Menu Close

The Attack on Salman Rushdie: Why I Am Afraid. Very Afraid.

guest post

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

J’ai peur.  Parfois, j’ai beaucoup de peur.

Perhaps it has something to do with having been an Army Reservist and reading Hemingway in my youth, but one of my definitions of true friendship includes the emotional space to frankly express fear, in whatever language.

I first met Noem thirty-five years ago and Marie-Jeanne a couple of years later, not long after they began to date. They were delighted that I remembered their recent 30th wedding anniversary. But that was not the occasion of their visit two weeks ago. They (and I) hadn’t planned to take a major trip this summer because of the costs and the general insanity in transit hubs. But they decided to come because in late June their son, who graduated from university two years ago, moved here for his job. Marie-Jeanne, ever the mom, wanted to be sure that he was safe and well—which, of course, he is.

This was not their first time in New York, so I wanted them to have an experience I assumed (correctly) they hadn’t had: a tour of the graffiti murals in the industrial areas of central and eastern Brooklyn. And, because I knew they wanted to eat something they probably wouldn’t have at home, and I wanted them to experience something authentic and unpretentious, I took them to Christina’s, a place that seems like a cross between a working-class café in Kraców and a New Jersey roadside diner. We were the only non-Polish patrons in that eatery—on Manhattan Avenue, in the heart of the Polish enclave of Greenpoint, Brooklyn—where the soundtrack consisted of a combination of songs from the home country, Frank Sinatra and ‘70’s pop tunes. They loved it.

Over pierogies, I expressed my fears of what is happening in this country. While there are nationalists and flat-out racists in their country’s public life, and some express anxiety that Muslims will take over their country (though, contrary to such fears, followers of Mohammedism comprise only about a tenth of the population), France’s public discourse hasn’t been as infected with religion as it has in the United States. Moreover, while some invoke myths—which they take as historic facts—about their country’s Christian heritage, there is little, if any, equivalent to the Christian Nationalism—or, for that matter, any sort of religious nationalism–that some American politicians publicly espouse.

I was reminded of the fears I expressed to them when I heard about the attack on Salman Rushdie. His alleged assailant, Hadi Matar, wasn’t born until nearly a decade after Ayatollah Khomeini deemed Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses blasphemous and issued a fatwa calling for the novelist’s assassination. According to Matar’s mother, he became radicalized after a 2018 trip to visit his father in Lebanon. I am guessing that Matar has never read Rushdie’s novel and heard about the fatwa third-hand. But as young men with no hope or direction—the “target audience” of hard-line religious leaders and nationalists (and military recruiters)—are wont to do, he imbibed the inflammatory rhetoric and metabolized the anger it expressed into fibers of resentment that bound up his mental energies.

The attack reminded me of this: once a trusted authority figure expounds a narrative that posits someone who simply thinks differently as an “enemy” or “infidel,” someone else—often, a young man like Matar, who had nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to—will take it to heart, never mind how much it’s been discredited. Although Khomeini is long dead and Rushdie emerged from hiding, the Iranian state has reiterated the fatwa.  Even if it hadn’t, people like Matar would, in essence, keep it alive, just as Adolf Hitler—the biggest failure in the history of humanity—continues to inspire violence and hatred against Jews and people who aren’t white, heterosexual, and cisgender. They don’t even need the memory of the Fuhrer: Their interpretations of the Bible—which, as often as not, are little more than summaries of their pastors’ sermons—will give them all of the rationales they need to fabricate narratives of people such as I “grooming” children and call for our persecution or even death. It’s not such a leap from that to declaring that an opponent has “stolen” the election and anyone who says otherwise is aiding and abetting a conspiracy and therefore needs to be destroyed.

In other words, hate is never destroyed nor conquered. In fact, it is too often given new life by people who claim to follow a “gospel of love” (as many Christians like to call their holy text) or a “religion of peace” (the literal meaning of the word “Islam”). And such hate can sweep up any country, no matter how educated or enlightened it fancies itself to be. (Germany was the most technologically advanced country of its time when Hitler came into power and was, in the eyes of the world, “the land of Mozart.”) I think Noem, Jewish by heritage, and Marie-Jeanne, of Catholic lineage—both raised in secular homes and now living as atheists—understand as much. That is why, after hearing about the attack on Salman Rushdie, they sent me this text message: “Are you OK?”

For now, I am. But I am still afraid. I’ai beaucoup de peur.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.


  1. Avatar
    S.D. Edmister

    Thank you as always for your bottomless depth in insight, emotion, and compassion. This turn of events shook me as well but for different reasons (that I will mention in a moment). I hope you and your friends are still safe. They seem like very nice people!

    I wanted to give others a chance to speak their concerns and thoughts, as I think hearing different perspectives is important for any social situation. I would like to offer my current take on the situation. This event struck fear in my wife and I as Muslim Americans. We have denounced the fatwa, considering it an antiquated rambling of a despot. I actually have a copy of The Satanic Verses, and I hope to give it a read someday. (I for one enjoyed East, West by Rushdie as well!) I am by no means an expert of Islam (as a Sufi, some would not even consider me a Muslim), but what I follow does not tell me to wish death on Rushdie. I don’t agree with what he wrote, but that’s also because he is who he is and I am who I am.

    While I worry for the welfare of nonbelievers and welcome their views to give me tough questions, I must also elicit concern for fellow Muslims in America. I have concern this could revive some of the Islamophobic flames that burned so much after 9/11. American Christians, especially evangelicals, have had long hatred for Muslims, owing to extremists who draw the ire of moderate and liberal Muslims as well. I worry this could also validate what that orange glob of grease said about us during his campaign and presidency. I must stress that I do not endorse what happened.

    Your writing on the creation of extremist rhetoric also hits the issue right on the head. I have kept a close eye on the radicalization process, seeing how it can warp viewpoints and reprogram minds. All it takes is someone who has nothing to hear the words of someone who seems to have everything. Those with shaky grounds will seek the refuge of the steady, even if the steady will just pull them down too. The point I want to make is that it’s not just the Muslims. Christian extremists will use events like these to justify hating their neighbors in a land of the supposed free.

    I wanted to share my thoughts in light of this post, but I also do not want to draw all the attention to me and my concerns. You are valid in worrying about the atheists’ safety at this time, but I cannot deny my fear from what happened, even if it is for other reasons.


    • Avatar

      Hello SDE,

      Thank you for your well thought out comment.
      After events like these, I am always reminded (and saddened) by the fact that we humans often have tribalistic tendencies, including me.

      I won’t call myself an Evangelical anymore but my parents and some of my relatives are. Where I come from, the Christian minority can often be at the receiving end of discrimination by the Muslim majority. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there are no tolerant Muslims in my country.

      However, I would be lying if events like these would not contribute to the deepening of some form of suspicion harboured against Muslims by a lot of Christians. And I have to say, I’m not immune to this either.

      That’s why I’m always thankful for thoughtful people like you. And my tolerant Muslim friends. All of you have helped me monitor my own unchecked prejudice and bias.

  2. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    SDE—Thank you for your thoughtful response. I don’t mean to single out Muslims. Rather, I am concerned with those who are radicalized, whether as Muslims, Christians or in any other faith or non-faith tradition. I believe that, too often, the radicalized become, like Rushdie’s attacker, nihilists cloaked with religious or ideological rhetoric. That is why they can commit horrible deeds, whether attacking a writer, beheading a teacher or murdering a doctor who performs abortions, in the name of whatever they claim to believe

    Although I am an atheist, I respect people’s right to believe as long as it is not used to harm others. After all, we are looking at the same evidence (I assume). That it leads me not to believe no more proves that no deity exists than another person’s belief proves that such a deity exists.

  3. Avatar
    Ben Berwick

    Beautiful post Lisbeth. You are correct on the dangers of radicalisation and extremism. In some cases it is overt, and in others subtle. What happened to Rushdie exposes something organised religions have a huge problem with – freedom of speech.

  4. Avatar

    MJ, great post. It is concerning when people are radicalized and act upon the concepts into which they have been indoctrinated. I look at certain family members who support radical white Christian nationalism and wonder when they will act upon their extreme views. They are not at the point of action yet, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had participated in January 6 rioting (they didn’t).

    It was interesting to befriend an Iranian family when we were visiting UAE last year. They were closeted atheists and were thrilled to meet other atheists. They were just as concerned about radical religionists in their country as we are here. I would say that while the USA still enjoys a decent degree of religious freedom, there are many who would like to impose white Christian nationalism upon the rest of us, not unlike Islam imposed upon the people of Iran.

    I swear, if I have to wear some sort of modest clothing in the US I will riot……

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away! If You Are a First Time Commenter, Please Read the Comment Policy Located at the Top of the Page.

Bruce Gerencser