Rushdie says curbs on free speech 'attack human nature'

Author Salman Rushdie speaks during the opening news conference of the Frankfurt book fair, Germany Oct 13, 2015.
Author Salman Rushdie speaks during the opening news conference of the Frankfurt book fair, Germany Oct 13, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

FRANKFURT (AFP) - All attempts to curb free speech are "an attack on human nature", British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie said Tuesday (Oct 13) at the start of the world's biggest book fair in Frankfurt.

"Limiting freedom of expression is not just censorship, it is also an assault on human nature," Rushdie told a news conference.

"Expression of speech is fundamental to all human beings. We are language animals, we are story-telling animals," he said, insisting that free speech was a universal principle.

"Without that freedom of expression, all other freedoms fail," he said.

Rushdie has had an Islamic death sentence hanging over his head for a quarter of a century over his 1989 book "The Satanic Verses".

Iran's then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa saying the author should be killed, forcing Rushdie to go into hiding, with the British government placed him under police protection.

The decision to invite him to speak at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which opens later on Tuesday, sparked a boycott by Iran of the exhibition.

"I always thought in a way we shouldn't need to discuss anymore about freedom of speech in the West, it should be like the air we breathe," Rushdie said.

- Violent threats -

"It seemed to me that this battle was won a couple of hundred years ago" during the French Enlightenment, he said.

"But the fact that we have to go on fighting this battle is the result of a number of regrettable, more recent phenomena," he continued, pointing to "violent threats" against writers, publishers, book sellers and translators.

In addition, "in certain parts of the world, a new feeling of political correctness is also dangerous," Rushdie argued.

His new novel, entitled "Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights", is appearing almost simultaneously in English and in German translation.

Last week, Teheran said it was boycotting the Frankfurt fair because it had, "under the pretext of freedom of expression, invited a person who is hated in the Islamic world and created the opportunity for Salman Rushdie... to make a speech."

The author also said publishing was the "embodiment" and "guardian of freedom of speech".

"If you believe in a single vision of the truth and you seek to impose that single vision of the truth on others, then people offering diverse visions of the truth become your enemies."

"But yet oddly, literature often survives this battle," he said. "Literature is unbelievably durable and strong (though) writers are weak."