Rushdie and dangerous ideology

Richard Vincent
5 min readAug 20, 2022


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Every year, on the 14th of February, the novelist Sir Salman Rushdie receives a card from Iran reminding him of their vow to kill him.

This, as he describes it, ‘unfunny valentine’ is in response to his novel, The Satanic Verses, which caused so much controversy across the world that the supreme leader of Iran called for his death.

The fictional book created uproar over the depiction of the Islamic prophet. So much so, that the book was banned in 13 countries with large Muslim populations. Yet, despite the interpretation of Khomeini who proclaimed the fatwā against him, Rushdie never considered the book to be critical of Islam.

The totally disproportionate response to Rushdie’s book and the resulting fatwā resulted in horrific savagery, including riots, the destruction of bookstores and murders of translators. 33 years after the call for violence against the author, on the 12th of August 2022, Rushdie was stabbed repeatedly in the neck and abdomen whilst giving a lecture in New York.

Amazingly, despite such a violent and iniquitous reaction to a work of fiction, the mainstream discourse has not always sided with Rushdie. There is, of course, always the risk of plummeting into vacuous islamophobia and perhaps, for some, this reason motivates an outlook that is not outright condemnation. However, I imagine for many, the claim that there are two sides to this debate is to hedge one’s bets between stating what is right and the damage that could ensue from doing so.

It seems to be manifestly clear that a work of fiction, under no circumstances, justifies the murder of translators, violent attacks and being repeatedly stabbed in the neck, arm and liver. In fact, there are virtually no circumstances — if not none — where such a response could be reasonably justified. That it happened to a writer, over a work of fiction, 33 years after a man who had never even read the book decided that they deserve to die, is completely unthinkable.

The fact that, in the modern world, people can become so angry over the mention of a mythological figure (regardless of whether they existed in some form or not) that murder becomes justifiable should be immediate grounds for condemnation. Such behaviour should not exist, in any form, in a civilised society.

When people begin to attack individuals grouped by a characteristic, then I believe there is a risk of xenophobia, racism and bigotry. But there is a clear distinction between attacking the members and attacking the idea. No ideology should be protected from criticism. Particularly one that is fundamentally unverifiable, whilst making extraordinary claims about the origin of the universe and how we should live our lives.

The accusation of protecting a vicious ideology from consequence is sometimes levied against one part of the political spectrum, yet all parties are responsible for perpetuating this perilous belief. If you are calling out others’ tolerance to religion as ‘wokeness’ whilst fervently upholding your particular interpretation of the Bible, then you are also part of the problem.

As it has become clear that religion fails to make any useful contribution to explaining natural laws, it has been squeezed into a smaller box of utility. Understanding the world was a foundational role of God and yet we can see that — to use the phrasing of Sean Carroll — God is simply not a good theory. Religions that make claims about objective facts (whether or not they can be tested at this moment in time, such as the origin of the universe) should be open to the same level of rigorous criticism as every other scientific theory that makes these claims.

Of course, it would be naive to suggest that a religion’s only purpose in modern society is an explanatory one, even if understanding the world largely triggered its emergence. For example, God is the arbiter of morality. It is through him that his flock can do the right thing: for example, to, uh, not accept gay people? Or to accept them? To kill people who leave the religion? Or not? To deliberately cut the genitals of girls? Or maybe it’s only acceptable to do it to boys? What about stabbing people in the neck who write a story that makes you unhappy?

There are as many moral viewpoints as there are religious beliefs, and there are as many varieties and flavours of belief as there are people on Earth. Yet where do we draw the line? If a lone individual interpreted Harry Potter as a sign to mutilate the genitals of girls and prevent women from having abortions we would rightly think they needed psychological help and to be kept as far away from women and girls as possible.

So when do we transition from speaking out against something to doing everything we can to protect it? When there are a lot of people who roughly think the same thing? What about when the origin of the knowledge is found in a very old book? One that was rewritten and retranslated over thousands of years, originating from poorly educated, sometimes illiterate figures who lived in an extremely superstitious and fearful time? Then, it seems, voices of society must hesitate before commenting on, perhaps even actively support, those who murder over their particular brand of absolute morality.

What are the consequences of this?

When those who can speak out against the evil of fanatical ideology choose to instead condemn the freedoms of modern society, those evils become concentrated. Plenty of people do this out of fear for their safety, or at the risk of being accused of bigotry. Yet, in doing so, they perpetuate these fears and reinforce them in the fabric of public discourse. What should be self-evident evil becomes protected, with the morally courageous being expediently dealt with by all parties.

To its credit, religion has done an excellent job of holding on to the few threads of explanatory power it has left. Moving from the ultimate authority on the entire universe to the ultimate authority on the few remaining bits that haven’t been explained with science. The view of Non-overlapping magisteria is nothing more than an attempt to claim ownership of the yet-to-be-explained, and to protect it from the enlightening forces of scientific enquiry.

Ideologies — religions — can have a say in morality if they want. Yet, they are not above criticism. They remain theories and, just like every other theory, they should be subjected to the free, open and rigorous debate that makes a success of the human capacity to think. To shut down this discussion is to protect religion from the inevitable truth: that it repeatedly fails to make helpful and meaningful contributions to society.

Instead, it creates suffering, misery and death. It attacks storytellers for creating ‘heartache’ (a word that deliberately obfuscates the misplaced anger created by failed beliefs behind a disguise of reasonableness). It harms those who aim to truly do good: those whose morality is based not on a fear of god, or a promise of an afterlife but on kindness and compassion for other living creatures.



Richard Vincent

Physics graduate. I write about physics and sometimes philosophy, ethics, psychology and insights found at the intersection of these.