The shock of Salman Rushdie being brutally attacked resounded around the world on Friday. The 75-year-old author was stabbed with a knife in the neck and abdomen, and had to be airlifted to a hospital in Pennsylvania for emergency surgery. Reports yesterday confirmed that he was off the ventilator and able to speak, but was still in a precarious situation and the road to recovery is unlikely to be swift.
While it is premature to say whether the writer will make a full recovery, it is not too soon to unequivocally state that such heinous acts of violence are wrong, criminal and can never be justified. No sensible argument can be made for the attacker's actions. Rushdie has courted controversy for years and there can be no underestimating the anger or offence at his writing for millions around the world, but that in no way can be used as an excuse or explanation for this attack. People are rightly outraged when what they hold sacred is insulted and fierce debates often ensue. On the other hand, the attempt on Rushdie's life is a reminder of the polarisation that exists in today's world. It is evident that the public space for sticking by intellectual differences and holding opposing views has further shrunk. It is no surprise that Rushdie's friend and fellow author JK Rowling has been receiving death threats for tweeting her support for the novelist. In the past, Rowling has herself been courted by controversy, for views that do not accord with the mainstream.
Such a climate of intolerance tells us of the ever-more important need for constructive dialogue as a path to solving problems and settling differences of opinion. It is also a reminder of the importance of condemning violence in all its forms. What the world witnessed in New York State on Friday was a cowardly and criminal act.
Disagreements exist on major issues around the world, but attempting to kill someone is not the way to resolve these issues, no matter how severe or how fundamental the disagreement, and regardless of whether it concerns an issue that is personal, political, religious, literary or cultural. There can be no justification for the attempt on Rushdie's life – or indeed anyone else's for their writing.
It bears remembering that in 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, the author's Japanese translator, was stabbed to death outside his university in Tokyo. Ettore Capriolo, his Italian translator, too suffered wounds. In 1993, William Nygaard, his Norwegian publisher, who later recovered, was shot three times outside his home in Oslo. Stabbing people or attempting to kill them does not convey any show of strength, nor does it serve to illustrate major concerns about Rushdie’s writing. It simply does vast damage, to both the person being targeted and the community that he or she is a part of. It takes a long time for a collective consciousness to heal, not just in the literary world.
The question of security at the venue, Chautauqua Institution – seven hours away from New York City, where the author was due to speak – is bound to come up, as it should. Valuable, life-saving lessons could be derived from the lack of security at this event.
Chautauqua, describes itself as a community of artists, educators, thinkers, "dedicated to exploring the best in humanity". What took place on Friday, ironically, was an ugly, other extreme of the best in humanity. It should never have happened and should never be repeated.