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Salman Rushdie, free speech, Islamic extremism and Chautauqua

Earlier this month (Aug. 12) a 24-year-old Muslim man attempted to murder a world-famous author while he was preparing to speak at the Chautauqua Assembly in rural upstate New York.

Ironically, Rushdie’s subject was to be on how the United States serves as a haven and an asylum of safety for writers and intellectuals escaping from totalitarian regimes around the world.

Salman Rushdie
British author Salman Rushdie speaks as he presents his book "Quichotte" at the Volkstheater in Vienna, Austria, on November 16, 2019. |

Rushdie became the object of persecution when he wrote the novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), in which militant Islamists believed he “blasphemed” the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The then Ayatollah of Iran issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s murder, accompanied by a monetary reward of between 2 and 3 million dollars (depending on exchange rates). The Ayatollah’s decree extended to anyone involved in publishing or translating the novel (a Japanese scholar who translated the novel into Japanese was murdered in 1991).

Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for more than a dozen years. In 2000, he moved to America where he has taught at several universities, including Emory in Atlanta and New York University.

The fatwa calling for his murder was never rescinded. This means any Islamist might be prone to interpret this as calling them to act to fulfill the fatwa as a matter of religious duty.

While all Americans are doubtless grateful that Mr. Rushdie will apparently recover from the multiple stab wounds he suffered in the attack, he has liver damage, partial damage to his arm and he may lose an eye.

This heinous act perpetrated on American soil should incense every American citizen. Our Declaration of Independence acknowledges that we have a God-given right (“endowed by our Creator”) to soul-freedom, to worship our God as we please. Our Constitution’s First Amendment acknowledges that right and pledges our federal government will guarantee and protect it. That includes not being murdered by some Islamist fanatic whose worldview is stuck in the 12th century where it was often deemed permissible to kill people of different religious beliefs than yourself.

It is important that we understand, however, that not all Muslims are radical Islamists. After all, at least 90% of the people killed by the radical Islamists around the world so far have been fellow Muslims who refuse to kowtow to these radicals’ 18th century death-cult interpretation of Islam.

In fact, many of the Muslims who have come to the United States have done so to escape the Islamist fanatics in their own country.

However, it should be made clear to Muslims in America and extremists of any other ideology, that America is not going to tolerate those who advocate killing or destroying the God-given rights that we believe belong to every human being. These are not American beliefs, they are universal values.

Are you free to be a Muslim here in the United States? Yes, you are, as long as you play by the rules. That means, among other things, that you do not seek to silence or coerce others with whom you disagree. It means you can be arrested and charged with a hate crime if you advocate violence against those with whom you disagree and you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if you act on your calls for violence.

And these rules not only apply to Islamist radicals, they apply to everyone, multigeneration American or not. When you allow anyone, including the government, Twitter, or woke faculty committees, to constrain speech, you are on a rapid ride to a very dark place.

Religious freedom is often called, with justification, the first freedom. It is called that not just because it is listed first, but because if you do not have religious freedom, the other freedoms are meaningless.

However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain religious freedom, or any other freedom, if speech — the right to speak and the right to be heard — is denied. Without freedom of speech, all the other freedoms atrophy and die in the dark.

Our government and our society must make it unmistakably clear we will not tolerate the kind of violence that was perpetrated against Salman Rushdie. And we will not tolerate those who advocate or reward it, here or overseas.

How then can the Biden administration continue to negotiate a fatally flawed nuclear agreement with Iran, an outlaw country, the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world, and a regime which represses its own people while sponsoring murder around the world?

An additional factor that added to the shock of the attempted murder of Rushdie is the location where the assault took place. Chautauqua is located in a beautiful part of upstate New York.

Chautauqua has lent its name to the Chautauqua movement, a very popular summer-camp style adult education movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These summer gatherings were started by Methodists but quickly identified as multidenominational Protestant. Similar Chautauqua gatherings were held throughout semi-rural America until their popularity began to wind down in the 1920s. The Chautauquas were an appealing mixture of entertainment and lectures on subjects like child labor laws, women’s suffrage, and temperance.

In 1936, both President Franklin Roosevelt and Alf Landon, his Republican opponent, plus two minor party candidates, spoke at the original Chautauqua campus (the same place Rushdie was attacked).

In the interest of full disclosure, I have personal experience of this Chautauqua institution. I was invited to speak at this Chautauqua in 2005 on the subjects of religious liberty and the sanctity of all human life.

It is a very beautiful location. Scores of families have summer homes there which have been passed down from generation to generation. My wife and I met numerous people our age (born 1946) who had been coming there every summer from their earliest memories, as had their parents before them.

It was just a really nice place (the way we would like to think America was around 1900, but we know parts of it were not because of the big city slums and tenements). I knew I was in the minority on the issues I was addressing as the majority of the crowd were comfortable middle-class suburban liberals.

In any event, I gave my presentations (on the same stage on which Rushdie was attacked). During the question-and-answer phase, I was asked about the Terri Schiavo case, which was, in 2005, very hot news. Terri was an unfortunate woman who was in a "persistent vegetative state” and was being given nutrition and hydration through a feeding tube. Her husband, Michael, over the objection of Terri’s parents, the Schindlers, had petitioned to have her feeding tube disconnected.

Unfortunately, the courts sided with Michael, her husband, and she was removed from the feeding tube. Terri then died of dehydration after almost two weeks of terrible suffering.

My reply was that it made me very angry, as a father, that a U.S. court would tell parents they couldn’t give their own child food and water. I acknowledged that normally spousal rights would trump parental ones. I then said, “If Michael Schiavo had been the poster boy of a loving, caring husband, I might give him the benefit of the doubt. But Michael was living with another woman with whom he had fathered a child. He introduced her as his wife and had expressed his intention to marry this woman once Terri died.”

At that point, many in the crowd booed me (evidently not a common occurrence with the buttoned-down Chautauquans).

I waited until the booing died down. I leaned into the microphone and looked directly at the audience. I said, “May all of you who booed have a son-in-law exactly like Michael Schiavo.”

I am not sure the Chautauqua audience was used to such verbal combat, but it did get the point across, and they did not boo me again. But then, of course, I have never been invited back. I guess they didn’t like speakers who ruffled their certitude.

I did quote Pope John Paul II, who said, “The denial of hydration and nutrition is euthanasia by other means.” I don’t think they liked the pope’s quote either.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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