For dissident writers fleeing persecution abroad, the United States has long been a safe haven, a place where free speech is tolerated and, even, valued.
That suddenly changed earlier this month, with the brutal attack on author Salman Rushdie at a conference in western New York.
“Oh my God! When I heard that, I screamed,” said Masih Alinejad, a writer and activist who has been critical of the Iranian government. “I was just running around in my safe house and screaming and just calling my husband, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in America, in New York. “
While literary writers in the United States increasingly face online threats, they rarely metastasize into actual physical attacks, said Karin Deutsche Karlekar, who directs the Writers at Risk program at PEN America. The perpetrators routinely make public appearances with little or no security.
This was the case with Rushdie. The Indian-born writer became the target of a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in the late 1980s, because of his description of the Prophet Muhammad in his book satanic versesand was forced into hiding.
He eventually emerged and moved to New York. Over time, he began to make personal appearances and in doing so became a strong advocate for the right to free speech.
“A lot of us who joined this field grew up kind of galvanized by his case and what had happened to him,” Karlekar said. “And in the decades since, he’s really been that kind of staunch defender of free speech for other writers at risk.”
That year, the dangers he faced seemed to have faded. Then, on August 12, as Rushdie was about to start a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, a man rushed onto the stage and stabbed him repeatedly. The 75-year-old writer was seriously injured but is expected to survive.
Police arrested Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey, who is believed to have pro-Iranian sympathies.
The violence of the attack is forcing conference rooms that regularly host writers to rethink their security procedures, according to an official at an organization that often sponsors conferences.
But “unless you want every event to feel like going to the airport” it’s difficult, if not impossible, to completely eliminate the risk, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. .
As a result, dissident writers who had felt safe in the United States question this assumption.
Osama Alomar, a Syrian poet who criticized his government and was forced into exile, lives in a house sponsored by an American human rights group, where he felt safe. After Rushdie’s attack, he’s not so sure anymore.
“I used to say when I was in Syria that I was worried about free speech in Syria. Now I’m worried about it even here in America,” he said.
For journalist and activist Alinejad, who is an outspoken critic of Sharia, the attack follows several incidents in which her safety was threatened. Last year, the FBI said it foiled a plot by Iranian intelligence agents to kidnap Alinejad from her Brooklyn home. On July 28, a man was arrested carrying an AK-47 assault rifle outside his home.
Then came the attack on Rushdie, which she came to admire.
“To be honest, Salman Rushdie changed my life,” she said. As a teenager in Iran, she was furious with the writer because she had been “brainwashed” by government propaganda, she said.
“But when I started doing my own research on him, I was like, ‘This is amazing. This is what I believe now, what I need to talk about,'” she said.
While the threats against her have made her “miserable”, she is determined to continue writing and speaking out against tyranny.
His dream now is to one day appear at the Chautauqua Institution, on the same stage where Rushdie was so viciously attacked this month.