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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa that called for the killing of author Salman Rushdie for his portrayal of Islam and the prophet Muhammad in his novel "The Satanic Verses."

Not recognizing the irony, in just that decree alone Iran's top cleric did more to defile his religion than Rushdie's writings could ever do.

That seems especially apparent after Friday's heinous attack on Rushdie at a literary conference in upstate New York. A 24-year-old New Jersey man who hadn't even been born when Khomeini issued the fatwa was arrested, later entering a not-guilty plea on charges of attempted murder and assault. Authorities have yet to provide a motive.

Gravely injured, Rushdie was initially put on a ventilator. While he's expected to recover, he may tragically lose an eye.

Rushdie's clarity on the extremism that is tightening its grip worldwide is likely unaffected. That scourge was evident again when "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling was warned, "Don't worry you are next," on Twitter after she rallied behind Rushdie. While Scotland Yard is investigating that threat, others may be targeted, too, as they decry the attack and the atmosphere that may have triggered it.

But ideally, the rejection of the theocracy's fanaticism will be so widespread that the intolerance can't be directed at just one individual as institutions, government and civilized society at large speak up for the right of free expression.

Those groups include PEN America, the U.S. chapter of the 100-plus PEN International organization dedicated to freedom of expression. Writing in the Guardian, current PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel said that just hours before he was attacked Rushdie e-mailed her to help secure safe refuge for Ukrainian writers imperiled by Russia's brutal invasion.

Rushdie, a past president of PEN America, "has been an unflagging, unflappable presence in the public arena, devoted to defending the written word, telling his stories and standing with others who are vulnerable and menaced," Nossel wrote.

The attack comes in the context of "intensifying and protean attacks on free expression worldwide," Nossel said, with prompted PEN America to take "the unprecedented step of convening an Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers this year — the first such gathering since 1939 when our leading intellectuals convened to grapple with the dangers of rising fascism."

Indeed, Tehran is not alone in capitalizing on a global rise of intolerance. According to Reporters Without Borders, Kabul has lost nearly 40% of its media outlets and 60% of its journalists since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Similar situations are playing out globally, especially in consequential capitals like Moscow and Beijing, where Orwellian autocracies quash free expression and, ultimately, freedom.

The U.S. is not immune. Targets have included health care leaders, school board members, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and even the FBI, which has seen an "unprecedented" rise in threats against its personnel and property in the wake of the Mar-a-Lago search last week.

The increasing intolerance must be addressed not only by law enforcement but also by those who have stoked online and on-air hate. That includes former President Donald Trump and his followers in Congress, who have fanned the flames of anti-government sentiment since the Mar-a-Lago search.

Trump recently told Fox Digital that the "temperature has to be brought down," but he raised it again by saying, "The country is in a very dangerous position. There is tremendous anger like I've never seen before, over all of the scams, and now this new one — years of scams and witch hunts, and now this."

Referring to a legitimate and legal search by the FBI as a "scam" and "witch hunt" only stokes anger — a trick Trump knows well.

He's right that this country is in a "very dangerous position," which means the world it is supposed to lead is in an even more precarious one.

Iran's leaders have denied culpability for Rushdie's attack, for example, but they did not condemn it.

America's leaders in politics, the news media and beyond may not be directly responsible for specific acts of intolerance, but they must not create the atmosphere that makes them possible.