Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old American of Lebanese origin, wasn't born yet when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's murder for "insulting Islam" 33 years ago. While the motive behind Matar's heinous attack on the celebrated author remains unclear, his assault reflects two dangerous trends across the political spectrum in America — the growing hostility to free speech and the legitimation of violence as an acceptable form of political protest.
It should come as no surprise that Iran, which applauded the attack on Rushdie but denied responsibility for it, condemns what it considers blasphemous speech and endorses violence against those accused of perpetrating it. Last week, wrote Matthew Levitt, a former counter-terrorism official now an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Justice Department charged an Iranian national based in Tehran with plotting to kill former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton.
According to the indictment, a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps reportedly offered to pay $300,000 to have Bolton murdered and another $1 million for the death of Mike Pompeo, former President Donald Trump's secretary of State and CIA director. As Levitt observed, Iran has an impressive record of assassinating, abducting, and surveilling its political opponents at home and abroad. His database of Iran's violent foreign operations includes 105 such cases since the Iranian revolution 43 years ago, including 18 plots against targets in the U.S. over the past decade.
But, while antipathy to free speech and the endorsement of violence against political opponents may be a hallmark of secular autocracies and authoritarian theocracies like Iran, their growing resurgence among both conservatives and liberals in the U.S. is particularly ominous. Consider the mounting calls for censorship of books and ideas that individuals and groups deem offensive? According to the American Library Association, efforts to remove books from school curriculums or public libraries because a person or group objects to their content have more than quadrupled from 2020 to 2021. While challenges of LGBTQ books by conservative groups account for a third of all recent attempted bans, left-wing activists and organizations have also lobbied to remove books, courses, and speakers from school curriculums and college campuses.
According to the most recent annual survey conducted by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Expression, two-thirds of students said it was "acceptable" to shout down speakers on campus, up four percentage points from 2020. Almost one fourth said it was acceptable to use violence to stop someone from speaking, up 5 percentage points in 2020.
Throughout the country, victims of "cancel culture" keep mounting. In 2020, Ellen DeGeneres, the liberal daytime TV host, was "canceled" after being accused of fostering a "toxic" workplace culture. Months later, J.K. Rowling, the renowned author of the beloved Harry Potter books, was shunned for online posts and activities that LGBTQ+ activists and groups called transphobic.
Academia's growing assaults on free speech have been particularly egregious. At the University of Pennsylvania, law school dean Theodore W. Ruger recently asked Penn's faculty senate to impose "major sanctions" – termination, suspension, or other career-ending measures – on Amy Wax, a colleague and tenured law professor, for asserting in articles in 2017 that "traditional values" produce happier and more successful societies, and that in her experience, Black students rarely finish in the top half of graduating law school classes.
As a result, Ruger barred her from teaching mandatory first-year courses despite the fact that "Wax has never even been accused — still less, found culpable — of any discriminatory action taken against a student or colleague," wrote Paul du Quenoy, president of Palm Beach Freedom Institute with whom I occasionally write for the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.
Writers, who presumably should most highly value free expression, have often failed to defend it. "We live in a culture in which many of the most celebrated people...believe that words are violence. In this, they have much in common with Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini," free speech advocate Bari Weiss recently complained on Substack.
When Rushdie was initially threatened by Iran's ruler in 1989, dozens of prominent writers – Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, and E.L. Doctorow, among them – condemned the fatwa.
But flash forward to 2015. When PEN, the country's premiere literary group, decided to honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with an award months after a dozen of its staff members were murdered by Islamist terrorists for publishing a cartoon, over 200 celebrated writers – Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Michael Cunningham, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole among them – suggested that maybe the magazine, too, was at fault, and that, "if something offends a minority group," Weiss wrote, "perhaps it shouldn't be printed."
If words have become the equivalent of violence, violence, itself, has increasingly become legitimized as a form of protest. Many of those convicted of storming the Capitol on January 6 and their supporters have asserted, contrary to evidence, that violence was justified by a "stolen" election. Six months after the attack, a report published by researchers at the University of California, Davis found that 20.5% of the 8,620 people surveyed said that political violence was sometimes justifiable to achieve a specific objective. Over 42% agreed that "having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy."
Some left-wing activists and liberal commentators have also abandoned their commitment to peaceful protest. While the vast majority of protests in the wake of the heinous killing of George Floyd were peaceful, what people tend to remember is the rioting, looting, and $1-$2 billion in damages to government buildings and businesses, many minority-owned, in Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York – and the muted criticism of such violence. While possibly gratifying in the short term, such violence has often proved counterproductive in promoting positive change.
Consider South Africa or India. Where is Martin Luther King when we need him?