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Rushdie Is Recovering. Free Speech Isn’t.

Worldwide, writers who speak out against the powerful are increasingly silenced.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A police vehicle in front of the surgery center treating Salman Rushdie.
A police vehicle in front of the surgery center treating Salman Rushdie.
A police vehicle sits in front of the UPMC Hamot Surgery Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Salman Rushdie is being treated on Aug. 13. JORGE UZON/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the global state of free speech, Afghanistan one year after the Taliban takeover, and another U.S. delegation visits Taiwan.

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Rushdie and the Global Free Speech Fight

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at the global state of free speech, Afghanistan one year after the Taliban takeover, and another U.S. delegation visits Taiwan.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Rushdie and the Global Free Speech Fight

Salman Rushdie is “on the road to recovery,” his agent Andrew Wylie said on Sunday, days after the author was the victim of a brutal assault.

Rushdie rose to global fame in 1989 after his novel The Satanic Verses earned him a death sentence via a fatwa from Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who reportedly never read the book). Rushdie was due to speak at an auditorium in western New York when he was stabbed repeatedly. Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old man from New Jersey, has been charged in the stabbing.

Attacks on those connected to Rushdie’s 1988 work have spanned the globe. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the book, was stabbed to death in 1991 in Tokyo in a case that remains unsolved. In 1993, Aziz Nesin, who translated an excerpt into Turkish, fled a hotel set alight by an enraged mob; 37 others died in the fire. Later that year, in Oslo, Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher was shot on his doorstep only to make a full recovery and then reprint the book.

The attempt on Rushdie’s life is a reminder not only of the enduring power of Khomeini’s fatwa but also the endangered status of free speech.

Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of free speech advocacy organization PEN America (and a frequent FP contributor), has written, the attack comes “at a time of intensifying and protean attacks on free expression worldwide.”

While high-profile attacks remain rare, simply locking up vocal dissidents is not: PEN’s Freedom To Write Index, which tracks the imprisonment of writers, academics, and public intellectuals, has seen a significant increase in recent years, with Myanmar, China, and Saudi Arabia topping the list of the worst offenders in 2021.

The stakes are similar in the world of journalism, where the number of members of the press in prison reached a record high last year, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. China and Myanmar again top the list, with Egypt, Vietnam, and Belarus rounding out the top five.

Although 55 journalists were killed in 2021, the lowest number in a decade, that is unlikely to signal a trend—45 journalists have already been killed this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with a third of those deaths happening in Ukraine.

Far from ushering in a new era of free speech, large tech platforms are increasingly siding with repressive regimes as they seek market access in authoritarian states.

The world reacts. In India, Rushdie’s birthplace and the country where the book was first banned, the government has yet to comment on the attack. Pakistan, where riots are thought to have influenced Khomeini’s fatwa, has also stayed silent.

Iran’s government has opted for victim-blaming instead: A spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry said that “Salman Rushdie and his supporters are to blame for what happened to him … Freedom of speech does not justify Salman Rushdie’s insults upon religion and offense of its sanctities.” For their part, Iran’s hard-line media outlets have celebrated the attack, eliciting quick condemnation from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Western leaders have been universally supportive of Rushdie. U.S. President Joe Biden expressed his solidarity with Rushdie and offered prayers for his recovery; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered similar words. French President Emmanuel Macron joined the chorus, commending Rushdie’s battle against the forces of obscurantism: “His fight is our fight; it is universal. Now more than ever, we stand by his side.”


The World This Week

Monday, Aug. 15: One year since the Taliban entered Kabul and assumed control of Afghanistan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives Independence Day speech.

Tuesday, Aug. 16: The deadline for Kenya’s electoral commission to declare the results of last week’s presidential and legislative elections.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gives his state of the nation address.

Thursday, Aug. 18: The European Union releases its inflation statistics.


What We’re Following Today 

One year on. Today marks a year since the Taliban entered Kabul and brought an end to the government of Ashraf Ghani. Stefanie Glinski, writing in Foreign Policy on Saturday, looked at how Afghans have coped with a year under Taliban rule and observes a Kabul that “seems to have lost its spirit.” Also in FP, Lima Halima Ahmad chronicles how Western powers and donors created the category of “Afghan women,” consigning the country’s women to perpetual victimhood in the eyes of the world—while all parties instrumentalized them for political ends.

More Taiwan visitors. Five U.S. lawmakers, led by Sen. Ed Markey, arrived in Taiwan on Sunday for a two-day visit, following in the footsteps of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this month. Markey and his House colleagues Alan Lowenthal, John Garamendi, Don Beyer, and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen—a delegate from American Samoa—are expected to meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday. China’s foreign ministry has yet to react to the trip, but its military has continued incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone since Pelosi’s trip.


Keep an Eye On

Xi in Riyadh? Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to make his first trip outside Chinese territory since the coronavirus pandemic began when he visits Saudi Arabia this week, the Guardian reports, with oil supplies likely to top the agenda.

The news comes amid a conflicting report on Xi’s schedule, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that Xi will make the G-20 leaders summit on the Indonesian island of Bali his first post-pandemic international travel. The summit takes place in November following the Chinese Communist Party Congress, where Xi is expected to be named to a third term as president.

Egypt’s tragedy. At least 41 people were killed in the greater Cairo area after a fire broke out in a Coptic Orthodox Church on Sunday morning. At least 45 others were injured in the blaze. Local authorities traced the cause of the fire to an electrical malfunction in an air conditioning unit.

Explosion in Yerevan. At least one person was killed and 20 more injured in the Armenian capital of Yerevan following a large explosion at a shopping market on Sunday. The conflagration is suspected to have involved a fireworks storehouse, but the exact cause of the explosion is not yet known.


Odds and Ends

Feline freedom. Most cats in the German town of Walldorf will breathe fresh air today for the first time in three months following an unprecedented cat lockdown.

The animals were kept indoors for most of the summer to protect the crested lark, an endangered bird species, which counts this time as its breeding season.

Owners were allowed take their cats outdoors only on a leash during the lockdown period but were kept in line by a threatened 50,000-euro ($51,000) fine if their cats attacked the birds. Although there is no evidence yet that it improved the crested lark’s numbers, Walldorf is expected to bring the measure back next year.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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