Exiled writers reflect on attack on author Salman Rushdie For dissident writers fleeing persecution overseas, the United States has long been a safe haven, a place where freedom of expression is tolerated and, even, valued.

Exiled writers reflect on freedom of speech in America in light of Rushdie attack

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The author Salman Rushdie has long been a tireless advocate for freedom of expression. So the vicious attack on him in western New York this month sent a chill through the community of exiled writers. Now some are questioning their safety in the U.S. Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: For dissident Iranian writer Masih Alinejad, hearing about the attack on Rushdie came as a terrible shock.

MASIH ALINEJAD: Oh, my God. When I heard that, I was screaming. Like, I was just running corner to corner in my safe house and shouting and just calling my husband that I cannot believe this is happening in America, in New York.

ZARROLI: Alinejad has become a target of extremists for speaking out against Shariah law, and she had come to see the United States as a safe place.

ALINEJAD: America is like a safe haven for those who want to express themselves, for those who want to speak up against tyranny.

ZARROLI: She no longer feels so safe. Last year, the U.S. government foiled an alleged plot to kidnap her by Iranian intelligence officers. Another man was recently arrested outside her Brooklyn home with an AK-47. Then came the Rushdie attack. In the decades since Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for his depiction of Muhammad in the book "The Satanic Verses," Rushdie has become an eloquent advocate of free speech.

KARIN DEUTSCH KARLEKAR: I mean, many of us who joined this field grew up being sort of galvanized by his case and what had happened to him. And in the decades since, he really has been this stalwart defender of free expression for other writers at risk.

ZARROLI: Karin Deutsch Karlekar directs the Free Expression At Risk program at PEN America. She says there's been a spike in online threats to writers in the U.S. in recent years. Still, she says, they rarely metastasize into actual physical attacks.

KARLEKAR: What just happened to Salman Rushdie is something - I can't remember the last time that something similar happened to a literary writer in the U.S.

ZARROLI: Writers in the U.S. routinely make public appearances with little or no security. The Rushdie attack could change that. An official of one venue that frequently hosts writers says it's rethinking its security policies. But the official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said, unless you want to make every event like going to the airport, you can't stop someone determined to do violence from running up on stage. Exiled Syrian poet Osama Alomar says he has long felt very safe in the U.S., but the Rushdie attack is a reminder that the U.S. is an open country, and bad people can sometimes get in.

OSAMA ALOMAR: It's funny to say it, but I used to say it when I was in Syria, that I'm worried about freedom of speech in Syria. Now I'm worried about that even here in America.

ZARROLI: Alomar says writers need to resist efforts to stifle freedom of expression.

ALOMAR: As the writers and the artists, we can do nothing without freedom of speech. We can do nothing.

ZARROLI: Masih Alinejad agrees. She says after the Rushdie attack, she has no choice but to redouble her efforts to speak out.

ALINEJAD: So at the end of the day, I tell myself that I should feel miserable because of all these threats. I have to keep fighting against tyranny and make my oppressors feel miserable. I choose the second one.

ZARROLI: In fact, she says, her dream now is to speak at the Chautauqua Institution on the same stage where Rushdie was stabbed this month. For NPR News, this is Jim Zarroli.


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