(RNS) — What gutted me about the attack on Salman Rushdie was not only that it happened on stage at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York — the holy of holies of American intellectual inquiry, culture and pluralism — a festival of the mind and spirit, where, in summer 2020, I had the great opportunity to speak. The attack on Salman Rushdie at Chautauqua was an attack on the institution, and on its values. This was the first attack on a literary figure in recent American memory and that says something.
What gutted me about the attack on Salman Rushdie was not only that this attack was seemingly prompted by the now more than 30 years old, and supposedly defunct, Iranian ayatollah-issued fatwa against him. I say “seemingly” because we don’t really know the motive, but we can certainly surmise it.
What gutted me about the attack on Salman Rushdie was not only that his blood mingled with the blood of those slain at Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the assassination of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh — each of them victims of Muslim extremists.
What gutted me about the attack on Salman Rushdie was not only the ironic coincidence that this happened almost precisely on the one year anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
No. What went through my mind this past Shabbat in synagogue, as I offered prayers for Rushdie’s healing (which seems to be proceeding, but he will have long-lasting health challenges), was that something stabbed him.
Not “someone.” Something.
Salman Rushdie’s wounds are the result of a grim tendency present in all the Abrahamic religions — a tendency toward incivility, triumphalism and violence.
So, you need not take the express lane to “whataboutism.” I shall go there on my own, thank you very much.
What about Jewish extremists? Yes, I say with theologically induced nausea. On a now regular, predictable basis, young Haredi thugs (for there is no better term for them) disrupt prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site. On the West Bank, Jewish settlers continue to engage in violent confrontations. We Jews have a term for this — hillul ha-shem — the desecration (literally, the hollowing out) of God’s name.
What about Christian extremists? Consider the rise of Christian nationalism in the United States — a toxic blend of American nationalism and theological extremism. Remember that Christianity and fascism were inextricably linked together in prewar Europe. I invite you to recall the quote, usually attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
Let us discern what, precisely, is at stake here. The liberal order is threatened, from within and without.
It is not only that this happens in the name of religion. You can have a world of the Chautauqua Institution, and what that represents; or you can have a world of Mar-a-Lago, and what that represents — you cannot have both.
In fact, Mar-a-Lago is at war with Chautauqua. It sneers at the elitists, but it is really sneering at the idea of reasonable discourse, truth — but mostly, civility. The antisemitic rhetoric aimed at the judge who issued the warrant — that his synagogue had to cancel its public Shabbat worship service, because of threats — as the late David Bowie sang, “This is not America.”
Or, is it?
I keep returning to the words of the Yiddish and Hebrew poet, and onetime nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature, Zalman Shneour. I have long been deeply moved, and tormented, by his epic poem “Again the Dark Ages Draw Nigh.” He wrote the poem before World War I, in the wake of the Mendel Beilis blood libel trial, in which a Jewish man in Kiev was accused of ritual murder of a young boy — and the poet could smell what was coming.
Again the Dark Ages draw night! Do you hearken, O man, do you sense it —
The whirling and swirling of dust and the sulphurous scent in the distance?
So, again, the question is not: “Who stabbed Salman Rushdie?” The suspect is in custody.
The looming question is: “What stabbed Salman Rushdie?” The motive for his attack, whatever else the press might report, is simply this: the desire to return to the Dark Ages — a desire that is very much alive, in far too many corners of the world, and in far too many musty corners of this country itself.
No way. Not on our watch.