The attack on Sir Salman Rushdie shows the need to revive freedom of speech

David Atherton

August 18, 2022

Sir Salman Rushdie was stabbed in Chautauqua, New York on August 12 2022. He may lose an eye, the use of his left arm and has liver damage. As I write, thankfully, he is off his ventilator and conversing.

After publishing the Satanic verses in 1988, the book so offended Muslims that the Iranian leader at the time, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a Fatwa, an edict calling for his death in 1989, with a reward of $3 million. The current Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei confirmed the Fatwa in 2019.

Iranians are overwhelmingly from the Shia sect of Islam and the alleged attacker Hadi Matar is thought to be of Lebanese, Shia heritage. Ironically, the reason why Sir Salman Rushdie was in Chautauqua, New York was to give a lecture on how America is a safe haven for exiled writers and artists under threat of persecution. What irony.

Rushdie has paid a price for free speech. But why is free speech so important?

The Umayyad Caliphate of Cordova lasted from 711-1492. It was a Moorish, Muslim empire. Known for its tolerance and free speech in which ideas and science could flourish, they introduced and developed algorithms, algebra, chemistry, the concept of zero, and chess. Without the Moors you might not be reading this article on your phone or PC.

In the early 17th century Galileo became embroiled with the Catholic Church over Copernican heliocentrism. Galileo theorised the earth rotated daily around the sun. The Catholic Church believed the opposite. Put on trial for heresy by Pope Urban VIII, he was sentenced to spend the last nine years of his life under house arrest. If you were a Catholic, it was not until 1758 that you could believe the earth went round the sun. The suppression of ideas breeds ignorance and lost opportunities. Compare and contrast to the Covid and Climate Sceptics, Group Think is an abomination.

Moving forward to the late 17th Century and the English Enlightenment, which is best summed up as a “philosophical, intellectual and cultural movement during the 17th and 18th Centuries, which stressed reason, logic and freedom of thought over dogma and blind faith. They also rejected the notion of absolute authority of the church and state.”

It led to a flourishing of ideas and scientific innovation because there was no censorship from the Church or state. Philosophers like John Locke advanced ideas in empiricism, freedom of the individual, and equality before the law. John Stuart Mill in the 19th century advanced free speech. The Royal Society was founded on the 28 November 1660 to promote science and its benefits, while in 1776 Adam Smith published the free market, laissez-faire book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, furthering capitalism.

Britain gave the world the Industrial Revolution. The reasons cited why it was Britain, includes access to coal and iron ore, and the climate. Other European countries like France and Germany were equally well placed by those metrics. I can only conclude the intellectual, free speech and thought culture starting with the Enlightenment are the key reasons.

In 2022, free speech is under fire – from government, politicians, the liberal establishment, academia and Big Tech. People are cancelled, fired from jobs, de-platformed and bullied for having views that range from the extreme, to minority opinions, to even popularly-held views.

For example, we saw recently the Hampshire Police arrest a man for retweeting actor Laurence Fox’s LGBT flag arranged as a Swastika. A Batley Grammar school teacher, for over a year, has been in hiding for showing an image of Mohammed in a class. Simon Isherwood won his Employment Tribunal case against West Midlands Trains. The rail conductor was fired last year for gross misconduct after asking whether indigenous populations in African countries enjoy “black privilege,” following a training session on “white privilege.”

Speaker’s Corner, the personification of British free speech in Hyde Park, is often overrun by religious extremists who shout down or assault Christian speakers. Ms Hatun Tash, an ex-Muslim of Turkish heritage, has not only been assaulted but she has been stabbed by an extremist. I have seen people pleading with the police to arrest people for having the wrong views. The police officer thankfully said he could not do that under English/British laws on free speech.

The government’s Online Safety Bill is trying to suppress “legal but harmful” content. The Free Speech Union headed up by Toby Young commented it “is a breach of a fundamental principle of English Common Law, which is that unless something is explicitly prohibited by law then it is permitted.”

As Ronald Reagan said:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”


  • David Atherton

    David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose a libertarian lifestyles organisation, journalist and frequent contributor to the BBC, ITV, BBC Radio, TalkTV and GBNews.

Written by David Atherton

David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose a libertarian lifestyles organisation, journalist and frequent contributor to the BBC, ITV, BBC Radio, TalkTV and GBNews.

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