Robert Spencer — From Rushdie to Geller: The Steady Erosion of Free Speech


When the Islamic Republic of Iran called for his death for insulting Islam, Salman Rushdie became an international hero of free speech. Later defenders of this fundamental freedom, however, have not fared as well, as I show in my new book The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech (and Its Enemies).

The Islamic jihad against free speech in the West began in modern times on February 14, 1989, when Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a death fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini believed insulted Islam and Muhammad.

Rushdie was hailed as a hero, a living martyr for the freedom of speech. Writer Christopher Hitchens noted, “We risk a great deal by ceding even an inch of ground to the book-burners and murderers.” Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz denounced Khomeini’s fatwa as “intellectual terrorism”—although several years later, under pressure himself from Islamic hard-liners (who ultimately stabbed and seriously injured him), he denounced Rushdie’s book as “insulting” to Islam, but he still condemned the death sentence. Novelist Norman Mailer declared his willingness to die for the freedom of speech, saying of Rushdie: “It is our duty to form ranks behind him, and our duty to state to the world that if he is ever assassinated, it will become our obligation to stand in his place. If he is ever killed for a folly, we must be killed for the same folly.”

It may have been the high-water mark of pop culture support for the freedom of speech.

On the evening of May 3, 2015, I was standing next to Pamela Geller at the venue of our just-concluded American Freedom Defense Initiative/Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest in Garland, Texas, when one of our security team ran in and told us that there had been a shooting outside. It is safe to say that if the jihadis had succeeded in their aims, we would both be dead.

Since that day, Pamela Geller has never been safe; she is now the Islamic State’s number one target in the United States. ISIS quickly issued a communiqué on the Garland attack, including a death fatwa against Geller. The threat was reinforced by subsequent jihadi attempts on Geller’s life.

But the response of Western politicians and pundits was even more disturbing. This time, they were not nearly as disposed to defend the freedom of speech as they had been at the time of the Rushdie fatwa, or even the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

“Of course we have a right to draw what we want, but we also have an obligation not to be irresponsibly provocative,” said Michael Coren, the ex-Catholic author of Why Catholics Are Right.

“It’s needlessly provocative,” said New York Representative Peter King, whose hearings on Muslim radicalization in 2011 had themselves been widely termed “provocative.” King said he thought our event was “insulting someone’s religion.”

Coren and King were expressing the dominant view. Other more prominent voices soon piled on, including even voices on the right such as Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, and Greta Van Susteren (although Sean Hannity, Mark Steyn, National Review’s David French, Rich Lowry, and others robustly defended the freedom of speech, as did Megyn Kelly, with a bit less robustness).

After being on the receiving end of a chorus of condemnation from the media, Geller was harshly questioned by CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. Geller told Camerota, “The fact that we have to spend upwards of $50,000 in security speaks to how dangerous and how in trouble freedom of speech is in this country. And then we have to get on these news shows, and somehow we are, those that are targeted, those that were going to be slaughtered, are the ones who get attacked speaks to how morally inverted this conversation is.”

The dominant line was essentially that if Pamela Geller and I had just left well enough alone, all would have been well.

The erroneous assumption behind the widespread condemnation of Muhammad cartoons is that to make America compatible with Islam, all we have to do is give just a little. What non-Muslims have to give up is the right to draw and publish cartoons of Muhammad. And surely that’s not so great a sacrifice. Why insist on being gratuitously “provocative”?

The problem with this rosy little scenario is that the jihadis are already “provoked.”

It was the murderous jihadis who made drawing Muhammad the flash point of the defense of free speech, not Pamela Geller. It is they who, by their determination to murder non-Muslims who violate their religious law on this point, have made it imperative that free people signal that they will not submit to them. If we give in to the demand that we conform to this Sharia principle, there will be further demands that we adhere to additional Sharia principles.

It is ultimately a question of whether we will submit to Sharia, or stand up for freedom.

At Garland we were standing. In the aftermath, it is clear that a huge segment of the Western political and media elites are ready, if not eager, to kneel, not daring to “provoke” their new masters.

If anything had happened to Pamela Geller, we can be sure that the talking heads would have looked soulfully into the cameras and said, Well, she had it coming. It’s a sign of how much our respect for the freedom of speech, and understanding of its importance, has degenerated since the days of Rushdie.

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech (and Its Enemies). Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.