Was Salman Rushdie 'silenced' by the fatwa? Credit: Sebastian d'Souza /AFP/ Getty

December 8, 2020   8 mins

There’s a cartoon that crops up every so often, whenever a particular kind of row breaks out on the internet. In the first panel, an editor tells a columnist that his column is being dropped because it’s too extreme; in panels two, three and four, the columnist gives talks to huge audiences, appears on the front page of a newspaper, and plugs his new book, yelling “I have been silenced!”

It’s funny. Obviously the columnist has not been silenced; there he is, making lots of noise, in places where lots of people can hear him. 

Like lots of good political cartoons, it makes a case quickly and pithily, and it is very hard to argue against. But I want to try. 

The argument, with or without the cartoon, crops up an awful lot. “I’VE BEEN SILENCED!!!! suzanne moore cries, from the front page of a national newspaper,” tweeted one journalist, in response to an interview with Moore in the Telegraph and her piece in these pages last month. “The author of a book on the supposed ‘transgender craze seducing our daughters’ claims she is being silenced. It is a very loud silence,” ran the subtitle of a recent piece in The New Republic, about the author Abigail Shrier.

Or: “I would pause, for at least a few seconds,” wrote a columnist in the Guardian last year, of the historian Niall Ferguson, “if I found myself arguing that my freedom of speech was in a state of extreme jeopardy in this, my column in a national newspaper.” Current Affairs, 2018: “Pretty loud for being so silenced.” Also from 2018, the New Statesman: “If the “Intellectual Dark Web” are being silenced, why must we keep hearing about them?” 

As it happens, Moore never claimed (as far as I know) that she was being silenced: she said that it was becoming harder to express certain views. But the general question remains: is it possible for these people and their opinions to be simultaneously “silenced” and also widely expressed?

Obviously, if we take the word “silenced” to mean “literally made silent; unable to put their words out into the world at all”, then none of the above has been silenced . Their words are out there.

But if the only people who have permission to complain about being silenced are the ones who are literally silenced, then — by definition — we will never hear about it. I would say it is perfectly possible for people to try to silence you. They might even be successful at partially silencing you, or reducing your output, or making you nervous to say things – even if they aren’t able to shut you up entirely. And I would say that even if they aren’t successful in the specific case of the famous person involved, it can still have free speech implications for other people.

A word of warning: I’m going to draw an analogy now. I can imagine that people will read it and say “oh so you’re saying that people being rude on Twitter is the same as a death threat,” so I wanted to get out ahead of that: it is not what I am doing. Philosophical analogies are meant to draw out our intuitions and find out where they break down, not say “X is exactly like Y”. With that said, here’s the analogy.

In 1989, the novelist Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was the subject of a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini. He spent several years in hiding, under police protection; a $3 million bounty was offered for his death (with an extra $600,000 being added in 2016). The Japanese translator of the book was murdered; the Italian translator was stabbed, and the Norwegian publisher was shot, although both, mercifully, survived.

Was Rushdie being silenced? Well, he wrote several times for national newspapers during his period in hiding. He appeared on television and Radio 4 to discuss it. He even turned up on stage during U2’s 1993 tour promoting their Zooropa album. “I’VE BEEN SILENCED!!!! salman rushdie cries, from the stage of wembley stadium.”

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To reiterate: I’m not saying that Suzanne Moore or the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ are equivalent in any sense to Rushdie, or that they have been subject to the same level of threat as a fatwa and $3 million bounty. The point is that, if you accept that Rushdie was in some sense being “silenced”, then you acknowledge that it is possible for people to be simultaneously highly visible, with a platform to say the things they want to say, while also having their free speech curtailed: that it is possible to shout, truthfully, that you are being silenced from the front page of a national newspaper.

Of course, you may not accept that Rushdie was being silenced. This would, in fact, be a fairly reasonable position. The stated aim of the fatwa was not to silence Rushdie, to get him to retract the book, or anything – it was to kill him. According to Khomeini’s office, media reports that the fatwa would be lifted if Rushdie apologised were false: “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and become the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell.”

And this brings us to a second point. I’d say that there probably was a chilling effect on Rushdie himself, but you may disagree. But again: the point was not to silence Rushdie. It was to silence other people. In 2006, after the controversy about a Danish newspaper publishing cartoons showing images of Mohammed, the leader of Hezbollah expressed regret that the fatwa had been unsuccessful: “If there had been a Muslim to carry out Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against the renegade Salman Rushdie, this rabble who insult our Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, Norway and France would not have dared to do so.”

Are people less willing to be critical of Islam or to depict Mohammed, in the wake of Rushdie’s fatwa, or the Charlie Hebdo killings, or the recent beheading of the French schoolteacher? Probably. Even if the specific target of an attempt to silence is not, in fact, silenced, other people might be. 

Again: I’m not saying that murder or the threat of murder is the same as being ostracised at work, or having people be rude to you on Twitter, or having people protest outside your talks, or whatever. What I am saying is that it is possible for people to, simultaneously, have a loud and prominent platform, and at the same time for people to be “silencing” them, or at least trying to. And, further, even if the attempted silencing doesn’t work on the individual in question, it could easily have a chilling effect on other people — especially those with less job security. We have been talking about famous people in the public eye, but we won’t hear about the less famous people who hold the same views and are now afraid to express them. The “I’M SILENCED!!! I cry from the front pages of a national newspaper” argument falls down in at least some cases.

So it is possible for a person — or at least their views — to be both loud and silenced. The question is, then (and I’ve avoided it so far): are they? Is Suzanne Moore, or Jordan Peterson, or anyone? Does what they have been subjected to amount to “silencing”, or are other people simply using their own freedom of speech to complain about or protest against them?

It’s worth noting that, although I’ve said that being rude on Twitter is not the same as a fatwa, there have been material threats to some of the people I mentioned above. Moore received messages from people saying “they were going to rape me, decapitate me, ejaculate inside my head, burn me”. Someone turned up at a Jordan Peterson meeting carrying a garrotte. UC Berkeley had to spend $600,000 on security when the IDW member Ben Shapiro made a speech there. I doubt any of them were in as much danger as Rushdie, but I can’t imagine it was pleasant.

But let’s leave that aside. If a prominent columnist has his or her column taken away (as the cartoon was about), or if there are protests outside talks, or if there is simply a storm of people being nasty about you on Twitter, can that be “silencing”, even if that person still has a prominent voice?

To some degree, this is a matter of definitions. Obviously, a lot of people on Twitter calling you nasty names is not as bad as having a fatwa on your head, but it will probably make you less willing to write about the same subject again (I have some limited experience of this). Whether that reaches the threshold of “silencing” is just a question of how you define the word.

I think in some cases it is less ambiguous, though. When an academic resigns over an email defending the right to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes, or two others lose their jobs after arguing against a “day of absence” on campus for white people — again, it’s not as bad as credible death threats, but losing your job is quite a big deal. I could entirely understand that other academics would worry about making the same arguments, even if those ones in particular are still writing in the Wall Street Journal or whatever about their experience. I’d say there’s some silencing going on there, at least under my definition of the verb “to silence”. I certainly know some academics who tell me that there are things they believe but wouldn’t ever dare say in public. The same goes for some journalists.

Which brings us to the final point. I think that it is possible to be both loud and silenced; and I think that in some cases, even those which fall short of the Rushdie standard of death threats and assassination attempts, it is reasonable to say that this has, in fact, happened.

The question, then, is whether that is a bad thing. The word “silenced” is one of those that most people think is automatically bad, but I don’t think that’s true: silencing Lord Haw Haw during the Second World War would have been absolutely fine by me. Silencing Osama bin Laden, in the sense of not publishing columns by him, or David Duke — also fine.

It might be fine by some means and not others, as well. Boycotts might silence people, but you might be OK with that, when you wouldn’t be with death threats to achieve the same aim.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that silencing Jordan Peterson or Suzanne Moore is equivalent to silencing David Duke. Lots of people strongly disagree with both of those authors, but they’re both within the body of mainstream opinion. Moore, for instance, seems to believe that trans people should be treated with respect and addressed with the pronouns of their choice, but that they remain their biological sex, and that there should be spaces reserved for biological females. That seems to be pretty much what the British public believe — or, at least, a majority of the public is in favour of using a trans person’s chosen pronouns, but is less likely to consider a trans person to be “really” of that gender (the poll didn’t ask about biological sex). Similarly, a majority is in favour of trans women using women’s toilets, but only in cases when that trans woman has physically transitioned.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that the British public is wrong. If YouGov had been around in the 1810s, the results of a poll on whether or not slavery was OK would not have determined whether or not slavery actually was OK. And you might argue that people back then should have tried to “silence” Lord Nelson and others who argued in favour of slavery. But it would have been strange to do so on the basis that they were extremist outliers. And if you were to try to get people fired for those opinions, you’d end up with unemployment rates around 50%. It just doesn’t seem viable.

And on the second point, again, you might think it’s not OK to send death threats, but it’s fine to send emails to someone’s boss if they express views you disagree with. Where you draw the line is up to you. I’m fairly absolutist on this — if you disagree with someone’s view, in almost all circumstances, you should express disagreement, not attempt to make it harder for them to express those views. “Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.” But I am aware that I am on the more extreme end of that spectrum, and many people disagree; where you draw the line is up to you (and up to society at large, as we all debate these issues).

But being silenced is not a binary condition. Someone can be prominent, and famous, and regularly appear on the television — and they, or their views, or people like them, could still be being silenced. And you shouldn’t get your political philosophy from a cartoon.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.