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Examining Salman Rushdie's lifelong fight for free speech


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Three days after being repeatedly stabbed on stage as he was preparing to give a lecture, author Salman Rushdie is recovering, but his agent says he suffered liver damage and is likely to lose an eye. The man accused of attacking him has been charged with attempted murder.

Jeffrey Brown speaks with a fellow author and friend of Rushdie's.

Jeffrey Brown: Salman Rushdie the man and the writer and the wider impact of the attack against him.

Joining me now is Ayad Akhtar. He's a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright and novelist. He's also the current president of the free speech organization PEN America, a position previously held by Salman Rushdie himself.

And, Ayad Akhtar, thank you for joining us.

Salman Rushdie is your friend, I know, but you have also told me that he's a role model. Tell me what he is for you. What do you see in him?

Ayad Akhtar, Novelist and Playwright: Well, I grew up in a Muslim family.

And when Salman wrote "The Satanic Verses" in 1988 and 1989, the fatwa came down, and he was -- a price was put on his head by the Iranian government. It was a big event in my life. And it was a big event in my community's life and in my family's life.

And that book had such a pivotal effect on my understanding of the force of literature, what writing could do, how it could question the most fundamental things you believed. And it could do so in a playful way, in a satirical way. It could do so in a brilliant way.

And it could get you into a lot of trouble. Maybe that wasn't the part of it that was the role model. But it was such a powerful experience to read that book as a young person, a young writer, as a young Muslim. And it and it changed my life. And it really did shape so much of my body of work to come.

Jeffrey Brown: What larger story has he been telling in his writings, including in "The Satanic Verses"?

Ayad Akhtar: Well, as any great writer, truly great writer, he's been telling all kinds of different stories.

But I think the essence of what is at the heart of Salman's body of work is the power of storytelling and the power of stories and narrative to shape countries, to shape histories, to shape a religion, a way of thinking for centuries.

And one of the things that is so powerful about what Salman has done over the years is that he playfully, brilliantly questions and provokes and prods and tests to see whether or not those stories hold up.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, like you, I have been with him in formal and informal settings, and typically seen little or no security.

He made a decision about how he was going to live his life.

Ayad Akhtar: I haven't spoken to him extensively about it. But it was clear that, at a certain point, Salman believed that he couldn't -- he'd spent almost a decade in hiding.

And it had taken a toll. He wrote about it very eloquently in his memoir, "Joseph Anton." And there was a moment in which he decided it was time to -- it was time to live. It was time to go back to life.

Jeffrey Brown: I referred to the work that he's done at PEN America, that you're doing now, and the other ways that he's worked in the area of freedom of expression. This became important to him, clearly, especially after his own experience?

Ayad Akhtar: Yes.

I mean, I think understanding -- PEN stood up for him very powerfully at the time. And who would understand better the consequences of freedom of expression than Salman Rushdie, because of what happened to him?

I think it's such an important reminder to all of us that the freedom to think and the freedom to express that thought has to be a paramount value in our society, even beyond the so-called harms of speech, because, of course, there are many people around the world who believe that Salman has harmed them in writing "The Satanic Verses."

But that can't stand alongside the claim that he has the freedom to say and to write what he must.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, what about the cause of expression now? I mean, why does this attack matter in a larger sense?

What do you see?

Ayad Akhtar: I think, increasingly, we're seeing a diminished support for the freedom of expression and increased concern about the harms that speech can bring.

And so, on some level, there's a larger conversation about controlling speech or controlling what it is that's acceptable to say. And there are lots of avenues by which that is that's happening.

This is a really clear reminder that that debate is secondary, ultimately, to the freedom to express. And even Salman I think once said, if I don't have the freedom to offend you, then it isn't really freedom of expression.

Jeffrey Brown: You told me you have got a quote from Salman Rushdie that you thought was appropriate?

Ayad Akhtar: Yes. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You want to read that?

Ayad Akhtar: Yes.

So this is Salman "A poem will not stop a bullet. A novel cannot defuse a bomb. But we are not helpless. The battle is not only on the battlefield. Even after Orpheus was torn to pieces, his severed head floating down the river singing, reminding us that song is stronger than death. We can emulate Orpheus and sing on and not stop sing until the tide turns and a better day begins."

Jeffrey Brown: All right. We all want to send our best to Salman Rushdie.

Ayad Akhtar, thank you very much.

Ayad Akhtar: Thank you, Jeff.

Judy Woodruff: And we thank you, Ayad Akhtar and Jeffrey Brown, for that conversation.

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