April 15, 2024 - 10:00am

His Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered in Tokyo. His Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was stabbed in Milan. His Norwegian translator William Nygaard was shot in Oslo. Salman Rushdie had been dreading this day for over 30 years: between 1989 and 1998, he moved houses 30 times to avoid it.

Then, in August 2022, Rushdie was attacked and nearly killed by a young man in the upstate New York town of Chautauqua. The author has a new book out this week, Knife, which recounts what happened and his recovery afterwards. In an episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes aired last night, he was interviewed about the experience by Anderson Cooper.

The attack was a vicious reminder of the death sentence imposed on Rushdie by the savage theocracy of Iran in February 1989 for the alleged crime of writing his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. He survived, to the relief not just of his friends and family, but also of anyone who thinks novelists should be free to write about controversial subjects without being subject to murderous intimidation.

Rushdie’s conversation with Cooper is his first televised interview since that dreadful summer day. Despite the sombre nature of their conversation, he is still humorous. “One of the surgeons who had saved my life”, he tells Cooper, “said to me first you were really unlucky, then you were lucky.” The lucky part was that “the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife.”

He nevertheless describes the fact he didn’t die as miraculous: “something happened which wasn’t supposed to happen. And I have no explanation for it.”

On the status of free speech in America today, Rushdie — who has lived in New York City since 2000 — tells Cooper that “the attack is coming from so many different directions. It used to be the case that very conservative voices were the places from which you would hear that such and such a book should be banned or is obscene.” But the “thing that’s different now is that it’s also coming from progressive voices. There are progressives saying that certain kinds of speech should not be permitted because it offends against this or that vulnerable group.”

Violence and intimidation still constitute the most severe threats to free speech globally, and should thus be the most vociferously condemned form of censorship. But this does not mean that other threats to freedom of expression should be treated with indifference. What Rushdie says about America also applies to the UK. The new Scottish hate crime law, for example, is an obscenity law by another name; it claims to be in favour of tolerance, but is the very definition of intolerance.

Rushdie was stabbed 15 times. He spent 18 days in hospital and a further three weeks in rehab. His right eye is covered by darkened glasses. But his fierce intelligence and sober wisdom are intact. This is the image we now have of him — bruised but still bold —  and it will be the image we have of him for the rest of his life.

He survived and continues to do what the threats and the attack tried to stop him from doing: writing. And even if we have never read a single word Rushdie has written, we should all be grateful that he continues to write, for the view that someone should be killed for writing a book is more obscene than anything that can be expressed in a novel.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.