This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.
When news emerged of the cowardly and barbaric attack on writer Salman Rushdie late last week, I could not stop thinking of another similar attack that portended this one.
The parallels between the attempted killing of Rushdie and the 1994 assassination attempt against Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz are uncanny. A Nobel laureate, Mahfouz had long received death threats over a novel called “Awlad Haretna” (Children of the Alley), an allegory of the three Abrahamic faiths and their interconnectedness, published first in the 1950s and 1960s. Like Rushdie, he was accused of blasphemy, including by Al Azhar, the preeminent Sunni learning center, and received death threats (his novel was not published in Egypt for decades afterward, until he won the Nobel prize in 1988). Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa declaring Rushdie an apostate who should be killed in 1989 appears to have also had a role in reigniting interest in Mahfouz’s supposed sins, and attracting similar fatwas from Islamist extremists. The extremist Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman compared Rushdie to Mahfouz. Mahfouz was also stabbed in the neck, though outside his home, an attack that didn’t kill him but rendered him scarcely able to sit down and write for long periods of time. His assassin, like Rushdie’s, similarly grew up in a milieu that had scant knowledge of what sin they were supposedly avenging. Rushdie’s would-be killer, Hadi Matar, comes from a generation that knows little about the writer (he was born after the fatwa) or the context in which he was condemned and that has in large measure not read his works. The two assassins who tried to kill Mahfouz were also born long after his book was first published in serialized form in the country’s main newspaper.
Mahfouz’s attempted killing has largely been forgotten by international audiences, despite its instructiveness on the matters of religious propaganda and how they filter down through the populace, continuing to inspire violence even across generational divides. But it parallels how connectedness to the West generally leads to greater awareness in the public consciousness of one’s misfortunes. Few would be able to rattle off the names of novels they haven’t read by imprisoned Egyptian or Turkish or Syrian writers. It is why cases like Sergei Skripal’s or Alexander Litvinenko’s are more readily remembered than those who have suffered similar fates in their home countries of attempted or successful assassinations, like that of Anna Politkovskaya. The sense that nobody is protected from the barbarity of these regimes is one that creates a more palpable sense of fear than if a prisoner of conscience languishes for years in a faraway prison.
This capacity to shape the public consciousness should give media practitioners pause. Journalists and editors have a penchant, for example, of adding contextual paragraphs explaining the background to breaking news events to their audience that tend to fall back on cliches and accepted conventional wisdom. This has the effect of shaping the overall narrative around an event before all the evidence has come to the fore. In many cases the explanation turns out to be true after the fact. In others, it is disastrously wrong.
After the attempted killing of Rushdie, for example, many media outlets rushed to contextualize the assault by linking it to Khomeini’s fatwa before the assassin had been identified. As it turns out, he appears to have been a Khomeini supporter who may well have been inspired by the fatwa. We didn’t know this at the time, of course, but most newsrooms defaulted to that explanation.
Other times, the assumption may well be wrong or at the very least require further reporting to flesh it out. Over the weekend, a church in Egypt burned down because of an electrical fault, leading to the deaths of over 40 people, many of them children. Some of the early stories breaking the news contextualized it by referring to the fact that Copts in Egypt are historically discriminated against. This may well be true — it’s unclear if the authorities responded adequately to the fire, and if repairs and maintenance were stymied by historically difficult-to-obtain maintenance and building permits for churches. But we don’t know it to be true, and jumping the gun to contextualize the news within a broader narrative of discrimination makes it so every story about Copts in Egypt is about discrimination — a one-dimensional view of the world.
And on it goes. Every story about Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, couches him in the dichotomy of “modern reformist leader” and man who ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Every story about Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about his authoritarianism and seemingly irrational beef with the West. Every story about Donald Trump’s foreign policy came with the preconceived conclusion that he was a compromised man whose sole aim is to do Russia’s bidding. Every story about violence in the Middle East comes with an assumption that there is an inevitability to conflict borne out of centuries of nursing supposed historical slights and hatreds. This does not matter only because it shapes public opinion but also because it informs policy, often with disastrous consequences.
There is no space for nuance in these worldviews, whether or not they have some truth to them. The square peg will be made to fit the hole.