LONDON – Writer Salman Rushdie has made a public speech, nine months after being stabbed and seriously injured onstage, warning that freedom of expression in the West is under its most severe threat in his lifetime.
Rushdie delivered a video message to the British Book Awards, where he was awarded the Freedom to Publish award on Monday evening. Organizers said the honor “acknowledges the determination of authors, publishers and booksellers who take a stand against intolerance, despite the ongoing threats they face.”
Rushdie, 75, looked thinner than before the attack and wore glasses with one tinted lens. He was blinded in his right eye and suffered nerve damage to his hand when he was attacked at a literary festival in New York state in August.
His alleged assailant, Hadi Matar, has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and attempted murder.
He told the awards ceremony that “we live in a moment, I think, at which freedom of expression, freedom to publish has not in my lifetime been under such threat in the countries of the West.”
“Now I am sitting here in the U.S., I have to look at the extraordinary attack on libraries, and books for children in schools,” he said. “The attack on the idea of libraries themselves. It is quite remarkably alarming, and we need to be very aware of it, and to fight against it very hard.”
Rushdie spent years in hiding with police protection after Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, in 1989 calling for his death over the alleged blasphemy of the novel “The Satanic Verses.”
He gradually returned to public life after the Iranian government distanced itself from the order in 1998, saying it would not back any effort to kill Rushdie, though the fatwa was never officially repealed.
Rushdie won the Booker Prize in 1981 for his novel “Midnight's Children,” and in 2008 was voted the best-ever winner of the prestigious fiction prize. His most recent novel, “Victory City” — completed a month before the attack — was published in February.
In his speech, Rushdie also criticized publishers who change decades-old books for modern sensibilities, such as large-scale cuts and rewrites to the works of children’s author Roald Dahl and James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
He said publishers should allow books “to come to us from their time and be of their time.”
“And if that’s difficult to take, don’t read it, read another book,” he said.