Salman Rushdie has warned of the threat of authoritarianism globally and said the US Republican party is “seeking to undermine” democratic values, at a forum in Philadelphia to discuss the threats against free speech in the US and around the world.
Appearing by video at the National First Amendment Summit on Wednesday, Rushdie attributed the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit to a “golden age myth”.
Rushdie, who was attacked in New York a little over a year ago, spoke as book bans continue to proliferate through the US. Interviewed by Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the freedom of expression organization PEN America, Rushdie was asked what the greatest threat to free speech is today.
“If you asked me 10 or 20 years ago, I would probably have said that the main problems facing freedom of expression emanate from religious extremism,” Rushdie said.
“I think now we’re facing another old enemy, which is authoritarianism. I think there’s a real rise in authoritarian movements around the world, populist authoritarian demagoguery.
“Coupled with that, [there is] a willingness amongst at least some part of the population to cease to value the democratic values enshrined in the first amendment. So I think the problem is, I would now say, political more than primarily religious.”
The summit, hosted by the National Constitution Center and intended to address threats to the first amendment – the US constitutional right to freedom of speech – came a day after the US Senate held a hearing on book bans and censorship.
According to PEN America, there have been more than 4,000 book bans in the US since the fall of 2021. Pen defines a book ban as when books are deemed “off limits” to students in school libraries or classrooms, or when books are removed during an investigation to determine whether there should be any restrictions.
The majority of the targeted books deal with issues of racism, sexuality and gender identity. During the past 18 months, states including Florida, North Carolina and Iowa have passed bills restricting how and when teachers can discuss sexuality and gender identity in schools.
Asked about the state of free speech in the US, Rushdie said:
“One of the problems is you have essentially only one major political party that seems to believe in democratic values. And you have another one that seems to be doing everything it can to undermine them.
“When you have the large majority of Republican voters believing that the last election was stolen – as they do every time they’re asked, a very large majority of Republican voters believe that Donald Trump won the last election and that he was cheated of his victory – if the assault on truth has reached that level of success, then we’re in real trouble.”
Rushdie spent a decade in hiding after Iran’s then-leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for his death after his book The Satanic Verses was published in 1988. The book prompted protests amid claims that the novel was anti-Islamic.
In August 2022 the 76-year-old was attacked in upstate New York as he prepared to speak at a literary event. Rushdie was stabbed in the neck and torso and spent six weeks in a hospital. The attack left him without sight in one eye and injuries to a hand, which makes typing difficult.
Speaking at the summit on Wednesday, Rushdie criticized a “golden age myth”, which he said led to the rise of Trump and Brexit.
“‘Make America great again’ - that’s always made me want to ask: ‘When exactly was that?’ What is the date to which we are looking backwards? Was it, for example, when there was slavery? Was it before women had the right to vote? Was it before the civil rights movement?
“Exactly which is the American greatness to which we must return?”
“And the thing about the golden age is that it never existed, and the myth of the golden age is always used to justify actions in the present.
“In England, the Brexit catastrophe was the result of another golden age myth, which is: ‘England used to be this glorious country and it could be that glorious country again, if only we could get rid of all these foreigners.’
“Of course they neglected to mention to the electorate that the reason England was so prosperous was that it had spent 200 years plundering the rest of the world.”
In May Rushdie made his first public appearance since the attack in New York, and has since said he plans to write a book about the incident.
Hadi Matar, from New Jersey, was charged with attempted second-degree murder and second-degree assault in the attack. The 24-year-old has pleaded not guilty.