Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason
learn more at:

BILL MOYERS: You were one of several people like you who signed a manifesto. Tell me about that?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah, this is a-- it's-- well, it started off with 12 of us, and now I think many others have added their names. But it's basically saying we have to call oppression by its true name. And that what we are facing in the world right now is a new tyranny. You know, a new tyranny--


SALMAN RUSHDIE: --using the language of religion. Using the language of Islam. But which is in fact a totalitarianism. Which you can compare to Nazism, you can compare to Stalinism. And which operates against its own people as well as the rest of the world in very fascistic and oppressive ways. And this is I think important to know that people most oppressed by this radical Islamism are Muslims. You know, the people suffering most from the Taliban were Afghans.

So this fascistic project, political project, wearing the language of religion like a cloak, like a protective cloak, needs to be called by its true name. And that's really what this manifesto existed to say.

BILL MOYERS: You say we plead for the universality of freedom of expression so that a critical spirit may be exercised on all continents against all abuses and all dogmas. That's the very thing that the tyrants don't want. They don't want the critical spirit applied to their--

SALMAN RUSHDIE: But this is the time honored role of the artist to speak truth to power, you know. And if you look at what is happening in the Muslim world some of the writers signing that manifesto are particularly concerned with the oppression of women. Which is-- which is a very big subject and-- in the Muslim world. Others are concerned with the oppression of freedoms of speech and assembly. And others are concerned with simple-- the creation of kind of overarching world view, which makes it impossible for people to consider the concept of freedom. You know, that's to say it simply not available--


SALMAN RUSHDIE: --for discussion, you know. And one of the awful things about long term mass censorship is that in the end people can lose a sense of what it's like to live in a free world. You know, because it's not-- there's nothing automatic about it. It's a thing you have to fight for and preserve. And--

BILL MOYERS: And we always think in this country that persecution will lose, but it doesn't always lose.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: It doesn't--

BILL MOYERS: It sometimes so changes the frame of references that people who grew up in it that they no longer have any sense that there's something beyond it.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Exactly. That is the final victory, you know. That's the final victory of oppression. And I think we need to make sure that that doesn't happen, you know. And I think it's important to speak up. And I think it's very interesting that more and more and more now almost every week you see some new powerful voice being raised, you know. Whether it's Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whether it's Wafa Sultan, whoever it may be. Many of these voices are women. And I've often thought that in the Muslim world the big change may come because Muslim women reject the oppression that they've been subjected to.

BILL MOYERS: A kind of silent revolution. You think there's a silent revolution going on--

SALMAN RUSHDIE: No, it's going to have to be noisy.


BILL MOYERS: 11:04:37:00 You call sometime ago for a new scholarship in Islam. What did you mean by that?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I mean that a lot-- unfortunately the degree of censorship in the Muslim world is so rigorous at the moment that the-- very few scholars are able to go back to first principles and reexamine the bases of the faith. You know, Islam is unusual in that it's the only one of the great world religions which was born inside recorded history. That there's an enormous amount of factual historical record about the life of a prophet and about social conditions in Arabia at that time.

So it's possible to look at the origin of Islam in a scholarly way. You know, based on historical fact.

BILL MOYERS: Do you expect Muslims to look at their faith in a historical context as opposed to supernaturally?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah, of course many people do. And actually knowing a large number of Muslims around the world, many people do this. It's just that it's a public discourse that is forbidden. I mean it's very interesting about Mohammed, the profit, that he has - a character. You know, that we know who he-- what he was like as a person. It's very interesting to see how Islam grew out of the social and economic conditions of his time. It's very interesting to see exactly how he learned from and in many ways borrowed stories and ideas from Judeo Christian culture.


SALMAN RUSHDIE: You know, that's to say-- it's to me fascinating to see how this important book came out of history. It's not an event outside history but inside history.

BILL MOYERS: Isn't the problem that when you have any-- any group of people who invoke god's word as delivered by god it's almost impossible to have a political discussion with them.


BILL MOYERS: The Jews say god promised us Jerusalem. Muslims say-- Christians say the Bible is god's word to be taken--

SALMAN RUSHDIE: But just as here so in the Muslim world. There are many, many people who are not literalists in that way. You know, there are many people who wear the religion much more lightly. And--

BILL MOYERS: So there's a place in Islam for skeptical believers?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, there are plenty of them, you know, is what I'm saying. And-- and there is an intelligencia, there is a scholarship in the Muslim world which if unleashed would act in very much the way in which--

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean unleashed, what do you mean, somebody has to say go and it's okay?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: I mean you have to stop oppressing them. You know, I mean I'd say at the moment there has been a very widespread campaign of oppression against Muslim writers and intellectuals. And it's very hard to publish this kind of work, it's very hard for anyone to read it. Such scholarship has been done-- has been done outside and is banned inside the Muslim world. So I think if we're going to push towards the future you can't go on being high-bound by ideas which come from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. You know, you have to enter the modern world.

BILL MOYERS: Every religion you have said somewhere else has to be subjected to rationale argument and-- and discussion.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: And this kind of discourse is normal now in Judaism and in Christianity, and always has been normal in Buddhism and to a large extent in Hinduism. So it's Islam that needs to modernize. ***

BILL MOYERS: Very recently the magazine Free Enquirer, which is published by the Council for Secular Humanism, a very interesting magazine in this country, actually ran photographs of the Danish cartoons that created such an uproar in-- Europe. And many American bookstores would not put this magazine on the rack. What do you think about that?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think-- I'm sorry to say I think that's straight forward cowardice. That's-- I think there's two subjects on the Danish cartoon. There's the cartoons themselves. Would you have published them, should you have published them? And I think these are arguments that newspapers have every day. You know, what's an appropriate editorial stance on a given issue? So-- and I think we could have that argument in a kind of straight forward civil discourse. And we can have different points of view about it.

I think the second thing that happened was the enormously violent and intimidatry response. And then the question I think changes. The question becomes how do you respond to intimidation? And I'm afraid that many of the people who refused to stock the cartoons, who refused to reprint them, claiming that they were being respectful were actually not being respectful, they were being scared, you know. And I think the problem is with intimidation is that if you do surrender to it you make sure that there will be more intimidation in the future.

BILL MOYERS: But it's not illogical after the event, after the uproar in the Muslim world it's not illogical for someone to be concerned about his employees is it, at the bookstore.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: No. And a very similar thing happened in the case of SATANIC VERSES. Where there were some book stores that were too scared to stock the book. And actually in that case it was their employees who said they didn't wish to be protected by acts of censorship. And I think that's right. You have to stand up to it. You know, now you find a lot of people who were active in the campaign against the satanic verses saying that they believe that it was wrong. And that it was counter productive and it should not have happened.

And I think part of the reason they're saying that is that it didn't work. Had it succeeded in suppressing that novel I'm sure we would have seen other similar attacks against other books.

BILL MOYERS: You said recently that-- that we're at a battle of wills. Between?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Between this kind of censorious culture and-- the culture of freedom. And it seems to me it's really important to hold the line. It's really important to say in a free society offense is not the limiting point. Because if we say that we can suppress things that upset people then all of us are silenced.

BILL MOYERS: But the believers say, well, that's-- it's sacrilegious what you're doing, and it's against god.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. Well, unfortunately that's something that they may have to deal with. It seems to me that when there is conflict between the liberty of speech and the beliefs of private individuals the liberty of speech must always take precedence. Because otherwise every other liberty, including freedom of religious observance, is-- put into question. It's no-- it's no accident I think that freedom of religious observance and freedom of speech are jointly protected by the first amendment, you know. It's-- it's as important to have one as to have the other. And indeed in my view you can't have one without the other.

BILL MOYERS: A lot of people don't want to admit though that that first amendment gives us the right to be irreligious, to be an atheist.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, of course it does. The whole point about freedom is that you can exercise it in a way that you choose.

BILL MOYERS: Is it conceivable to you that the west could appease radical Islam?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: I-- I'm afraid there is at the moment a bit too much of that spirit abroad.

BILL MOYERS: How so? How--


BILL MOYERS: How's it manifesting itself?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I mean for example in the cartoon controversy I think there was a-- there was a desire to appease rather than a desire to say this is how things are. I mean how would you have a respectful political cartoon? You know, it's a contradiction in terms. People are-- I have never seen a political cartoon that didn't insult somebody.

BILL MOYERS: Right. My god.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Some of the Muslim critics said, well, how about if they were being rude about the Pope? People are routinely rude about the Pope. You know, so everyone else has gotten used to the fact that this is how this particular form works. Satirical, political cartooning is what it is. And I think-- you know, my view is people have to just learn to deal with it.

BILL MOYERS: Believers need to understand don't they that their belief system is in tact no matter what other people think about it.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Exactly. What kind of a god is it that's upset by a cartoon in Danish?

© Public Affairs Television 2006. All Rights Reserved. close this window