Sir Salman Rushdie called freedom of speech not just a human right but a “universal of the human race” which must be defended.
Rushdie was speaking today (13th October) at the official opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair. His talk was given amidst a heavy security presence after Iranian publishers pulled out of participating in this year’s FBF in protest of the author being invited to speak.
Rushdie is technically still under the fatwa, the religious edict first levied against him by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 in response to Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie told the FBF audience that having to talk about free speech disappointed him. He said: “We should not need to talk about freedom of speech in the West. It should be like the air we breathe. It seems to me that the battle was won a couple of hundred years ago…the fact that we have to go about fighting this battle is the result of more regrettable recent phenomenon.”
Rushdie said the challenge of free expression is the “arrival of danger” in the form of violence and threats against writers, publishers, booksellers and translators, which has engendered fear. The difficulty in the fight is “that publishers and writers are not warriors, we have not tanks. But it falls to us to hold the line”.
Fiction, Rushdie argued, can contest the “grand narratives” of nations and religions that fight against free speech: “Literature may be weak because it has no real power in the world, but in a way it is the grandest narrative of all, in that it puts ourselves into question with fiction. We challenge ourselves and refuse to take the world as a given. We challenge all correctives of opinion, all appeasements, all fears. Literature is the unafraid form.”
Introducing Rushdie, FBF director Juergen Boos expressed disappointment that the Iranian publishers decided to boycott the fair, but insisted dialogue must continue. “Freedom of speech is not a negotiable value,” he said. “It is at the core of what we do. Publishers and booksellers are speaking up for freedom and it is the bedrock of a democratic society.”