page contains a list of articles/interviews about/with Salman
Rushdie vs John Le Carre or All
is not Lost
A Conversation with Salman Rushdie
All Is Not Lost: Art of Insult Survives 'New
By Warren Hoge
LONDON, Nov. 26 -- Just when people nostalgic for a pricklier
Britain were lamenting that the country was losing its touch for
the wounding insult, two of the country's best-known writers have
come to the rescue with a cascade of abusive comments about one
In a week of correspondence of growing vituperativeness, Salman
Rushdie has called John le Carre ''an illiterate pompous ass,''
and Mr. le Carre has replied that Mr. Rushdie is ''self-canonizing''
and ''arrogant,'' blinded by the pursuit of increased royalties
for himself from the physical danger that sales of his book posed
The exchanges have taken place in a time-honored arena for mudslinging
in Britain, the letters page of a newspaper, The Guardian. While
other parts of the paper were covering the continuing push in
high places to have Britain portrayed as a sensitive, caring,
compassionate nation, Mr. le Carre and Mr. Rushdie were striking
blows in the letters columns for the tradition of literary invective.
The feud began when Mr. le Carre complained that he had become
the victim of a witch hunt by zealots of ''political correctness''
in the United States aimed at portraying him as anti-Semitic.
When he learned of the comment, Mr. Rushdie said he wished Mr.
le Carre had had the same concern for him when he became the target
of the fatwa declared by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.
That directive called on Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie because of
his perceived slighting of Islam in his book ''The Satanic Verses.''
Mr. le Carre made his observations in a speech to the Anglo-Israel
Association this month, an extract of which was published in The
Guardian on Nov. 15. He said the issue first arose in a 1996 New
York Times review of his book ''The Tailor of Panama'' that said
his portrayal of his principal character, a Judas figure, suggested
a preoccupation with the notion of the Jew as traitor.
The current battle was joined a week ago when Mr. Rushdie wrote
a letter for publication saying he couldn't sympathize with the
complaint because Mr. le Carre had been ''so ready to join in
an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer.''
The campaign he alluded to was an effort by Mr. le Carre and
others to persuade Mr. Rushdie to halt distribution of paperback
versions of his book because of the threat of harm aimed at people
''In 1989,'' Mr. Rushdie said, ''during the worst days of the
Islamic attack on 'The Satanic Verses,' le Carre wrote an article
in which he eagerly and rather pompously joined forces with my
He suggested it would be ''gracious'' of Mr. le Carre to ''admit
that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little
better now that, at least in his own opinion, he's the one in
the firing line.''
The next day Mr. le Carre responded with a letter calling Mr.
Rushdie ''arrogant,'' ''colonialist'' and ''self-righteous,''
saying: ''Rushdie's way with the truth is as self-serving as ever.
I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of
proclaiming Rushdie to be a shining innocent. My position was
that there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions
may be insulted with impunity.''
He went on to say that in recommending a halt in distribution
of the paperback version he was ''more concerned about the girl
in Penguin Books who might get her hands blown off in the mail
room than I was about Rushdie's royalties.''
The next day it was Mr. Rushdie's epistolary turn. ''I'm grateful
to John le Carre for refreshing all our memories about exactly
how pompous an ass he can be,'' the letter began. He said he had
examined the ''lofty formulation'' put forward by Mr. le Carre
and concluded that ''it suggests that anyone who displeases philistine,
reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in
Mr. Rushdie's letter was ''vile,'' shot back Mr. le Carre, an
edict from his ''throne'' proclaiming that ''our cause is absolute,
it brooks no dissent or qualification; whoever questions it is
by definition an ignorant pompous, semi-literate unperson.'' The
letter, he said, should be required reading for all British high
school students as an example of ''cultural intolerance masquerading
as free speech.''
Mr. Rushdie responded: ''John le Carre appears to believe I would
prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am
of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth,
he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging.
Me, I'm going back to work.''
Some historical footnotes have emerged that may account for the
high levels of vitriol. In October 1989, Mr. Rushdie was asked
by The Independent on Sunday to critique Mr. le Carre's ''Russia
House.'' From his hideaway, Mr. Rushdie sent in a review that
mocked Mr. le Carre's pretension to be considered more than a
successful popular writer, concluding, ''Close, but -- this time
anyway -- no cigar.''
In his Nov. 15 article Mr. le Carre said he was warned by friends
of the futility of responding to the Times review that appeared
on Oct. 20, 1996, which he contended ''smeared'' him as an anti-Semite.
The review, by Norman Rush, a novelist, praised the book as a
''tour de force'' but faulted it for portraying the principal
character, a Jew, as ''yet another literary avatar of Judas.''
Mr. Rush said the association, ''however little Mr. le Carre intended
it,'' left him with a feeling of ''unease.''
Mr. le Carre described his reaction in the article, saying, ''I
realized that we were dealing not with offbeat accusations of
anti-Semitism so much as the whole oppressive weight of political
correctness, a kind of McCarthyite movement in reverse.'' He said
he wished he had ignored his friends' advice and gone ahead and
written to The Times.
But in fact he did. The Times published his letter complaining
that he had been ''tarred with the anti-Semitic brush.'' on Nov.
3, 1996, along with a response from Mr. Rush denying the contention.
''I have not said or implied that Mr. le Carre is an anti-Semite,
and I do not think it,'' Mr. Rush wrote.
Mr. le Carre and Mr. Rushdie now appear to have vacated the ring,
but others have leaped in. William Shawcross, an author and journalist
who is a declared friend of both men, said he felt Mr. Rushdie's
claims were ''outrageous'' and carried the ''stink of triumphalist
Asked if there was any more to come, Alan Rusbridger, the editor
of The Guardian, said today that he had asked Mr. Rushdie if he
cared to respond to Mr. Shawcross and that the writer's answer
was: ''If le Carre wants to get his friends to do a little proxy
whinging, that's his business. I've said what I have to say.''
An additional comment, notable for its equitable abusiveness,
was contributed by a past master of the art of ''slanging,'' Richard
Ingrams, the former editor of the satirical weekly Private Eye.
He said: ''As I have a low opinion of both of them and can't bear
to read either of their works, I must say I think they are both
as bad as each other. Perhaps the solution is they should both
sit down and write a book together.''
[Credit: New York Times, November 27, 1997.]
Conversation With Salman Rushdie
(An innterview conducted in October 2002, with PBS)
RAY SUAREZ: Salman Rushdie is an author, essayist, and critic,
an Indian whose family was split by the partition of India and
Pakistan. He's written eight novels, including the Booker Prize-
winning Midnight's Children, but he's probably best known for
The Satanic Verses, a fantasy published in 1989. Its publications
enraged many Muslims. The Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, then the
country's supreme leader, issued a religious decree, a Fatwa,
offering a multimillion-dollar award for Rushdie's assassination.
He spent most of the next decade in hiding, until 1998, when the
Iranian government disassociated itself from the death threat.
After long years working and living in England, he now lives in
New York City, and has just published Step Across This Line, his
first collection of non-fiction in ten years.
And the title itself is provocative, since you write so much and
so often in fiction and non-fiction about frontiers, borders,
and the way ideas and people move around the world
SALMAN RUSHDIE, Author: Yeah, it's been really the story of my
life, the engagement with the frontier, you know, because as you
mentioned, I was born just before the partition of India, and
that frontier that was driven across the Indian subcontinent that
split my family, not to mention led to the deaths of many, many
thousands of people. I mean, there's disputes about whether there
was fifty or a hundred or even more thousands of people. So I
grew up in the aftermath of that piece of line drawing. And ever
since then, the frontier has seemed to me to be not just a scary
place, but a place to confront, you know, and as I suggest, if
possible, to step across.
And then in my own life, you know, I stepped across all sorts
of frontiers-- literal ones, the frontiers that brought me to
the West and to England, and then later, as you mentioned, to
the United States, but also metaphorical frontiers, you know,
because I think every serious artist, including myself, tries
to work at the edge, not in the middle. You try to go to the frontier.
You try to go to the borderline, if not step across it, then at
least try to push it outwards, you know, to increase the sum of
what it is possible to say and to think, and to increase the ways
in which it is possible to express one's self in a work of art.
And I guess sometimes, as in the case of The Satanic Verses, that
gets writers into trouble.
RAY SUAREZ: I've read a lot of your writing from other places
in the world about the United States, and how it fills the imagination
of people all over the world.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Indeed.
RAY SUAREZ: But one very striking change in tone across these
ten years of essays comes with September 11, where the sort of
undercurrent of your writing changes quite abruptly, and you begin
to write about the United States with a lot of sympathy, a great
deal of empathy that might not have been there before.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think, you know, I felt that attack on
New York City-- I speak particularly of New York because that's
where I was living-- I felt it very much as a kind of domestic
assault. I felt, as many New Yorkers felt it, all New Yorkers
felt it, as an attack on their home. And I amazed myself, actually,
by the depth of my action, and then felt I had to honestly write
out of that. So, yes, I think it was a very emotional event in
all our lives who watched those terrible things.
RAY SUAREZ: For years before this arrival in the United States,
you had your own very rough and difficult encounter with worldwide
Islam, one that the United States is now engaged in. Now you write
in several essays, at one point chiding, "Well, this isn't
about Islam-- of course it's about Islam!" But the question
is, what does that mean? What does it mean?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, what I meant to say is, if you look at figures
from the Christian fundamentalist extreme wing, if you look at
a Jerry Falwell or whoever, you can't say that they have nothing
to do with Christianity. Of course they do. It's a view of Christianity
which maybe most Christians would not share, but clearly Christianity
is a part of who they are. And in the same way, if you look at
the extremists in the Muslim world and their actions, you can't
say it's got nothing to do with Islam. It's to do with a view
of Islam, which most Muslims would reject, but on the other hand,
it's a view of Islam that is being purveyed across the Muslim
world by religious schools and by fanatical organizations, and
it's clearly something to grapple with, not only for us outside
the Muslim world, but I believe for people inside the Muslim world,
because I think in the end, the war on terror can only be won
when Muslim societies themselves reject this kind of rhetoric,
this kind of highly inflamed, retrograde rhetoric from which fanaticism
RAY SUAREZ: Are you saying that that's already begun? At one point,
you refer to Osama and Mullah Omar as yesterday's men, in a widespread
feeling that maybe jihad is no longer cool.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think clearly the defeat of al-Qaida and
the Taliban in Afghanistan did make many people think again. Many
young people... actually, a lot of them European Muslims, you
know, in places like Britain made them think again about joining
up, signing up for this kind of catastrophic army whose leaders
hide in caves while recommending that their followers commit suicide
in the name of God. I don't think they look that glamorous in
the aftermath of the American intervention in Afghanistan. And
I think there's other signs that fundamentalism, in certain places,
anyway, may have peaked. You know, in Iran it quite clearly has.
In Iran, it's quite clear that the regime of the mullahs is now
loathed and detested by the people, who would get rid of it tomorrow
if they could. In other places, such as Algeria, where in the
last decade the fanatics have had a lot of momentum, and have
killed and scared a lot of people, they now seem to be in retreat.
So there is evidence, in my view-- not even across the world--
but there is evidence to show that fundamentalism tends to be
like a short-lived illness in a society that, once people have
had a serious taste of it, they soon wish to recover from it.
RAY SUAREZ: So by emphasizing Islam versus the west, we miss out
on what might even be the more interesting Islam versus Islam,
that internal tug of war?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think there is, you know, a great internal
struggle. You sometimes see its effects. For instance, when the
Taliban fell, you saw the rejoicing of the people of Afghanistan.
That showed how great the unhappiness of the people of Afghanistan
had been under the Taliban rule. I think when and if the rule
of the mullahs ends in Iran, you'll see something similar. You'll
see celebration at the fall of a regime that is so unpopular.
So, yes, of course, the first people who are oppressed by fundamentalist
Islam are Muslims, people in Muslim countries where those forces
are at their strongest. I do think there are great problems remaining
associated with it. And a lot of that has to do with the very
murky role, in my view, of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, after all,
allowed bin Laden and his group to fund-raise and recruit freely
for years before September 11. Saudi Arabia is also the source
of the financing for these extremist Muslim schools, the so-called
Madrassahs, which are spreading all over the world, in which the
Taliban were trained, in which many of the radicals now creating
terrorist actions in Kashmir were trained-- a phenomenon in my
view as dangerous as al-Qaida, the spread of the religious schools,
and entirely financed by supposed ally of the West --Saudi Arabia.
RAY SUAREZ: One passage in Step Across This Line really caused
me to sort of sit up and put on the brakes: "America finds
itself facing an ideological enemy that may turn out to be harder
to defeat than militant Islam; that is to say, anti- Americanism,
which is presently taking the world by storm."
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Mm-hmm. Well, this is... I mean, I am not here
representing my view. I'm representing a phenomenon that really
worries me profoundly, a union, if you like, of opposition to
America from, on the one hand, fundamentalist Islam, and on the
other hand, kind of leftist European thinkers and commentators
who ought to be in such a war on America's side. And I think this
clearly is an issue that Washington needs to confront, and clearly
feels so itself. I mean, it's only recently that the State Department
actually held a major conference on the subject to see what could
be done about it. And clearly one of the things that I would suggest
should be done about it is that the United States needs to regain
an ability to act in concert with other nations, and not unilaterally
and preemptively. I think the breaking of treaties by the Bush
administration annoyed a lot of people in Europe, and now we're
once again in a situation where European leaders are trying to
persuade the United States to act in concert with them and with
the United Nations, and not off its own path. And I think there
is something important to think about.
RAY SUAREZ: Salman Rushdie, thanks for being with us.