merits of Rushdie’s works. Instead, it looks into the philosophical framework of “freedom of expression”, a doctrine in which Rushdie has sought and been proffered refuge. Although there are limitations to this rather fundamental right, they usually apply in different ways to different actors. Even within the Rushdie affair, freedom has a different meaning for Rushdie and the followers of Islam. To explain this, the article borrows from scholars of post-colonialism and neoliberalism.


Salman Rushdie and Freedom of Expression

Rushdie Satanic Verses Arlington
Salman Rushdie holds up a copy of his controversial book “The Satanic Verses” during a 1992 news conference in Arlington, via Ron Edmonds / Associated Press


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Since the fatwa, Salman Rushdie has been idolized as a warrior of freedom of speech and expression. He was granted protection by the British government and even awarded knighthood by Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to literature. Rushdie appeared at several literary parties and award ceremonies and was also invited to talk shows and book signings by American universities. Even the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that violence is unjustified as a response to spoken and written expression in exercising one’s freedom of opinion and expression.


Freedom of speech or expression, encompasses activities such as speaking, writing, protesting, and practicing one’s religion, among others. While these acts may be protected individually in the form of freedom of speech, press, protest/assembly, and religion, either is quintessential for the implementation of the other.


Owing to academically and politically rigorous movements within liberalism, freedom of expression has become an essential tenet of democracy. Ideally, within liberalism, the state is considered to be the servant of the people, so it cannot curtail the people’s right to criticize the state. However, in the presence of a sovereign state, the tensions between national interest and an individual’s rights always run high. Even John Stuart Mill recognized this competition between authority and liberty in On Liberty.


… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
(Mill 13)


John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill by London Stereoscopic Company c. 1870 via Wikimedia Commons.


Mill holds that freedom is integral to the development of individuality. Mill, in advancing individuality, also acknowledged the pushback it would inevitably face.


But the evil is, that individual spontaneity is hardly recognized by the common modes of thinking, as having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account. The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are (for it is they who make them what they are), cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody; and what is more, spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of moral and social reformers, but is rather looked on with jealousy, as a troublesome and perhaps rebellious obstruction to the general acceptance of what these reformers, in their judgment, think would be best for mankind.
(Mill 53)


Despite this strenuous relationship between the individual and society, he thinks every opinion must be heard, irrespective of how immoral it may be. Breaking away from classical liberalism, he also holds that this variety in opinions and subsequent “self-development” will outdo old habits, and result in new values and ways of life. Mill then goes on to explain in great length that individual freedom, however absolute it may be, cannot be used to harm another.


The Harm Principle: Limiting Expression

John stuart Mill in 1956
J.S. Mill, a British philosopher and social reformer, in 1856. Via Getty Images


Hedonism tells us to see effort and outcome in terms of pleasure and pain, but for Mill, harm doesn’t necessarily include pain. In his utilitarian approach, he takes harm to mean unjustly coercing someone into forming an opinion that they wouldn’t have formed otherwise, i.e. encroaching on the development of their individuality. The final decision of what constitutes harm on a larger scale, i.e. between an individual and a people is that of a state.


In principle, the state must not interfere in the freedom of an individual, but in practice, the state can curtail this right. For reasons of national interest, public peace and harmony, every democratic state reserves the discretion to decide when this freedom must be restricted, and in cases like Rushdie’s, when it must be protected, irrespective of diplomatic boycotts, global demonstrations, and religious killings.


Eleanor Roosevelt UDHR New York
Eleanor Roosevelt holding the poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English), Lake Success, New York, November 1949, via Wikimedia Commons.


International law seeks to regulate the adoption, implementation, and restriction of some fundamental human rights to avoid the formation of tyrannical governments.


Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, every person in the world enjoys the freedom of thought, conscience, movement, information, assembly and, importantly, opinion, expression, and religion. These rights can be restricted to protect national security or public order if it is necessary to do so, by using proportionate and legal means.


Ultimately, states need to legislate these rights, their limitations, and the methods of enforcement into their body of national laws. Problems arise when a state does not make national arrangements because pursuing international litigation to enjoy a certain is not a luxury that is easily afforded.


The shape of the state has undergone several changes since the 16th century. Sovereignty gives a state the authority to stand as an independent subject in the global community, entitling it to respect and non-interference from other sovereign states. This principle of non-interference extends to international organizations such as the United Nations itself.


Although there are human rights conventions that apply regardless of this principle and even without the express consent of states, the implementation of international law is extremely difficult. There are no global prison systems or consolidated criminal and civil codes, and litigation is secondary to international relations. States are often able to opt out of international legal procedures. Thus, the state generally assumes supreme authority where the enforcement of human rights is concerned. Even so, states only give fundamental rights to their citizens- including the right to expression and opinion.


States are often hesitant to provide – let alone actively protect – fundamental rights when their use can threaten public harmony or risk breaking international ties. However, Rushdie’s is a rather peculiar case.


The Salman Rushdie Affair

Demonstration against Salman Rushdie NYC
Demonstration against Salman Rushdie in New York City, via Getty Images.


Rushdie was not a citizen of the US until 2016, and has never been a citizen of the UK. Regardless, he has been protected by them against states whose populations’ faith is directly affected by his work, such as India and Pakistan. Rushdie’s exercise of freedom has led to protests and deaths. Rushdie may have sufficiently demonstrated that he has internalized all the liberal values of the west and earned their protection. Even then, the freedom of expression that protects Rushdie, and the freedom of religion and protest exercised by followers and scholars of Islam speaking against him do not seem to have the same weight.


Translators of Rushdie’s works have been found in their home countries and targeted, and some of them have even died as a result. Several protestors of the Satanic Verses have been killed in Pakistan and Mumbai, bombs planted in the publisher’s buildings, and bounty hunters released after Rushdie himself. The violence has been overwhelming.


Even if we approach this from a strictly liberal standpoint, there has been undeniable harm because of the Verses. Why then, is Rushdie’s freedom being pushed as an imperative of democracy when the bar for censorship is generally far lower? Why is the rest of the world (in relation to the subscribers of Islam) so committed to protecting Rushdie’s expression?


Writers supporting Rushdie
A group of writers and supporters gather in solidarity with Salman Rushdie outside the New York Public Library, 2022 via AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura.


One may argue that religious fundamentalism in any shape or form is dangerous and must be protested, and that the response of concerned states in protecting Salman Rushdie’s case is no different.


While it is without a doubt unjustified to issue a death warrant against someone for writing a book, we cannot ignore the Islamophobic framework into which Rushdie’s fits. Additionally, Muslims have been slandered for their faith at alarming rates since the attack on Rushdie without having been investigated for any fundamentalism.


Islamophobia has been on the uptick ever since 9/11, not only in the west but across the globe. It is clear that the consequences of Rushdie’s speech warrant a protection of his expression, but we have gone above and beyond to protect the idea of criticism of religious institutions. It is difficult not to notice that his protectors aren’t as interested in the nuances of Rushdie’s life and work but more so in the criticism of Islam – that too by an ex-Muslim.


The Backdrop of Islamophobia

Protest against Islamophobia in France
Protests against Islamophobia in France, via Wikimedia Commons.


The present fervor for Islamophobia is such that it plagues every discourse about Islam. Anti-Muslim violence is a common sight in almost every non-Muslim state. Scholars of neoliberalism and postcolonialism have sought to explain how islamophobia originated, and how it was injected into mainstream narratives.


Neoliberalism first came up in economics, essentially to extend the free market to the globe. It has since developed as an ideology in an interdisciplinary manner, only to encompass democracy, religion, and trade. Neoliberalism is often characterized as the state of the supremacy of transnational organizations and other non-state actors.


For Walter Mignolo, neoliberalism is a form of modern colonialism because it is based on a possessive capitalistic logic. Neoliberalism is used to place Christian theology at the center by using the resources gained through colonization and imperialism to create an inherently unequal market. This means that the global free market has been created to keep subjecting previous territories economically and further liberal values without physically invading these territories.


… economic developments underwriting neoliberalism were formed within a eurochristian worldview that persists today. It is masked by secularization narratives…” (Green 2)


According to these scholars, Neoliberalism has also affected our conception of race.


Modern notions of “race”, which remain a problem today, arise from distinctions colonizing eurochristians made between themselves and non-Christians in order to justify extractive conquest.
(Green 3)


It must be noted that the author uses the term “eurochristians” instead of “white people” or “westerner”. This term is used to create a distinction between an indigenous worldview and the European and American worldview, i.e. the “eurochristian” worldview.


Protest against Islam UK
Protest against Islam in the UK via Getty Images


Similar reasons are given by scholars of postcolonialism when discussing the postcolonial history of South Asian and Muslim communities.


Because of the way in which [South Asian] modernity has been intertwined with the history of colonialism, we have never been able to believe that there exists a universal domain of free discourse, unfettered by differences of race or nationality.”
(Chatterjee 275)


In his books, Rushdie uses colonization and the partition of India rather frequently as backdrops to paint complex character sketches. He is also critical of South Asian modernity. However, Rushdie does not directly grapple with islamophobia as a socio-political phenomenon.


The supposed historical incompatibility of European and Islamic values….is central to Islamophobia.”
(Taras 419)


Within neoliberalism, every religion besides Christianity is pushed to be secularized using methods prescribed within a Christian theological framework. Islam has been particularly targeted because of the persisting dispute between Christians and Muslims about religious facts. By establishing Christian and liberal values as the norm, Islam is otherized. This is how islamophobia is injected into day-to-day narratives in tandem with the advancement of neoliberalism.


Bigotry against Islam is unlike anything we’ve seen with other religions. Vakil says this is because Muslims are racialized as a people, and Islam is criticized as an inherently evil religion to demonize its followers by extension.


“First of all…neither Muslims nor Muslim Subjectivity is essentially or reducible to a ‘religious’ or ‘faith’ matter. Moreover, the involvement of ‘Islam’ too does not relegate discussion to a theological register or matters of belief or doctrine. Religion is ‘raced’, Muslims are racialized.”
(Vakil 276)


Rushdie by Grant Pollard
Portrait of Salman Rushdie by Grant Pollard in 2022


If we are to accept that we live in a neoliberal world order currently, the case of Rushdie becomes clearer. Salman Rushdie is both a warrior of freedom of speech and a popularly desired outlet that can stand against Islam in a legitimate manner. It is therefore impossible for the protectors of Rushdie to enable the right of religious freedom of Muslims when they are advancing a set of values that is supposedly antithetical to it. The freedom of expression and opinion in this case furthers the narrative against Islam.


Rushdie is, without a doubt, one of the most prominent literary figures of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, he may have been deliberately instrumentalized to further legitimize islamophobia by framing Islam as a religion of radicalism and attributing the religious choice of its followers to an active engagement of establishing an Islamic world order.


It is in this framework that those who protest the dishonor of their Gods are afforded death while the rest of the world rushes to save the man who spoke his mind. It is for these reasons that the freedom of expression is greater than that of religion, especially when the religion is Islam.


Rushdie must be credited for the courage and persistence he has shown since publishing the Satanic Verses. It is difficult to comment on the extra-artistic merit of Rushdie’s works, primarily because the prospect of an objective reading on Islam is very narrow. An added difficulty is due to his works being an odd mixture of philosophy, mythology and theology – but above all they are fictitious.


From the outset, Rushdie never sought to offer a direct criticism of Islam, for he is but a writer of fiction. That said, Rushdie’s Verses have started a war the nature of which may be beyond our grasp. The standoff, as J. S. Mill would have it, is between the individual (Rushdie), society (of Islamic followers), and the state (a more complicated system of states) attempting to manipulate it, as freedom remains an ever-elusive ambition for all involved.




Chatterjee, Partha. A Possible India: Essays in Political Criticism. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Green, Roger Kurt. “Neoliberalism and eurochristianity.” Religions, vol. 12, 2021. MDPI,

Mill, John Stuart. John Stuart Mill: On Liberty. Batoche Books, 2001.

Taras, Raymond. Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Vakil, Abdool Karim. “Is the Islam in Islamophobia the Same as the Islam in Anti-Islam; or, When Is It Islamophobia Time?” OpenEdition Journals, vol. 03, 2009, OpenEdition Journals.

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By Monisha ChoudharyBA Art HistoryMonisha is a researcher, writer, and artist pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and in Law from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She has been engaged in performance arts, as a performer and a facilitator; and takes a keen interest in philosophy and politics.