Freedom of Expression

‘We are Salman’ Supporters of Free Speech Rally in New York City

Supporters of author Salman Rushdie attend a reading and rally to show solidarity for free expression at the New York Public Library in New York City, Aug. 19, 2022. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

By Sally Stapleton

Exactly a week after writer and journalist Salman Rushdie survived a brutal assassination attempt in Chautauqua, New York, writers, journalists and poets joined PEN America outside the New York Public Library in solidarity, defiance and public celebration of Rushdie’s art, writing and perseverance in defending the freedom of expression.

The seriousness of the stabbing attack which cut his neck, liver and severed nerves in his arm, didn’t deter Rushdie from offering some ideas to PEN America about which readings of his the writers, editors and artists might deliver in front of a crowd of hundreds listening on the library steps for the #StandWithSalman event Friday morning.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel shared that Rushdie, a Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, intended to watch the livestream of the event from the hospital where he’s being treated. “For all their years of tracking and stalking, the ayatollahs and their accomplices badly underestimated this target,” Nossel said. “Not even a blade to the throat could still the voice of Salman Rushdie. Not for a minute; certainly not for a week.”

Sixteen readers, among them poets, journalists, writers and editors, read from Rushdie’s novels, “The Satanic Verses,” “Midnight’s Children,” “Joseph Anton: A Memoir,” as well as keynote addresses and speeches given in front of journalism and free expression advocacy groups.

At an event in support of writer and journalist Salman Rushdie, Sandra F. Kaplan, extreme right, holds a placard in support of Rushdie with his words: “If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.” Several hundred participants turned out for the PEN America event held on the steps of the New York Public Library in New York City Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. (Sally Stapleton/First Amendment Watch)

Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts was the first to read and opened his remarks by stating why he wanted to participate. “I am here because Salman’s words matter,” he said.

Ninety-year-old writer Gay Talese tipped his signature hat to the crowd before reading an excerpt from Rushdie’s novel, “The Golden House.” This wasn’t the first time that Talese had shown his support as he had joined other writers in solidarity after Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa in 1989 following the publication of “The Satanic Verses.”

Calling Rushdie her “dear, old friend,” editor and author Tina Brown emphasized what his efforts have meant to free expression movements worldwide. “You never asked for the role of a hero; you just wanted to be left alone to write,” she said. “But the tenacity by which you’ve defended free speech, you are a hero and have paid a terrible price.”

The event was sponsored by PEN America, the New York Public Library and Penguin Random House, Rushdie’s publisher. 

Irish writer Colum McCann recalled the solidarity in Paris for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 following the murder of 11 journalists with people wearing T-shirts with the words: “Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie.”  Years earlier, Charlie Hebdo had republished caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in solidarity with a Danish magazine.

McCann says he knows Rushdie will come back with something meaningful to say. “He has always, always risen to the moment and I think he will have something profound to say about who we are, where we are and where we’re going. Because he has always done so.”

But today, he says, “Nous sommes Salman” We are Salman.

YouTube Livestream of the event