The recent attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us that the debates on limits of freedom of expression are not new. Or rather, the form these debates take has been a feature of our culture for several decades (defending freedom of expression has always and will remain a keystone of liberal democracies). The fatwa is in many ways the catalyst for the war on woke in the framing of class politics being displaced by identify politics (as argued by Kenan Malik in From Fatwa to Jihad).
It is shocking to watch back footage of artists and politicians condemn Rushdie for, as Christopher Hitchens put it, the crime of writing a novel when the fatwa was first decreed in the late eighties. The sense that an artist of colour was not entitled to the same freedoms as white artists reveals how the value of freedom of speech is racially codified. But the War on Terror suddenly made Rushdie a martyr for both liberals and the neoconservatives. In satirising Islam, he became a defender of freedom, formulated as the enemy of Muslims.
I find much of the ‘cancel culture’ discourse on the right hysterical and disingenuous for its conspiratorial mindset about woke culture. But I am also mindful that religious and political freedoms must not be taken for granted, and that the arts are the means by which new freedoms can be imagined and practiced.
The site of Muslims burning The Satantic Verses cannot be defended in the name of tolerance or multiculturalism. Such spectacles represent a direct assault on the free exchange of ideas and a hatred of individuality. Yet neither is the fatwa comparable to universities withdrawing invitations to speakers. Defending freedom of expression requires us to articulate what other freedoms the arts exist to preserve and defend. Recognising that freedom is culturally and historically specific suggests that the forms of expression must also change.