The Salman Rushdie Page—Articles
Selected by Rakesh Rampertab

This page contains a list of articles, speech, interview, and snippet by Salman Rushdie. Please click on lin for the following:

Yes, This is About Islam
1,000 Days Trapped inside a Metaphor
Simple Truths and Apostles of Death
What Kosovo and Colorado Have in Common
Fighting the Forces of Invincibility
An Interview with January Magazine
Gods and Monsters
Salman on Censorship

Yes, This is About Islam

LONDON -- "This isn't about Islam." The world's leaders have been repeating this mantra for weeks, partly in the virtuous hope of deterring reprisal attacks on innocent Muslims living in the West, partly because if the United States is to maintain its coalition against terror it can't afford to suggest that Islam and terrorism are in any way related.

The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn't true. If this isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000 men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? Why are the war's first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on the Taliban side?

Why the routine anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic slander that "the Jews" arranged the hits on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with the oddly self-deprecating explanation offered by the Taliban leadership, among others, that Muslims could not have the technological know-how or organizational sophistication to pull off such a feat? Why does Imran Khan, the Pakistani ex-sports star turned politician, demand to be shown the evidence of Al Qaeda's guilt while apparently turning a deaf ear to the self-incriminating statements of Al Qaeda's own spokesmen (there will be a rain of aircraft from the skies, Muslims in the West are warned not to live or work in tall buildings)? Why all the talk about American military infidels desecrating the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia if some sort of definition of what is sacred is not at the heart of the present discontents?

Of course this is "about Islam." The question is, what exactly does that mean? After all, most religious belief isn't very theological. Most Muslims are not profound Koranic analysts. For a vast number of "believing" Muslim men, "Islam" stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God — the fear more than the love, one suspects — but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include their dietary practices; the sequestration or near-sequestration of "their" women; the sermons delivered by their mullahs of choice; a loathing of modern society in general, riddled as it is with music, godlessness and sex; and a more particularized loathing (and fear) of the prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken over — "Westoxicated" — by the liberal Western-style way of life.
Highly motivated organizations of Muslim men (oh, for the voices of Muslim women to be heard!) have been engaged over the last 30 years or so in growing radical political movements out of this mulch of "belief."

These Islamists — we must get used to this word, "Islamists," meaning those who are engaged upon such political projects, and learn to distinguish it from the more general and politically neutral "Muslim" — include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the blood-soaked combatants of the Islamic Salvation Front and Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, the Shiite revolutionaries of Iran, and the Taliban. Poverty is their great helper, and the fruit of their efforts is paranoia. This paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders, "infidels," for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed remedy is the closing of those societies to the rival project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing version of Islam in the world.

This is not wholly to go along with Samuel Huntington's thesis about the clash of civilizations, for the simple reason that the Islamists' project is turned not only against the West and "the Jews," but also against their fellow Islamists. Whatever the public rhetoric, there's little love lost between the Taliban and Iranian regimes. Dissensions between Muslim nations run at least as deep, if not deeper, than those nations' resentment of the West. Nevertheless, it would be absurd to deny that this self-exculpatory, paranoiac Islam is an ideology with widespread appeal.

Twenty years ago, when I was writing a novel about power struggles in a fictionalized Pakistan, it was already de rigueur in the Muslim world to blame all its troubles on the West and, in particular, the United States. Then as now, some of these criticisms were well-founded; no room here to rehearse the geopolitics of the cold war and America's frequently damaging foreign policy "tilts," to use the Kissinger term, toward (or away from) this or that temporarily useful (or disapproved-of) nation-state, or America's role in the installation and deposition of sundry unsavory leaders and regimes. But I wanted then to ask a question that is no less important now: Suppose we say that the ills of our societies are not primarily America's fault, that we are to blame for our own failings? How would we understand them then? Might we not, by accepting our own responsibility for our problems, begin to learn to solve them for ourselves?
Many Muslims, as well as secularist analysts with roots in the Muslim world, are beginning to ask such questions now. In recent weeks Muslim voices have everywhere been raised against the obscurantist hijacking of their religion. Yesterday's hotheads (among them Yusuf Islam, a k a Cat Stevens) are improbably repackaging themselves as today's pussycats.

An Iraqi writer quotes an earlier Iraqi satirist: "The disease that is in us, is from us." A British Muslim writes, "Islam has become its own enemy." A Lebanese friend, returning from Beirut, tells me that in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, public criticism of Islamism has become much more outspoken. Many commentators have spoken of the need for a Reformation in the Muslim world.

I'm reminded of the way noncommunist socialists used to distance themselves from the tyrannical socialism of the Soviets; nevertheless, the first stirrings of this counterproject are of great significance. If Islam is to be reconciled with modernity, these voices must be encouraged until they swell into a roar. Many of them speak of another Islam, their personal, private faith.

The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern. The only aspect of modernity interesting to the terrorists is technology, which they see as a weapon that can be turned on its makers. If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries' freedom will remain a distant dream.

Credit: From the New York Times, 11/2/2001.

1,000 Days "Trapped Inside a Metaphor"

Following are excerpts from a speech at Columbia University last night by Salman Rushdie. The speech was adapted from a forthcoming essay titled "One Thousand Days in a Balloon":
A hot-air balloon drifts slowly over a bottomless chasm, carrying several passengers. A leak develops. . . . The wounded balloon can bear just one passenger to safety. . . . But who should live, who should die? And who could make such a choice?

In point of fact, debating societies everywhere regularly make such choices without qualms, because of course what I've described is the given situation of that evergreen favorite, the Balloon Debate, in which, as the speakers argue over the relative merits and demerits of the well-known figures they have placed in disaster's mouth, the assembled company blithely accepts the faintly unpleasant idea that a human being's right to life is increased or diminished by his or her virtues or vices -- that we may be born equal but thereafter our lives weigh very differently in the scales.
. . .
I have now spent over a thousand days in just such a balloon; but, alas, this isn't a game. For most of these thousand days, my fellow-travelers included the Western hostages in Lebanon, and the British businessmen imprisoned in Iran and Iraq, Roger Cooper and Ian Richter. And I had to accept, and did accept, that for most of my countrymen and countrywomen, my plight counted for less than the others'. In any choice between us, I'd have been the first to be pitched out of the basket and into the abyss. "Our lives teach us who we are," I wrote at the end of my essay "In Good Faith." Some of the lessons have been harsh, and difficult to learn.

Trapped inside a metaphor, I've often felt the need to redescribe it, to change the terms. This isn't so much a balloon, I've wanted to say, as a bubble, within which I'm simultaneously exposed and sealed off. The bubble floats above and through the world, depriving me of reality, reducing me to an abstraction. For many people, I've ceased to be a human being. I've become an issue, a bother, an "affair." . . . And has it really been so long since religions persecuted people, burning them as heretics, drowning them as witches, that you can't recognize religious persecution when you see it? . . .

What is my single life worth? Despair whispers in my ear: "Not a lot." But I refuse to give in to despair . . . because . . . I know that many people do care, and are appalled by the . . . upside-down logic of the post- fatwa world, in which a . . . novelist can be accused of having savaged or "mugged" a whole community, becoming its tormentor (instead of its . . . victim) and the scapegoat for . . . its discontents. . . . (What minority is smaller and weaker than a minority of one?)

I refuse to give in to despair even though, for a thousand days and more, I've been put through a degree course in worthlessness, my own personal and specific worthlessness. My first teachers were the mobs marching down distant boulevards, baying for my blood, and finding, soon enough, their echoes on English streets. . . . At first, as I watched the marchers, I felt them trampling on my heart.
. . .
Sometimes I think that one day, Muslims will be ashamed of what Muslims did in these times, will find the "Rushdie affair" as improbable as the West now finds martyr-burning. One day they may agree that -- as the European Enlightenment demonstrated -- freedom of thought is precisely freedom from religious control, freedom from accusations of blasphemy. Maybe they'll agree, too, that the row over "The Satanic Verses" was at bottom an argument about who should have power over the grand narrative, the Story of Islam, and that that power must belong equally to everyone. That even if my novel were incompetent, its attempt to retell the story would still be important. That if I've failed, others must succeed, because those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
One day. Maybe. But not today.
. . .
Back in the balloon, something longed-for and heartening has happened. On this occasion, mirabile dictu, the many have not been sacrificed, but saved. That is to say, my companions, the Western hostages and the jailed businessmen, have by good fortune and the efforts of others managed to descend safely to earth, and have been reunited with their . . . own, free lives. I rejoice for them, and admire their courage, their resilience. And now I'm alone in the balloon.

Surely I'll be safe now? Surely . . . the balloon will drop safely towards some nearby haven? . . . Surely it's my turn now?

But the balloon is . . . still sinking. I realize that it's carrying a great deal of valuable freight. Trading relations, armaments deals, the balance of power in the Gulf -- these and other matters . . . are weighing it down. . . . I hear voices suggesting that if I stay aboard, this precious cargo will be endangered. The national interest is being redefined; am I being redefined out of it? Am I to be jettisoned from the balloon, after all?

When Britain renewed relations with Iran at the United Nations in 1990, . . . British officials . . . assured me unambiguously that something very substantial had been achieved on my behalf. The Iranians . . . had secretly agreed to forget the fatwa. . . . They would "neither encourage nor allow" their citizens, surrogates or proxies to act against me. Oh, how I wanted to believe that! But in the year-and-a-bit that followed, we saw the fatwa restated in Iran, the bounty money doubled, the book's Italian translator severely wounded, its Japanese translator stabbed to death; there was news of an attempt to find and kill me by contract killers working directly for the Iranian Government. . . .

It seems reasonable to deduce that the secret deal made at the United Nations hasn't worked. Dismayingly, however, the talk as I write is all of improving relations with Iran still further. . . . Is this a balloon I'm in, or the dustbin of history?

Let me be clear: There is nothing I can do to break this impasse. The fatwa was politically motivated to begin with, it remains a breach of international law, and it can only be solved at the political level. To effect the release of the Western hostages in Lebanon, great levers were moved . . . for the businessman Mr. Richter, 70 million pounds in frozen Iraqi assets were "thawed." What, then, is a novelist under terrorist attack worth? Despair murmurs, once again: "Not a plugged nickel."

But I refuse to give in to despair. You may ask why I'm so sure there's nothing I can do to help myself. . . . At the end of 1990, dispirited and demoralized . . . I faced my deepest grief, my . . . sorrow at having been torn away from . . . the cultures and societies from which I'd always drawn my . . . inspiration -- that is, the broad community of British Asians . . . the broader community of Indian Muslims. I determined to make my peace with Islam, even at the cost of my pride. Those who were surprised and displeased by what I did perhaps failed to see that . . . I wanted to make peace between the warring halves of the world, which were also the warring halves of my soul. . . .

The really important conversations I had in this period were with myself.

I said: Salman, you must send a message loud enough to . . . make ordinary Muslims see that you aren't their enemy, and you must make the West understand a little more of the complexity of Muslim culture . . ., and start thinking a little less stereotypically. . . . And I said to myself: Admit it, Salman, the Story of Islam has a deeper meaning for you than any of the other grand narratives. Of course you're no mystic, mister. . . . No supernaturalism, no literalist orthodoxies . . . for you. But Islam doesn't have to mean blind faith. It can mean what it always meant in your family, a culture, a civilization, as open-minded as your grandfather was, as delightedly disputatious as your father was. . . . Don't let the zealots make Muslim a terrifying word, I urged myself; remember when it meant family . . . .

I reminded myself that I had always argued that it was necessary to develop the nascent concept of the "secular Muslim," who, like the secular Jew, affirmed his membership of the culture while being separate from the theology. . . . But, Salman, I told myself, you can't argue from outside the debating chamber. You've got to cross the threshold, go inside the room, and then fight for your humanized, historicized, secularized way of being a Muslim. . . .

It was with such things in mind -- and with my thoughts in a state of some confusion and torment -- that I spoke the Muslim creed before witnesses. But my fantasy of joining the fight for the modernization of Muslim thought . . . was stillborn. It never really had a chance. Too many people had spent too long demonizing or totemizing me to listen seriously to what I had to say. In the West, some "friends" turned against me, calling me by yet another set of insulting names. Now I was spineless, pathetic, debased; I had betrayed myself, my Cause; above all, I had betrayed them.

I also found myself up against the granite, heartless certainties of Actually Existing Islam, by which I mean the political and priestly power structure that presently dominates and stifles Muslim societies. Actually Existing Islam has failed to create a free society anywhere on Earth, and it wasn't about to let me, of all people, argue in favor of one. Suddenly I was (metaphorically) among people whose social attitudes I'd fought all my life -- for example, their attitudes about women (one Islamicist boasted to me that his wife would cut his toenails while he made telephone calls, and suggested I find such a spouse) or about gays (one of the Imams I met in December 1990 was on TV soon afterwards, denouncing Muslim gays as sick creatures who brought shame on their families and who ought to seek medical and psychiatric help). . . .

I reluctantly concluded that there was no way for me to help bring into being the Muslim culture I'd dreamed of, the progressive, irreverent, skeptical, argumentative, playful and unafraid culture which is what I've always understood as freedom. . . . Actually Existing Islam . . . which makes literalism a weapon and redescription a crime, will never let the likes of me in.

Ibn Rushd's ideas were silenced in their time. And throughout the Muslim world today, progressive ideas are in retreat. Actually Existing Islam reigns supreme, and just as the recently destroyed "Actually Existing Socialism" of the Soviet terror-state was horrifically unlike the utopia of peace and equality of which democratic socialists have dreamed, so also is Actually Existing Islam a force to which I have never given in, to which I cannot submit.

There is a point beyond which conciliation looks like capitulation. I do not believe I passed that point, but others have thought otherwise.

I have never disowned "The Satanic Verses", nor regretted writing it. I said I was sorry to have offended people, because I had not set out to do so, and so I am. I explained that writers do not agree with every word spoken by every character they create -- a truism in the world of books, but a continuing mystery to "The Satanic Verses' " opponents. I have always said that this novel has been traduced. Indeed, the chief benefit to my mind of my meeting with the six Islamic scholars on Christmas Eve 1990 was that they agreed that the novel had no insulting motives. "In Islam, it is a man's intention that counts," I was told. "Now we will launch a worldwide campaign on your behalf to explain that there has been a great mistake." All this with much smiling and friendliness. . . . It was in this context that I agreed to suspend -- not cancel -- a paperback edition, to create what I called a space for reconciliation.

Alas, I overestimated these men. Within days, all but one of them had broken their promises, and recommenced to vilify me and my work as if we had not shaken hands. I felt (most probably I had been) a great fool. The suspension of the paperback began at once to look like a surrender. In the aftermath of the attacks on my translators, it looks even worse. It has now been more than three years since "The Satanic Verses" was published; that's a long, long "space for reconciliation." It is long enough. I accept that I was wrong to have given way on this point. "The Satanic Verses" must be freely available and easily affordable, if only because if it is not read and studied, then these years will have no meaning. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

"Our lives teach us who we are." I have learned the hard way that when you permit anyone else's description of reality to supplant your own -- and such descriptions have been raining down on me, from security advisers, governments, journalists, Archbishops, friends, enemies, mullahs -- then you might as well be dead. Obviously, a rigid, blinkered, absolutist world view is the easiest to keep hold of, whereas the fluid, uncertain, metamorphic picture I've always carried about is rather more vulnerable. Yet I must cling with all my might to . . . my own soul; must hold on to its mischievous, iconoclastic, out-of-step clown-instincts, no matter how great the storm. And if that plunges me into contradiction and paradox, so be it; I've lived in that messy ocean all my life. I've fished in it for my art. This turbulent sea was the sea outside my bedroom window in Bombay. It is the sea by which I was born, and which I carry within me wherever I go.

"Free speech is a non-starter," says one of my Islamic extremist opponents. No, sir, it is not. Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.
. . .
What is my single life worth?
Is it worth more or less than the fat contracts and political treaties that are in here with me? Is it worth more or less than good relations with a country which, in April 1991, gave 800 women 74 lashes each for not wearing a veil; in which the 80-year-old writer Mariam Firouz is still in jail, and has been tortured; and whose Foreign Minister says, in response to criticism of his country's lamentable human rights record, "International monitoring of the human rights situation in Iran should not continue indefinitely . . . Iran could not tolerate such monitoring for long"?

You must decide what you think a friend is worth to his friends, what you think a son is worth to his mother, or a father to his son. You must decide what a man's conscience and heart and soul are worth. You must decide what you think a writer is worth, what value you place on a maker of stories, and an arguer with the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, the balloon is sinking into the abyss.

[Note: These are excerpts for a speech given by Salman Rushdie on December 12, 1991.]         

Simple Truths and Apostles of Death

Following is an open letter from Salman Rushdie to Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi physician, newspaper columnist and author of the novel "Shame," who is under death threats from Muslim clerics and faces criminal charges from the Government for allegedly criticizing the Koran. Mr. Rushdie, who has been in hiding since being sentenced to death by Iranian religious leaders in 1989, is organizing an international protest on Ms. Nasrin's behalf by other prominent writers.

I am sure you have become tired of being called "the female Salman Rushdie" -- what a bizarre and comical creature that would be! -- when all along you thought you were the female Taslima Nasrin. I am sorry my name has been hung around your neck, but please know that there are many people in many countries working to make sure that such sloganizing does not obscure your identity, the unique features of your situation and the importance of fighting to defend you and your rights against those who would cheerfully see you dead.

In reality it is our adversaries who seem to have things in common, who seem to believe in divine sanction for lynching and terrorism. So instead of turning you into a female me, the headline writers should be describing your opponents as "the Bangladeshi Iranians." How sad it must be to believe in a God of blood! What an Islam they have made, these apostles of death, and how important it is to have the courage to dissent from it!

Great writers have agreed to lend their weight to the campaign on your behalf: Czeslaw Milosz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera and more. When such campaigns were run on my behalf, I found them immensely cheering, and I know that they helped shape public opinion and government attitudes in many countries.

You have spoken out about the oppression of women under Islam, and what you said needed saying. In the West, there are too many eloquent apologists working to convince people of the fiction that women are not discriminated against in Muslim countries or that, if they are, it has nothing to do with the religion. The sexual mutilation of women, according to this argument, has no basis in Islam. This may be true in theory, but in many countries where this goes on, the mullahs wholeheartedly support it. And then there are the countless crimes of violence within the home, the inequalities of legal systems that value women's evidence below that of men, the driving of women out of the workplace in all countries where Islamists have come to, or even near to power.

You have spoken out about the attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh after the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in India by Hindu extremists. Yet any fair-minded person would agree that a religious attack by Muslims on innocent Hindus is as bad as an attack by Hindus on innocent Muslims. Such simple fairness is the target of the bigots' rage, and it is that fairness which, in defending you, we seek to defend.

You are accused of having said that the Koran should be revised (though you have said that you were referring only to Islamic religious code). You may have seen that only last week the Turkish authorities have announced a project to revise these codes, so in that regard at least you are not alone. And even if you did say that the Koran should be revised to remove its ambiguities about the rights of women, and even if every Muslim man in the world were to disagree with you, it would remain a perfectly legitimate opinion, and no society which wishes to jail or hang you for expressing it can call itself free.

Simplicity is what fundamentalists always say they are after, but in fact they are obscurantists in all things. What is simple is to agree that if one may say "God exists" then another may also say "God does not exist"; that if one may say "I loathe this book" then another may also say "But I like it very much." What is not at all simple is to be asked to believe that there is only one truth, one way of expressing that truth, and one punishment (death) for those who say this isn't so.

As you know, Taslima, Bengali culture -- and I mean the culture of Bangladesh as well as Indian Bengal -- has always prided itself on its openness, its freedom to think and argue, its lack of bigotry. It is a disgrace that your Government has chosen to side with the religious extremists against their own history, their own civilization, their own values. It is the treasure-house of the intelligence, the imagination and the word that your opponents are trying to loot.

I have seen and heard reports that you are all sorts of dreadful things -- a difficult woman, an advocate (horror of horrors) of free love. Let me assure you that those of us who are working on your behalf are well aware that character assassination is normal in such situations, and must be discounted. And simplicity again has something valuable to say on this issue: even difficult advocates of free love must be allowed to stay alive, otherwise we would be left only with those who believe that love is something for which there must be a price -- perhaps a terrible price -- to pay.

Taslima, I know that there must be a storm inside you now. One minute you will feel weak and helpless, another strong and defiant. Now you will feel betrayed and alone, and now you will have the sense of standing for many who are standing silently with you. Perhaps in your darkest moments you will feel you did something wrong -- that those demanding your death may have a point. This of all your goblins you must exorcise first. You have done nothing wrong. The wrong is committed by others against you. You have done nothing wrong, and I am sure that one day soon you will be free.

Salman Rushdie is author, most recently, of "Imaginary Homelands."  

[Credit: From the New York Times, 6/14/1992.]


What Kosovo and Colorado Have in Common

In the battle for the hotly contested title of International Moron of the Year, two heavyweight contenders stand out.

One is the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who has astonished even his work's most fervent admirers by a series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic, and who, during a recent visit to Belgrade, received the Order of the Serbian Knight for his propaganda services.

Handke's previous idiocies include the suggestion that Sarajevo's Muslims regularly massacred themselves and then blamed the Serbs and his denial of the genocide carried out by Serbs at Srebrenica. Now he likens the NATO aerial bombardment to the alien invasion in the movie "Mars Attacks!'' And then, foolishly mixing his metaphors, he compares the Serbs' sufferings to the Holocaust.

His current rival in world-class folly is the movie star Charlton Heston. As president of the U.S. National Rifle Association, Heston's response to the massacre of innocents recently perpetrated by young Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., is a masterpiece of the moronic. Heston thinks America should arm its teachers and seems to believe that schools would be safer if staff had the power to gun down the children in their charge.

I will not draw glib parallels between NATO's aerial bombardments and the Colorado killings. No, the larger violence did not breed the lesser. Nor should too much be read into the accidental echo between Milosevic's Hitlerian tendencies and the lethal celebration of Hitler's birthday by the so-called "Trenchcoat Mafia'' or the even more eerie assonance between the video-game mentality of the Colorado killers and the real-life aerial videos the NATO publicists show us every day.

In the matter of the war, let's agree, too, that it's OK to feel ambiguous about the confused, changing-policy-on-the-hoof manner of the NATO action. One minute we're told Milosevic's savage retaliatory sssault on Kosovo couldn't have been foreseen; the next minute we hear that it should have been. Or again: we're not going to use ground troops. -- On second thought, maybe we are.

And our war aims? Strictly limited; we seek only to create a safe haven to which the Kosovar refugees can return. -- No, no, we're going to march into Belgrade and get Milosevic, we're not making that old Saddam mistake again!

To object to vacillation and contradiction is not, however, the same thing as Handke's half-crazy, half-cynical fellow-travelling with evil. The moral justification for NATO's intervention is the humanitarian disaster we see on our televisions every night, and to blame NATO for the plight of the refugees is to absolve the Serb army of its crimes. It needs to be said again and again: the people to blame for death and terror are those who commit terrorism and murder.

And in the matter of the Colorado killings, let us agree that guns aren't the sole cause of the horror. The killers learned how to make pipe-bombs on the Internet, and got their trenchcoats from a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, and learned to put a low value on human life from - whom? Their parents? Marilyn Manson? The Goths?

Which is not at all to adopt Charlton Heston's unrepentant position. "This isn't a gun issue,'' he tells us. "It's a child issue.'' Mr. Heston has had practice in the handing down of commandments, thus: Thou shalt defend the right to bear arms in the teeth of all the evidence, and Thou shalt certainly not be blamed just because a few kids got iced.

Kosovo and Colorado do have something in common. They show that in our unstable world, incompatible versions of reality are clashing with one another, with murderous results.
Which does not mean that we can't make moral judgements about the rival versions of the world that are at war. And the only possible judgment of the Handke and Heston versions is that they are reprehensible, indefensible and deserve to be destroyed.

Never mind that Handke is co-writer of that great movie "Wings of Desire.'' Condemned as a "monster'' by Alain Finkielkraut and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and the Serbian novelist Bora Cosic, he deserves to be, as Susan Sontag pithily puts it, "finished.''

Never mind that Heston, his face as subtly mobile as Mount Rushmore, has helped millions of moviegoers to snatch a few hours of peaceful leep in darkened cinemas. He deserves to be "finished,'' too. Who wins the prize? Peter Handke's folly makes him complicit with evil on a grand scale but, fortunately, he is almost entirely powerless. As America's foremost gun lobbyist, however, Heston is doing his best to make sure that guns remain an integral part of the American household; and so, one day soon, somewhere in America, another young man will take up arms and begin to shoot his friends.

By reason of his folly's greater effectiveness, I hand Charlton Heston the palm. But the year's not half done. Greater morons may yet step forward to challenge him. Watch this space.

Credit: © 1999 Salman Rushdie. Article in the New York Times Special Features.                          

Fighting the Forces of Invisibility

NEW YORK -- In January 2000 I wrote in a newspaper column that "the defining struggle of the new age would be between Terrorism and Security," and fretted that to live by the security experts' worst-case scenarios might be to surrender too many of our liberties to the invisible shadow-warriors of the secret world. Democracy requires visibility, I argued, and in the struggle between security and freedom we must always err on the side of freedom. On Tuesday, Sept. 11, however, the worst-case scenario came true.

They broke our city. I'm among the newest of New Yorkers, but even people who have never set foot in Manhattan have felt its wounds deeply, because New York is the beating heart of the visible world, tough-talking, spirit-dazzling, Walt Whitman's "city of orgies, walks and joys," his "proud and passionate city -- mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!" To this bright capital of the visible, the forces of invisibility have dealt a dreadful blow. No need to say how dreadful; we all saw it, are all changed by it. Now we must ensure that the wound is not mortal, that the world of what is seen triumphs over what is cloaked, what is perceptible only through the effects of its awful deeds.

In making free societies safe -- safer -- from terrorism, our civil liberties will inevitably be compromised. But in return for freedom's partial erosion, we have a right to expect that our cities, water, planes and children really will be better protected than they have been. The West's response to the Sept. 11 attacks will be judged in large measure by whether people begin to feel safe once again in their homes, their workplaces, their daily lives. This is the confidence we have lost, and must regain.

Next: the question of the counterattack. Yes, we must send our shadow-warriors against theirs, and hope that ours prevail. But this secret war alone cannot bring victory. We will also need a public, political and diplomatic offensive whose aim must be the early resolution of some of the world's thorniest problems: above all the battle between Israel and the Palestinian people for space, dignity, recognition and survival. Better judgment will be required on all sides in future. No more Sudanese aspirin factories to be bombed, please. And now that wise American heads appear to have understood that it would be wrong to bomb the impoverished, oppressed Afghan people in retaliation for their tyrannous masters' misdeeds, they might apply that wisdom, retrospectively, to what was done to the impoverished, oppressed people of Iraq. It's time to stop making enemies and start making friends.

To say this is in no way to join in the savaging of America by sections of the left that has been among the most unpleasant consequences of the terrorists' attacks on the United States. "The problem with Americans is . . . " -- "What America needs to understand . . . " There has been a lot of sanctimonious moral relativism around lately, usually prefaced by such phrases as these. A country which has just suffered the most devastating terrorist attack in history, a country in a state of deep mourning and horrible grief, is being told, heartlessly, that it is to blame for its own citizens' deaths. ("Did we deserve this, sir?" a bewildered worker at "ground zero" asked a visiting British journalist recently. I find the grave courtesy of that "sir" quite astonishing.)

Let's be clear about why this bien-pensant anti-American onslaught is such appalling rubbish. Terrorism is the murder of the innocent; this time, it was mass murder. To excuse such an atrocity by blaming U.S. government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their actions. Furthermore, terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate complaints by illegitimate means. The terrorist wraps himself in the world's grievances to cloak his true motives. Whatever the killers were trying to achieve, it seems improbable that building a better world was part of it.

The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex. These are tyrants, not Muslims. (Islam is tough on suicides, who are doomed to repeat their deaths through all eternity. However, there needs to be a thorough examination, by Muslims everywhere, of why it is that the faith they love breeds so many violent mutant strains. If the West needs to understand its Unabombers and McVeighs, Islam needs to face up to its bin Ladens.) United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has said that we should now define ourselves not only by what we are for but by what we are against. I would reverse that proposition, because in the present instance what we are against is a no-brainer. Suicidist assassins ram wide-bodied aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and kill thousands of people: um, I'm against that. But what are we for? What will we risk our lives to defend? Can we unanimously concur that all the items in the above list -- yes, even the short skirts and dancing -- are worth dying for?

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.

How to defeat terrorism? Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

[Credit: This feature appeared in The Washington Post on 10/2/2001.]

January Magazine Interview with Salman Rushdie

He is, arguably, one of the most controversial writers of our time. His fourth book, The Satanic Verses, caused an international storm so loud that, for a time, it did all but obliterate the identity of the man who had written it. "Who would have thought this kind of thing?" Salman Rushdie says now of the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989. "That the leader of a foreign power would suddenly instruct his minions to have me killed? It would never really happen to a writer."

Rushdie's most recent book, Step Across This Line -- the author's collected non-fiction from 1992 to 2002 -- is, in part, his attempt to stop people from asking about his years in hiding and living under the fatwa and to just let him -- please -- get on with his life. He says that "one of the reasons for trying to put into this book that material which deals with those years is that I thought it would sort of draw a line under it. Because, really, the answers to most of the stuff that people have asked me about those years are here, you know? So, in a way, people don't have to ask me anymore. They just have to read the book."

The author maintains that, these days, he's living a normal life. "Because the thing that I most keenly felt was the loss of ordinary life. And so it's very good to have it back. Go stand in line in the supermarket. It's just back to normal."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, back to normal looks slightly different for Salman Rushdie than it does for many people. His highly publicized move to New York -- from London, where he'd made his home for 30 years -- in 2000 was eclipsed only by his relationship with Padma Lakshmi, a 20-something international model, originally from southern India. But don't write her off because she's beautiful: Lakshmi speaks four languages, is the author of a bestselling cookbook and the host of a FoodTV network cooking show, Padma's Passport. "To Indian people," Lakshmi has been quoted as saying of Rushdie, "he's as large as Faulkner or Hemingway, and when I think about that, I wonder when he's going to figure out that I'm just a silly girl."

The move -- and the relationship -- earned Rushdie fire of an entirely new sort: many critics spared no vitriol in calling the author's 2001 novel Fury largely autobiographical, a charge the author finds irritating. "Because what nobody wants to hear is the actual truth. And the truth is: Well, yeah, sorta, it's a bit. I've used some things from my life and then I've made some other stuff up and I've changed things round and joined them together in odd ways and that becomes fiction. But nobody wants to know that."
January caught up with the 55-year-old author in Vancouver, where he appeared in a well-attended event sponsored by the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival. He was taller than expected. Perhaps gentler. No less humorous, though perhaps more generous of his time and thoughts. He spoke engagingly -- and at some length -- on any topic angled his way. He laughs easily and well and though he speaks with the British accent that comes from having spent almost his whole life as a British subject living in England, his cadences -- and his syntax -- speak pleasantly of his boyhood -- and his roots -- in India.

Linda Richards: Step Across This Line surprised me. It was more hopeful than I'd expected.
Salman Rushdie: Well, I hope so. Which pieces struck you that way?
I think all of it, in a way. And even to the way that the book was arranged: the path from beginning to end.
I put the wizard up front. [Laughs] That's right. No, I agree. I think the problem is that people only know one thing about me and I thought there might be some other things they'd like to know. So I wanted to put the other stuff up front and then get 'round to what everybody already knows.
But even the pieces that you would not think would be so hopeful really felt that way to me. I kept, in a way, hearing you say: All of the answers are out there if you change your perspective or change your heart or change your mind.
I'm sometimes anxious not to sound as if I know all the answers because, obviously, I don't. But yeah, in general, the subject of change has been a big subject for me as it is for anybody whose life moves so dramatically between worlds. I've always thought of it, more or less, as a very positive force.

Is there one question that irritates you beyond all others that journalists always ask you?
[Nods] Oh: How autobiographical is it? [Laughs] And I've discovered the correct answer to that question. Because what nobody wants to hear is the actual truth. And the truth is: Well, yeah, sorta, it's a bit. I've used some things from my life and then I've made some other stuff up and I've changed things round and joined them together in odd ways and that becomes fiction. But nobody wants to know that. So the correct answer is: It's completely autobiographical. [Laughs]

And, I guess, that question relates to Fury.
Yeah. But it's all my books. In every single book I've ever published people have assumed that I was the central character. In Midnight's Children they did and in Satanic Verses they did: every single book. And yet, all of these central characters, if you look at them, are really unlike each other, you know? So when you sort of add them up, it doesn't add up to a person. [Laughs] But it still happens. Especially with books that are either narrated in the first person or which have a really tightly focused point of view character, in the way that Fury does. There's an assumption that it's the author but, you know, it's not.

And, for Midnight's Children, you were born in 1947 [the year of India's independence] and....
Yeah! That's right. There are those coincidences which are deliberate and the things in Midnight's Children that are taken from life ... [and] there's the fact that it's my generation and also the circumstances of the book. That [the main character] essentially grows up in my neighborhood and goes to my school and those things, which is just the commonplace thing about writers. You set things in the world that you know. But, beyond that, the book goes off into very eccentric areas that have nothing to do with my family life. That's all so interesting! But it's not what I thought would be the most irritating question at all.

What did you think would be the most irritating question?
Well, fatwa related stuff.

Oh yeah. That's irritating too.
That would get old.

That has got old. But one of the reasons for trying to put into this book that material which deals with those years is that I thought it would sort of draw a line under it. Because, really, the answers to most of the stuff that people have asked me about those years are here [indicates a nearby copy of Step Across This Line], you know? So, in a way, people don't have to ask me anymore. They just have to read the book.

Do you want to put an end to it?
Well, yes. In my life it's really been effectively over for quite a long time. It's been over for getting on for four years.

When did it start?
In February 1989. The deal that canceled the threat was four years ago, so as I say -- except when I'm talking to journalists -- it doesn't feature in my life. It hasn't done so for a long time. So I think it's about time to declare the subject closed. But I can't say nothing about it. Especially if I'm writing a non-fiction book that arises out of that decade because clearly a lot of this material is affected by those years and so, at the moment, it's legitimate to talk about it.

Wonderful, also, to share. I loved, particularly, the journal you kept while traveling in India with your son. [The first trip back after the fatwa.]
Well, that was a big moment. It was strange because when I did that trip to India and The New Yorker suggested that I [write] about it I said: Well, actually, I don't know how it'll go and I don't know if there'll be a story. That's to say that I don't want to write just another What I Did On My Holiday article, you know? I want there to be a real reason for writing the piece and I said: I'm just going to reserve the right to not write it. I'm just going to go there and see what happens and see what comes out of it.

And so you kept a journal?
Yeah, I kept a journal. But the thing that happened, well, two things happened. One was that the journey with my son really for me became the story, you know? That was a kind of very personal writing that I'd not really done before. So that was interesting to do. He felt very kind of odd about it at first and then he felt good about it when he read it. It is difficult to be written about anyway and it's particularly difficult, I guess, to be written about by your father and then for it to be published. I gave him a right of veto. I said he should read it and if there were things he felt odd about then I would take them out. But he didn't exercise that right of veto at all. So that was a good sign.

And it was lovely. Traveling together and reconnecting him with the spirit of his mother. It was beautiful.
Well that stuff. That's what I felt was actually the story to tell. And the other thing was at that reception that I had been a little uncertain of turned out to be incredibly affectionate and that all the stuff that people had been worried about turned out just to be nothing. One of the things I really felt through those years [of the fatwa] is that often, particularly in the case of security forces, people were running from shadows. That there actually wasn't anything to run from. That people would just assume there was and so behave in a sort of maximum security way when, in fact, all you were doing was walking down the street, you know, and there was no problem there.

You speak to that in Step Across This Line. I think that makes the timing of the book's publication so salient. A lot of people are frightened now and you know -- firsthand -- about the threat of terrorism.
And you speak to it, directly. You write: "How to defeat terrorism? Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared."

Well that's the thing that I felt. We all have a kind of description of the world and out of that come our instincts and how to behave and what is appropriate and what is inappropriate and so on. Now the security picture of the world is bizarre. And clearly there's in part a reason why it's bizarre and September 11 shows you what that reason is. But the point is, if you're listening down there below consciousness -- you know, the unspoken, the invisible, the ether, the crackle -- then you're always hearing bad news. And the problem is, if you live according to that, then your life becomes very deformed. The worst case scenario of crossing the road is that you're going to get hit by a bus. So if you apply the worst case scenario, you can't cross the road. But actually, people cross the road all the time and are not hit by a bus. But that's the thing: the worst case scenario is the worst case scenario. The trouble with maximum security is that it assumes that you always have to cater for that. That whatever you do must cover that too, you know? So that in order to cross the road you have to close the street so that you can cross the road and there's no chance that a bus could come down and hit you.

And you've seen that close up.
Yes. I've seen it. And I understood quite early that in order to retain even my sanity but also my ability to make judgments and choices, I couldn't accept that view of the world. I was not going to surrender my ordinary world view and replace it by the security world view, because then I would become their creature. I could only do what they said. I didn't feel like doing what they said because often I felt that I was right and they were wrong.

And, had you done that, you'd probably still be doing it.
Yeah. Exactly. I think you become institutionalized. It would be like going to jail. So, from the beginning, I started questioning everything and that enabled me to begin the process of gradually getting my life back.

And now you have it back?
[Nods] But some of it lingers.
I know that. For instance, in setting up this interview today, I was meeting you at an undisclosed location, as far as I was concerned.

You were?
Well, that's just the publishers being careful. I don't do that. What I find now, and it's actually slightly the most irritating thing, is that people become cautious on my behalf when I've requested nothing. As far as I'm concerned I just behave like everyone else and I wish people would stop doing it, really, because it creates a wrong atmosphere around me. Once upon a time that was true and there was arguably a need for it.

You mean they didn't tell you where you were supposed to come?
Just an "undisclosed downtown location." Until today.

I'm amazed. I'm really amazed. That's bizarre. I'm sorry about that. But it's certainly absolutely nothing to do with anything I requested. It's just people trying to be careful on my behalf.

I guess, also, they don't want to lose you on their watch. [Laughs]
But no, again, that may once have been an issue but now it's not. And I'm slightly annoyed that people make it an issue again when actually I do not live like that and I strongly resent now intrusions of security into my life because it took me a decade to get it out of my life and I don't want it around me. And really, it isn't [an issue]. If I'm walking around in New York and taking the subway and so on it's kind of silly to have a cloak and dagger game about where you should be.

And you do that? Take the subway and stuff?
Yeah. Of course.

I didn't realize. But, I guess, having just read [Step Across This Line], I've just experienced it all with you, so it seems very fresh. Very new. [Laughs]

So, at some point at least, doing simple things like taking the subway must have been delicious for you.
Well it was. Certainly. Of course it was. Because the thing that I most keenly felt was the loss of ordinary life. And so it's very good to have it back. Go stand in line in the supermarket. It's just back to normal. So I really don't like it when people treat it as if it's not normal. If I were to walk around here, people might recognize me, but so what? It doesn't stop anything. So you just get used to it. And when people do come up it's always just a moment and it's always friendly so it doesn't bother me, really.

In Step Across This Line you say that the Australian writer David Malouf warns "particularly of the dangers of speaking about work in progress." Despite that, do you talk about yours?

You mean about work in progress? I try not to, really. I read an interview many years ago that Gabriel García Márquez gave which had been done when he was writing Autumn of Patriarch. And the interview bore so little relationship to the book that he finally published. [Laughs] You know, because, clearly, your ideas about your book develop all the time and the book you finish is never really the book you begin. You discover better solutions and more interesting ways to go. Stuff you thought was powerful turns out to be a kind of damp squid and things you thought were going to be three pages long turn out to be 40 pages long. So it's very difficult to talk about it in any way that means anything.

In the piece where you quoted Malouf, you talked about inspiration and influence. Can you talk about that in relation to what you're working on?

One of the things that I think about the subject of influence is that when you start as a writer it's [how you] find your way. All books, to an extent, come from other books. As well as from life. So when you start out you think: Oh yes, you have these kind of guiding stars and it helps you steer. But I think what happens is that gradually that stops away, you know? You don't need to lean on the influence of other writers so much because you've found your own voice and your own direction.

Sometimes writers can come in useful, they can give you tips and hints. For instance, when I was writing Fury one of the things I read at that time was [Honoré de] Balzac's Eugénie Grandet. I suddenly thought: Balzac is doing something that I could really use, which is the way in which he begins the novel with a description of a town and then inside the town a neighborhood inside the neighborhood the street, on the street a house, inside the house a room, in the room a chair, on the chair a woman sitting in the chair and this is her problem. The opening of Eugénie Grandet is like a zoom lens. It starts off at a very wide angle and gradually comes right in and picks out one figure and tells you that story. But first it's created a context. And I thought it was really interesting. And in a way very modern, cinematic, almost.

One of the reasons Fury begins with some quite long passages just about the city streets and about New York and so on was exactly to say: first let's make the place vivid and then let's follow this man's story through it. In that sense, yeah, other writers can give you a helping hand. But it's not exactly the same as when you start. When you start you're actually trying to define yourself against other writers, test yourself against other writers. You're still shaping yourself. At that point influence has a much bigger role in your writing. By now, as I say, it can be a help -- the work of other writers -- it can be a help, but it's no longer a crutch in the way that it can be when you start out.

What are you reading right now?

Well, I'm reading this terrific book of Michael Ondaatje's. He's written this book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. [Murch] was the editor of Apocalypse Now and The English Patient and of many, many other films besides. And, what is interesting, listening to Murch who -- unusually for a film editor -- [is] very articulate and has a very wide cultural frame of reference and so he can really talk about it. He talks about it in a way that is very reminiscent to me of many choices that one makes as a writer. For example, he talks about how the techniques of montage can actually help to tell the story by giving a different feeling than what the characters are actually saying. In writing there are moments like this. For instance, if you want to create the mood of a relationship that's in trouble without actually saying that it's in trouble, a way you can do this is quite like editing technique. You can have your characters talking to each other -- and they can be talking to each other in a completely affectionate way, without suggesting directly that they have any problems between them. But if you write it in a very broken up way, if you write it in a very staccato series of sentences which feel kind of jangling and odd, etc. the reader can actually get the sense that something is wrong without actually being told that there's something wrong. You create the mood with the rhythm of the language and you don't necessarily, at that point, really have to spell it out. You can spell it out at the appropriate dramatic moment. But the reader kind of gets the feeling of something tense just because you write about it that way.

So it's very interesting reading Michael's book about Murch. He approaches film editing in exactly that way. And some of the most interesting stuff in the book is Michael comparing his work methods to Murch's work methods. And you begin to see how much there is in common.

Writing is still very much on ongoing learning process for you.
Of course. One of the great things about writing is you don't learn anything. [Laughs] Or you hardly learn anything because, put it this way, everything you learn in the process of writing a book is used up in the process of writing that book. And then you get the next book and the thing you don't want to do is to write it exactly the same way you wrote the previous book. And therefore everything that you've painstakingly worked out for that book is not useful now and you have to try new solutions for the new work.

I mean, it's not true that you learn absolutely nothing. There are certain things that do come with experience. For example, there's almost always a moment when I'm writing a book when it suddenly clogs and I can't go on. It sort of jams. One of the things I've learned through experience is when that happens, the problem is never there -- the problem is never at the point where it jams. The problem is back somewhere. There's been something wrongly imagined, you know, or under imagined. The wrong thing has been set in motion or something that should have been set in motion has not been set in motion. Then you have to go back and find out where the blockage is. It's sort of like plumbing: you have to find out where the blockage is and then send the rooter guy. [Laughs] And once you've cleared the blockage then you find can go on.

The sense in which it is not like plumbing is that often once you've found the mistake, it requires rewriting all the way: They shouldn't have had a fight then, because if they had a fight then they can't get together here to do what they need to do. So you have to undo that fight, even if you want them actually to be in a state of high tension. They actually can't have a break there because they need to be doing something together here. So you have to go find out what you've done wrong and it can be the page before, it can be 100 pages before but that's something that experience teaches you: always don't look for the solution at the point where you are. It's somewhere else.

Do you work on a computer? Or in longhand?
Well, I work on both. I do a lot of my preliminary work in notebooks. I always carry a notebook and I'm always scribbling in it. Just ideas and phrases and thoughts, little passages and so on. When I'm actually writing writing, I do it on a laptop because, for a start, it's just so portable and you can take 15 different versions with you.

And you can undo those blockages 100 pages ago.

Yeah, but also before laptops I used to do it on a typewriter and what I found is that when sentences were in my handwriting, I found it difficult to be objective about their quality. I either thought they were too good, or I thought they were too bad. I was either too critical of them or not critical enough. I couldn't have proper distance. And, somehow, type -- or now print on a screen -- allows me to be much more neutral. Dispassionate. And just look at it and say: Well, that doesn't quite work. Or: Yes, leave that alone, it's good. But then what I do is I'm endlessly printing it out and scribbling all over it and putting the scribbles back into the computer. So I sort of use both processes and one of the reasons is that I've found that when you're looking at a sheet of paper -- your hard copy -- you actually see slightly different things than you see on a computer screen. So what I find is that there are things I now see on a computer screen that maybe I was missing when there was only hard copy. But I like to have both experiences. But I love it. I was a very late convert to computers.

How late?

1995. The Moor's Last Sigh was the first novel I wrote on a computer, so I guess that was 93, 94.

I imagine that the technology would have been helpful to you, because your work is so intricate. I think there must be no one on the planet who understands all of your jokes and all of your insides. One of the reasons I say this is because of something that happened when I was reviewing The Ground Beneath Her Feet back in 1999. As I was reading it I said to [January art director and primary photographer] David [Middleton]: There's this photographer [in The Ground Beneath her Feet] and he works for the Nebuchadnezzar photo agency. And I said: I know that's not a real thing, but I have the feeling there's something there I'm not getting. And David laughed his head off, because, he told me, a nebuchadnezzar is a bottle for champagne, but it's...

[Laughing] .... it's much bigger than a magnum.

But who's going to get that?

Well, he got it. Photographers get it. It's a photography joke. If you want to have something that isn't Magnum [the world's largest non-fictional photographic agency].

But I think it's wonderful. [Laughs] Because you really have to pay attention.

Or not, you know. I mean, you've got to name it something. If you're going to write about photography, obviously it starts because you have a sort of interest in it anyway and then you go and find out a great deal more about it in order to write the book and so, along the way, you find yourself reading a lot about things like Magnum Agency and the birth of it and so on.

And then when you're a wordie anyway, you go: Oh, Magnum...

What'll I call my fictional agency? It's like that. It's not really there for people to find, even. It's really just a way for me to find the name.

But it's a part of your humor, I think. Those little touches. Your humor is very rich and very deep. Your work is very funny. Often in the most unexpected places.

Well, thank you. That's what's great about coming on these tours and doing readings in front of audiences. And they're very enjoyable evenings if people are laughing a lot. It's one of the things that people stopped saying about my writing at a certain point. I think because what came at me was so unfunny there was a tendency to believe my writing must have the characteristics of the attack against it. If the attack was unfunny then I couldn't possibly be a funny writer and if the attack was kind of arcane and theological and kind of alien then the writing must be sort of arcane and theological and alien, you know? I think, for people that had never tried my work, it kind of put them off.

It's true. I've noticed that even while I've been reading Step Across This Line. People said: What do you think of it? And I've replied: It's so funny in spots. I always forget how funny he is. And they've said: What? Rushdie funny? But, of course. That's always been a component.

That's the thing. People who haven't read me are surprised when you say it. People who have read me are not. And clearly there are more people in the world who have not read me than have. Unfortunately. [Laughs]

With Step Across This Line we're putting the fatwa to bed then?


So I will ask you then, because this is the last time we'll speak about it, were you surprised by it?

Yeah. Well, I wasn't surprised that a bunch of mullahs didn't like it, because they never liked anything I wrote anyway. And I didn't particularly write for them. They're not my team. I just thought that people of very orthodox, religious belief might find it not to their taste, you know. And, no doubt, they would say so and then, no doubt, we'd have an argument and then that would be it. After all, one of the reasons there are lots of books in bookstores is that you don't have to buy the books you don't want. So what? If they don't like it, buy another book. My view is that that's what would happen. I thought there would probably be a bit of an argument about it, you know? But I thought, that's fine. It's actually one of the good things that books can do, is to start interesting arguments. And then you have the argument and then you get on to the next thing, whatever it is. So I thought that would happen. Who would have thought this kind of thing? That the leader of a foreign power would suddenly instruct his minions to have me killed? It would never really happen to a writer. And, frankly, if I'd have told you on the publication date of Satanic Verses that that would happen, you'd have thought I was mad.

Had you known, would you have published it?

Oh, who knows?

It changed your life.

Yeah, but I'm very proud of it as a book, is what I'll say. I can't imagine my work without it and I think it's as good a book as I've written. And what is good now -- now that the fuss is mostly over -- it's finally getting read as a book. It's getting studied a lot at colleges and it's going back onto the book pages. It's being read as a novel. And then there's the full range of response: there are people who love it, there are people who sort of can't stand it, people who find it very exciting, people who find it very boring, which is fine. That's how everybody uses books all the time. And it's nice that it finally gets to have a book conversation around it instead of all these other conversations.

The experience made you a strident advocate for free speech.

Yeah but I always believed in free speech. It's just that I didn't feel the need to sound off about it before.

Do you thing that the adversity of it all made you stronger? Made you push harder?

Yeah. Well, I hope that in each book I try to push into areas that I haven't been before. But it certainly made me feel very determined not to be silenced. Not to be shut up. It also made me determined not to be defined by this attack. You start as a writer, you have your beliefs as a writer and your concerns as a writer. You have your project. I just thought: I'm just going to try to keep going down my road and not be turned into a creature of the public. There were a number of elephant traps. I thought, if I get it wrong I'd either become very timid and write very safe little books that never went to the edge in any way and that would be kind of destruction. But the opposite thing, I thought, would also be damaging because if I started writing, in a way, very angry books -- revenge books, books that were just getting even -- then again I would be defined by the attack. So you can't do either of those.

Because it would be affecting you.

Yeah. And it would be controlling you. So the thing that I like about the first two books that I wrote after the fatwa -- the first Haroun and the Sea of Stories and then The Moor's Last Sigh -- is that they really are my books. I think if you read those books you can hear that they are from the same person who was writing before the attack. The voice has, of course, developed and changed, but that happens from book to book anyway. But my feeling was: I'm not going to let them overpower my work. My work is going to go on being my work. It's not going to become my work with them telling me how to do it. I discovered I had the bloodymindedness to do that.

Why the collection of essays now?

Well, 10 or 11 years ago I published the first collection of non-fiction [Imaginary Homelands] -- 1981 - 1991 -- and simply if you're the kind of person who, like me, does every so often do essays and journalism and so on and so on, gradually you get this folder filling up and I thought: Well, here's this whole pile of stuff, let me see what there is. So I started re-exploring it -- and by no means all of it is in here because there's stuff you don't particularly feel is worth preserving and you're quite happy to see forgotten. And I rewrote all the stuff [that was included in the book]. I mean, everything in [Step Across This Line] has been gone over again.

I noticed the addition of the footnotes.

Yeah, but even just sentence by sentence it's been gone over. If you compare it to the first publication, every piece is slightly different. Journalism is a kind of ephemera. But if you're going to put something in a really permanent form, then you want to make sure you that you've given it all the care that you'd give to any of your other stuff.

So you didn't just hand someone all your old stuff.

No. Absolutely not. I really worked them again.

And you sequenced them?

Yes. And what I wanted to do, in my mind there's a sort of journey through the book. In a way, it's a self-portrait, this book. But it's a self-portrait not so much in terms of my daily life, but in terms of my inner workings. So I thought the first section is this writer -- me, in other words -- talking about all kinds of essentially artistic and cultural matters, whether it's books or movies or whatever it might be. And that first section gives the reader, I hope, some kind of portrait of what kind of writer this is. And then this dreadful thing happens to him. And then there's a second part in which the book becomes a response to that. Here's this person and you saw what he's like. Now he has to deal with this. The second part is the one that required the most work, in a way, because it's the one where I really did take bits from here and bits from there and make a kind of collage.

At the end of second part you come out of the tunnel and then that sensibility, which has now been shaped by all this stuff, you take that and look at the world. Instead of turning inward to argue about yourself, you turn it outwards. That's the journey through the book, I think. I tried to make it feel like that. And then it's not just a grab bag of old bits. It becomes a book which has a shape and a flow, like any book should, and feels like a whole. So that's how it emerged. So there's a lot more shaping work in it than people might think from it being called collected non-fiction.

And so you begin with a very intimate look at The Wizard of Oz, which I thought was a good starting point. It invites you in gently.

I think in any book, whatever it is, fiction or non-fiction, it's very important more or less straight away to say to the reader: It's going to be this kind of ride. In every book the writer makes a contract with the reader. You have to respect that. You can't have a book that's a naturalistic novel on page one that becomes a science fiction novel on page 100 because it annoys people. Or, if you're going to do it, you have to do it very deliberately and know why you're doing it and etc. So I thought, if I put political material up at the front it's going to be impossible to have this other cultural and funnier and lighter stuff later on because people will assume they're getting book A and they'll be disappointed when it turns into book B. But if you say: I'm going to start by telling you who I am and what I think and then we'll get into that other stuff, then people accept that. That's why I think that having things like the wizard up front helps that.

What makes you happiest in your life right now?

Well, there are so many ways of answering that. In one sense what makes me happiest is my children and in another sense what makes me happiest is that I'm at quite a good place in my life where I'm fortunate personally both in my private life and in my professional life. You know, I don't know how to answer the question. A good day at the office makes me happy. There are days when the writing goes well and the world seems to hum because you feel really good and then, the next day, you feel like a donkey again.

[Linda Richards is editor of January Magazine. Interview done in September 2002.]                    

Gods and Monsters

s the leaders of al Qaeda evade capture, regroup and return to the al-Jazeera airwaves to offer menaces and derision, the United States looks increasingly like a blind giant, flailing uselessly about: like, in fact, the blinded Cyclops Polyphemus of Homeric myth, who was only one-eyed to begin with, who had that eye put out by Ulysses and his fugitive companions, and who was reduced to roaring in impotent rage and hurling boulders in the general direction of Ulysses' taunting voice.

Indeed, the allegedly still-living Osama bin Laden might find the story of Ulysses and Polyphemus useful as an allegory of his own battle against the Great Satan of America. (Polyphemus, after all, is a sort of evil superpower, a stupid creature of great, brute force who respects no laws or gods and devours human flesh, whereas Ulysses is crafty, devious, slippery, uncatchable and dangerous.) Then again, he might not, for by wounding Polyphemus Ulysses aroused the wrath of the Cyclops's father, Poseidon, the sea god who rules over the fate of all wanderers and fugitives, and was doomed never to return home until all his men were lost and home itself had grown anything but homely.

Allegory will take you only so far, however, and I rather doubt that Osama bin Laden spends much time poring over Book 9 of "The Odyssey"; but one of the more worrying aspects of our more-than-worrying times is the extent to which the ordinary citizenry of the Muslim world is prepared to go along with the Osama bin Laden mob's characterization of America in particular, and of the West and "the Jews" in general, as monstrous.

This, in spite of a concerted Western effort to counter the opposite of this kind of demonization. In the United States since Sept. 11, and also in a Europe alarmed by the resurgence of the far right, there have been and continue to be laudable efforts to prevent Muslims from being tarred with the terrorist brush. Muslim voices, those of the people on the Arab, Afghan, Pakistani or Kashmiri streets as well as those of intellectuals and politicians, are being given media time and space, and are being listened to. (The British Guardian newspaper's decision to spend a whole week spotlighting "Islamophobia" is a recent example.) Most of the voices we have heard have had extremely harsh things to say about the United States of America, and its arrogance, brutality, ignorance and so on.

It is difficult not to feel that even in the most civilized of these voices there is less passion for the battle against terrorism than there is for the polemics of victimization by the American Cyclops. It is difficult not to hear, in the widespread condemnations of the West's sybaritic, hedonist, sex-obsessed individualism, milder echoes of the fanatical puritanism of the Islamist extremists. It is difficult not to hear, beneath the condemnations of America's suffering at the hands of Sept. 11 murderers, a gleeful note of schadenfreude; it is difficult to ignore the admiration for the terrorists' success in giving America a bloody nose. It is hard, too, to forget that Gallup poll, taken across the Muslim world a few months ago, in which, by a big margin, those interviewed denied Muslim responsibility for Sept. 11.

Some of us have been listening out for something else: the emergence of a genuine Muslim polemic against the harm the terrorists are doing to their "own people." The war against Islamist terror will only be won when Muslims around the world begin to believe that fanaticism is a greater evil than that which they believe the United States to embody -- an evil, moreover, more damaging to Muslims, more socially, economically and politically destructive, and possessed by the nightmare vision of the Talibanization of the planet. After nine months during which it has been repeatedly stressed that most Muslims are not terrorists, but ordinary, decent human beings, it would be good to point to the birth of an international Muslim movement against terrorism. Unfortunately no such movement has emerged, nor is there the slightest indication that it may yet do so.

It's true that the U.S. government has seemed at times to be doing its best to justify comparisons to the blinded Cyclops -- except that this is a Polyphemus whose blindness is largely self-inflicted. The litany of pre-9/11 intelligence errors has been repeated many times -- the shelved reports, the untranslated warnings, the sheer doltishness of American officialdom. We know now that many prominent Bushies were busily opposing the allocation of resources to intelligence work right up to the moment of the attacks. And we know that in spite of the full deployment of all America's resources, no one has come up with a location for the hiding place of her greatest foe. One can't help feeling that the word "intelligence" is a misnomer here -- that "unintelligence" might be more accurate, or even "stupidity." The U.S. authorities claim that this period of blindness is at an end, that many conspiracies have been frustrated, many threats identified, and some arrests made (even though, as in the case of the execrable Jose Padilla, they have been made on the very flimsiest of evidence). Time will tell who is right: al Qaeda's blood-curdling spokesman Sulaiman Abu-Ghaith or the U.S. government. Nobody I know is confident of the outcome.

America can indeed look much like an ugly, blundering giant. America's Middle East policy, for example, is the terrorists' single greatest propaganda weapon, and the new Bush hard line is not exactly designed to change that. But if, indeed, most of the world's 1 billion Muslims want nothing to do with terrorism, as we are constantly being told, then it's time that their leaders, educators, information media and intelligentsia stopped creating the preconditions for that terrorism by perpetuating the image of a satanic, Polyphemus-like America that is well worth destroying.

From New York Times, dated 6/28/2002.

On Censorship

by Salman Rushdie

FOR those of us who cannot imagine a future without books, it is disturbing to note how many present-day visions have no room for books at all. The view from Bill Gates to Blade Runner is distinctly post-literate. For those of us who write books, it sometimes seems that it's open season on writers around the world nowadays, a horrifying state of affairs which this indispensable magazine does so much to record and to protest against. And for those of us who are as concerned about the right to read what we choose as the right to write what we choose, it is alarming that the business of demanding bans on whatever ideas get up people's noses is getting to be respectable. It's getting to be cool.

Futurology can be defined as the science of being wrong about the future, and novelists are no better at this kind of speculation than anyone else. Bad news being more glamorous than good, dystopic predictions are far easier to come up with than optimistic ones, and have more apparent credibility. Trapped between indifference and persecution, looking increasingly anachronistic beside the new information technology, what chance of survival does literature have? It's easy to shrug despairingly and start preparing the obituaries.

And yet, I find myself wanting to take issue with this facile despair. It is perhaps the low-tech nature of the act of writing that will save it. Means of artistic expression that require large quantities of finance and sophisticated technology, films, plays, records, become, by virtue of that dependence, easy to censor and to control. But what one writer can make in the solitude of one room is something no power can easily destroy.

© Salman Rushdie, 1996. Also credit to Index on Censorship.

© 2001