What do Salman Rushdie, Dave Chappelle, and Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) have in common?
Not much at first glance. One is an erudite writer who was once married to the stunning Padma Lakshmi. The other is a fast-talking, streetwise comedian who might just say anything for a laugh. And finally Zeldin is a Jewish GOP Congressman running for governor of New York. But the recent attack that nearly killed Rushdie is a reminder that the three, and many others in modern life, actually have a lot more in common than may seem obvious.
Salman Rushdie was a relatively obscure artsy author when he penned The Satanic Verses. That 1988 novel drew attention and caused a stir. That stir soon became a major controversy and riled up Ayatollah Khomeini, the iron-fisted Muslim radical cleric who ruled Iran from 1979 to 1989.
Khomeini was always a fan of a particular kind of virtue signaling. “Death to America” was his favorite chant, and the virtue he signaled was all about spilling American blood on behalf of his vision of Allah. Rushdie’s book provided Khomeini the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to be a radical global influencer on behalf of the Islamic fascism he installed when he took over Iran. He didn’t even need TikTok or Instagram to get his point across.
He issued a fatwa, a statement that can bear the force of Islamic law, against Rushdie. The fatwa called for the author’s death. It mattered little that Khomeini was enthroned in Tehran and Rushdie lived in the United States and Europe at the time, where he should have been safe. Islamic radicals influenced by Khomeini exist everywhere thanks to the stupidly lax immigration laws in the West, when countries even bother to enforce them. The fatwa sent Rushdie into hiding for 10 years, rightly fearing that someone, somewhere, would heed the ayatollah’s edict and murder him.
Here we are, more than three decades later, and Rushdie was stabbed multiple times as he took the stage in New York to say a few words. The ayatollah is dead but his fatwa remains very much alive. The attacker had not yet even been born when the fatwa was issued.
Dave Chappelle was best known for years as the main man in the comedy show that bore his name and from which he stepped away at the height of its mad popularity. He eventually landed a contract with Netflix to do some stand-up specials into which the streamer put no content requirements other than to be funny.
Funny they are, but not to everyone. Before the age of cancel culture this would have been fine—no joke, comedian, movie, song, show, or story is made for everyone. You don’t like one thing, there’s always another thing to watch or listen to. But social media influencers who thrive on building their own audiences by destroying someone else’s targeted Chappelle for telling jokes that aren’t politically correct. It made no difference to them that Chappelle is a black Democrat who supported Obama and is very much a man of the Left. No difference at all. He had jokes, and they didn’t laugh.
Chappelle got his own fatwa, not from some 7th century-thinking ayatollah, but from 21st-century activists who, whether they know it or not, agree with the ayatollah’s favorite chant.
At the heart of the American project is an idea, a set of principles, of which one of the most important is the freedom of speech. If you hate free speech, you also hate America. You don’t have the right only to hear things with which you agree. And if you try to kill free speech, you are saying with your deeds, “Death to America.”
And so it was that after the trans-cancel-ayatollah-yokels failed to get Netflix to rip up Chappelle’s contract because they can’t take a joke, one of them used a concealed knife to try to kill him as he took a stage to say a few words.
American ayatollahs. That’s what we have now. American fatwas. Every single effort to cancel someone for their jokes, their words, a long-ago tweet, is just a digital version of the call to blood that the despot Khomeini launched on Rushdie all those years ago. Sometimes these calls even end in actual blood.
That brings us to Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin, who was attacked on stage at a campaign stop in Rochester by a drunken man who didn’t like his speech about Veterans Affairs and shouted “You’re done” as he lunged with his weapon. Luckily, he was tackled to the ground.
Chappelle and Zeldin survived their attacks unharmed, and while Rushdie was grievously wounded, it looks likely that he will survive.
Can we say the same for free speech—for America itself—when we have fatwa-breathing ayatollahs in every city, on every college campus, within every Democratic Party meeting, and dominating every major digital platform?