Salman Rushdie on Defending Free Speech in the Face of Fanaticism
The attack on the celebrated author makes what he said in a 2005 interview ever more relevant
For 37 years, celebrated novelist Salman Rushdie beat the fatwa (religious edict) calling for his head that the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s head cleric, issued after the 1988 release of The Satanic Verses, his novel satirizing Islamic fundamentalism. But two weeks ago, it got him. Hadi Matar, a disturbed 24-year-old Muslim American, stabbed him almost a dozen times when he was speaking at Chautauqua Institution, about 70 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York. Rushdie will lose an eye but is otherwise expected to survive.
So this might be a good time to dust off an interview of Rushdie that I conducted when he visited another school, Michigan State University, in 2005. Even though we were already 17 years into the fatwa, security was intense. Bomb-sniffing dogs crawled all over the lecture hall. Guards patted me down and then escorted us to a pre-sniffed room to talk. As soon as they retreated to stand guard outside, I recall Rushdie grousing about all the fuss and how unnecessary it was.
That has proved false.
But we had a wide-ranging conversation, published in Reason magazine, about the tumultuous times we were then living in: Islamic radicalism was threatening free speech. The world was still reeling from 9/11. President George W. Bush had declared an all out war on terrorism, toppling not just the Taliban in Afghanistan but Saddam Hussein in Iraq, raising deeply troubling issues about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
The world hasn’t stabilized since then. To the contrary, in fact. So if I were to talk to Rushdie again today, I would ask him about: The dashed hopes from the Arab Spring. The global decline of liberal democracy. The rise of right-wing extremism both in America, his and my adopted country, and India, his and my native country, whose celebration in Midnight’s Children catapulted him to literary stardom.
I’d ask him if he’d still write The Satanic Verses today, not because of the consequences for him but for Indian Muslims. His satire of Islam and Prophet Mohammad in that book was in the spirit of an internal critique prodding his religion toward reform. But fanatical Hindu politicians today, as Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan noted in his podcast at The UnPopulist, are desecrating the Prophet simply to humiliate India’s 200 million Muslims and remind them of their second-class status. What are the literary ethics that ought to guide a writer in determining which enduring truths s/he should address at a given political moment?
Salman Rushdie is a political novelist whose political and novelistic instincts have long been in tension with each other. From age 15 he was drawn to the Marxist left, an attraction that eventually led him to the jungles of Nicaragua as a guest of the Sandinista regime. The result was 1987’s The Jaguar Smile, which issued an overly optimistic account of Nicaragua’s future under its socialist rulers. The book made Rushdie a darling of the left and a pariah among conservatives.
Rushdie’s novelistic sensibility, in contrast to his political sensibility, is individualistic, even entrepreneurial: Even at age 58 he is a literary risk-taker, a stance underscored by the title of his new essay collection, Step Across This Line.
At a time when Western writings about India were dominated by E. M. Forster-style nostalgia about the Raj, Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children (1980), an Indian perspective on the end of colonial rule. The book’s most remarkable feature was that instead of adapting India to fit the prevailing English idiom and style, as most writers, Western and Indian, had done until then, Rushdie adapted English to fit India. He invented a whole new prose and narrative style to capture the colorful, chaotic, and cacophonous reality of his homeland. Breaking from cool Forsterian tones, Rushdie’s prose has a frenetic energy that is enhanced by a generous peppering of Hindi and Urdu words used without italics, much less explanation, as if India’s bustling polyglot cities leave no time for such linguistic courtesies.
Rushdie’s literary iconoclasm derives not merely from the demands of his subject matter but from a deep personal instinct: his hatred of all orthodoxies, especially religious ones. Although he grew up in a Muslim household, he rejected his faith at a young age and still remains a resolute unbeliever. While Rushdie’s literary iconoclasm has earned him a place in the pantheon of the world’s great contemporary writers, his religious iconoclasm has not produced such happy results. His 1988 book The Satanic Verses included a parody of Islam that incensed Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who charged Rushdie with apostasy and issued a fatwa calling for his death.
For years the fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding in London. It cost him his marriage and isolated him from his young son. The book was banned in India and he was barred from his homeland. Desperate to resume normal life, Rushdie apologized to Muslims and even formally converted to Islam, a move that he later repudiated.
An iconoclast’s soul cannot come to terms with tyranny. In Rushdie’s case, the ordeal of being hunted and censored heightened the tension between his political and literary sensibilities, sparking—to use the Marxist term—an inner dialectic. That experience has brought him around to a fundamental libertarian concern: freedom, a theme repeatedly examined in the essays that make up Step Across This Line, the book he was promoting at the time.
Writing Under a Fatwa
Shikha Dalmia: Step Across This Line is about crossing frontiers—physical, metaphorical, moral. The biggest frontier you’ve crossed is from being a free, ordinary man to being a hunted man. How did that affect your writing?
Salman Rushdie: The most direct effect was that I lost the equivalent of one novel. There was so much time and effort and stress dedicated to fighting the threats and getting them reversed, there were long stretches when I had no time to work because these other things took precedence.
In terms of the actual content of the writings, I’m not sure. It is very hard for me to separate what’s just a side effect of growing older and getting more experience and what is specifically attributable to that threat. I suppose I became more intellectually engaged in the subject of freedom. If you live in free countries you don’t have to spend all your life arguing about freedom because it is all around you. It seems redundant to make a lot of noise about something when, in fact, there it is. But if someone tries to remove it, it becomes important for you to formulate your own defenses of it.
The thing I feared most after the fatwa was that there were a number of ways my writing could be derailed by that attack. In a literary sense, I was afraid I would write much more cautious books. Or alternatively, that I would become embittered and write more hostile books. I realized that both of these outcomes would be catastrophes, because that would make me entirely a creature of the event. I would stop being the writer I had set out to be, and I would become the writer who had been recreated because of the attack on Satanic Verses. I told myself very early on that I wasn’t going to fall into those elephant traps.
Dalmia: Had the fatwa come earlier in your career, do you think it would have derailed your efforts to find yourself as a writer?
Rushdie: Very possibly. It almost did derail me. But I think I had enough under my belt and enough sense of where I wanted to go as a writer that I was able to go on.
Extremism and Relativism: Two Sides of the Same Coin?
Dalmia: Do you think freedom of speech is threatened by cultural relativism—by the idea that principles like free expression are not universal truths but simply local cultural constructs?
Rushdie: The idea of universal rights—the idea of rights that are universal to all people because they correspond to our natures as human beings, not to where we live or what our cultural background is—is an incredibly important one. This belief is being challenged by apostles of cultural relativism who refuse to accept that such rights exist. If you look at those who employ this idea, it turns out to be Robert Mugabe, the leaders of China, the leaders of Singapore, the Taliban, Ayatollah Khomeini. It is a dangerous belief that everything is relative and therefore these people should be allowed to kill because it’s their culture to kill.
I think we live in a bad age for the free speech argument. Many of us have internalized the censorship argument, which is that it is better to shut people up than to let them say things that we don’t like. This is a dangerous slippery slope, because people of good intentions and high principles can see censorship as a way of advancing their cause and not as a terrible mistake. Yet bad ideas don’t cease to exist by not being expressed. They fester and become more powerful.
Dalmia: The fatwa was in some ways a precursor to September 11. It was the clearest indication of the threat Islamic fundamentalism posed to freedom, pluralism, secularism, and everything we love about the West. You called on Western leaders at that time to unite to defeat the forces of tyranny and terrorism, the “witch-burners” as you called them, pointing out that this was not about religion but about domination and control. Did the West respond?
Rushdie: Pretty slowly. I think eventually it did. One of the things that was interesting was that on both sides of that argument there were people who wanted to describe this as an exceptional event. People who were on my side wished to say that this was an exceptionally horrible attack on a writer and therefore required exceptional resources to defend it. People who were not on my side said that I had done something so exceptionally horrible that the rules of free speech didn’t apply. But on both sides of the argument, there was a desire not to make it typical of anything. It didn’t prove that Islam was against free speech. It was just against this horrible abuse of it. It didn’t prove that there was a large problem of this sort. It just proved that a particularly insane dying religious leader had made a particularly insane fanatical threat.
And when I tried to say that this is not just me, that it is happening in a lot of places to a lot of writers and you need to look at that larger phenomenon, it was often seen as special pleading. This was seen as me trying to attach my case to others to justify myself. It was very difficult to get anyone to see that there was a growing phenomenon that needed to be taken seriously: the attempt to control thought.
This is at the front line of Islamic radicalism. There are all kinds of things that come behind it. You know what [Iranian sociologist] Ali Shariati called the “revolt against history.” That’s the project of tyranny and unreason which wishes to freeze a certain view of Islamic culture in time and silence the progressive voices in the Muslim world calling for a free and prosperous future.
People weren’t interested in hearing about this at the time. And then along comes 9/11, and now many people say that, in hindsight, the fatwa was the prologue and this is the main event.
America’s Post-9/11 U.S. Foreign Policy: Moderating Islam at Gun Point
Dalmia: You wrote an essay criticizing President Bush and other Western leaders for claiming after 9/11 that “this is not about Islam.” In what way is this about Islam?
Rushdie: Well, you know, that was said for good reasons. It was said to minimize the backlash against Muslims. But just in terms of actual fact, it is absurd. It is not about football.
The fact that it is about a particular idea of Islam that many Muslims would reject does not mean it is not about Islam. The Christian Coalition is still about Christianity, even if it’s an idea of Christianity that many Christians might not go along with.
Dalmia: What they mean is that it is not about Islam properly understood. That it is about certain extreme followers of Islam who might not be interpreting the religion correctly.
Rushdie: Yes, but Wahhabi Islam is becoming very powerful these days. To say that it is not about Islam is to not take the world as it really is.
Dalmia: They are trying to make sure that Islam does not become synonymous with terrorism in the public mind.
Rushdie: Of course, there is nothing intrinsic linking any religion with any act of violence. The crusades don’t prove that Christianity was violent. The Inquisition doesn’t prove that Christianity tortures people. But that Christianity did torture people. This Islam did carry out this attack.
I think there is a desire, for virtuous reasons, to make this disassociation. You can respect those reasons, but there is a problem of truth. It reminds me a little bit of what Western socialists used to say during the worst excesses of the Soviet Union. They would say that that’s not really socialism. There is a real socialism that is about liberty, social justice, and so on, but that tyrannical regime over there which was actually existing socialism is not really Marxism. The problem was that that’s what there was. When that fell, in a way that whole intellectual construct of socialism fell with it. It became very difficult to ignore all these people coming out of the Soviet Union who detested the term socialism, because to them it meant tyranny. I think there is beginning to be that kind of disconnect in the discourse about Islam. There is an actually existing Islam which is not at all likeable.
There may well be another alternative. I grew up in a Muslim family in India, and I know what is meant by that other Islam. My grandfather was a very religious man. He went to Mecca for the Hajj and prayed five times a day. Yet he was the most tolerant and open person I ever met. If you go into any Muslim country, you will find that dispute between radical Islam and moderate Islam. It is not a question of how the West perceives the East, but of what’s happening inside the East. If you go to Muslims in India, they can tell you immediately about that battle with those other Muslims. For example, the kind of Islam that is being forced on Kashmir is very much a kind of Arabist Islam, which is alien to Kashmir. It is not liked by Kashmiris, who have a more Sufistic tradition, which is much more mystical and much milder.
The problem is, how do you tell the truth while not demonizing the people who don’t deserve to be demonized?
Dalmia: If you were President’s Bush’s speechwriter, how would you do it?
Rushdie: You would just have to make that argument. You have to say, “Not everybody is like this, but this is a part of what there is.” This is the problem with the truth. Truth is never one-dimensional. It is contradictory sometimes. But politics wants clarity.
My job is not to make a politician’s life easier. As for Bush’s speechwriters, I have met some of them, and they are very able people.
Dalmia: Where does this leave us on the question of democratic reform in Islamic countries? Do you think that Islam lacks a crucial piece to build a foundation for freedom?
Rushdie: What it has is an extra piece that believes that religion can be the foundation for a state. It’s a question of removing that piece rather than adding something. There have been various moments in the history of Pakistan when attempts to Islamize the country were resisted strongly by both generals and civilian governments. It’s not inevitable that a country full of Muslims will seek to Islamize its structures. But I do think there is a need for a widespread realization among Muslims that you cannot build a state based on religion. Pakistan is proof of that. Here was a state that was built on religion, but a quarter of a century after it was founded it fell apart, because the glue is not strong enough.
The Secularizing State vs. the Secular State
Dalmia: There is a debate in the West as well about the best way to separate church and state. America’s constitutional formula was designed to keep the state neutral, not hostile, to religion. France and Turkey go a bit further in using the state to actively secularize their country. Where do you stand on using the state as a force for secularization?
Rushdie: In this particular case, I think that the French have more or less got it right, if I may be allowed to use the F word. The idea of separating church and state was exported into the American constitution from France courtesy of Tom Paine. The idea was central to France ever since the French revolution, that the church has no part in the state.
The First Amendment is one of the great achievements of any democracy anywhere. It jointly supports the freedom of religious belief and the freedom of expression. They are both in the same clause. And it is interesting to see that. Because what it means is that of course people need to be free to believe what they choose to believe but the state is not going to favor any of those beliefs.
But there is an important difference between Europe and the United States. In Europe, the Enlightenment of the 18th century was seen as a battle against the desire of the Church to limit intellectual freedom, a battle against the Inquisition, a battle against religious censorship. And the victory of the Enlightenment in Europe was seen as pushing religion away from the center of power. In America, at the same time, the Enlightenment meant coming to a country where people were not going to persecute you by reason of your religion. So it meant a liberation into religion. In Europe, it was liberation out of religion.
It becomes hard in this country to have a dialogue suggesting that religion be removed from the state. Even though this is the theory of this country, it is decreasingly the practice of this country.
I was very struck when Joe Lieberman was chosen as the vice-presidential candidate, and there was a certain amount of rubbish talked about whether Americans would vote for a Jewish candidate. I remember a big opinion poll taken by The New York Times in which people were asked whether they would accept as a presidential candidate a woman, a Jew, an African American, a homosexual, and an atheist. In four of those five measures, the result was resoundingly yes, by a gigantic majority, but for an atheist it was no better than 50-50. Somebody who overtly professes not to have religion can’t get elected dog catcher in this country. That’s a problem, because it creates a political discourse full of sanctimony. Hypocrisy sanctified by religion.
The Agency of the Colonized
Dalmia: Leftist intellectuals have typically viewed world politics as a struggle between the powerful West and the powerless Third World. For some, 9/11 changed this—one person who did a complete turnaround is your friend Christopher Hitchens, to whom Step Across This Line is dedicated, who has become an enthusiastic supporter of the Bush foreign policy. Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer and activist, continues to view America as the source of many of the problems in the world. Like her, you were a critic of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Which camp do you put yourself in now?
Rushdie: You can say that I’m the third point of the triangle. I find myself sometimes agreeing with both of them and often disagreeing with both of them. Christopher’s journey toward [Paul] Wolfowitz is a lot further along than mine. And I don’t think that I am yet convinced of the theory of the democratic domino effect. Even though we see these stirrings in those countries in the area, I think you could easily attribute those stirrings to things quite independent of American policy, which have to do with local history. The hatred of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon has existed for a long time, and at some point that was going to burst out. If you look at the consequences of the death of Arafat, it seems to me that what’s happening in the Palestinian community right now has great echoes in Northern Ireland in the Catholic community. There comes a point when people get sick of that stuff, sick of violence and terrorism. Catholics in Northern Ireland simply grew to detest what the IRA was doing.
Of course American policy plays a role because it is so powerful. But many of the things that are happening there had local roots.
Dalmia: Nobody would quarrel with that, but the question is, can—and has—current U.S. foreign policy been a catalyst for positive change?
Rushdie: I think that’s an open question. The next decade will tell us the answer.
Dalmia: So do you or don’t you part company with critics of American power, like Roy?
Rushdie: I admire a lot of Arundhati’s activism and have written in support of her efforts to stop some of the big dam projects in India. She is an old-style leftist of the sort that there still are in India, and many of them are my friends. But I don’t see the world the way they do, with America as the bogeyman.
I wrote Shame  when there were still two superpowers. One of the ideas of that novel was that it is very easy to blame the superpowers for the problems of, say, India and Pakistan. The premise was, let’s just assume that our problems are of our own making and then exacerbated by this or that superpower. At that point you get back responsibility for your own life. It puts the tools back in our own hands. It’s kind of infantilizing to say that everything comes from the outside.
Dalmia: When I was growing up in India, every communal riot, every instance of government corruption, every thing that went wrong was blamed by politicians on the “CIA Hand.”
Rushdie: Everything. Everything was the Hidden Hand. The Pynchonesque conspiracy running the world.
Celebrating the Mongrels
Dalmia: Your book Step Across This Line is a celebration of migration, commingling, adaptation, hybridization, cultural mongrelization. But even the most thorough cultural mongrel clings to something of his origins. What part of your Indianness do you cling to?
Rushdie: Not a small part. It’s a very, very important thing for me. As I wrote somewhere in that book, one of the greatest hardships of those years of the fatwa was my separation from India. A decade. It was amazing to me that there was a 10-year period in my life when I couldn’t go back.
Dalmia: One of the most poignant essays in your book was when you return to India and reclaim your ancestral home in Solan, which had been confiscated in your absence by the state government.
Rushdie: It was a very emotional moment, especially because I took my son with me, and that piece reflects that. Anyway, since then I have been going back a lot and making up for lost time. It feeds me like nothing else. It always has.
Dalmia: What aspect of India does that?
Rushdie: You know, I don’t think theoretically like that. I just go there, and it has a big effect on me. It gives me stories to tell.
This interview was originally published in the August/September 2005 issue of Reason Magazine.
The unpopulist: Salman Rushdie is a stalwart for free speech and we love free speech.
Also the unpopulist: oh the FBI told Facebook to "deal with the 'Russian misinformation' that was Hunter Biden's laptop story in the New York Post during the 2020 election? Trump is dangerous and this is perfectly acceptable.