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Conversation: Salman Rushdie

October 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Salman Rushdie is an author, essayist, and critic, an Indian whose family was split by the partition of India and Pakistan. He’s written eight novels, including the Booker Prize- winning “Midnight’s Children,” but he’s probably best known for “The Satanic Verses,” a fantasy published in 1989. Its publications enraged many Muslims. The Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, then the country’s supreme leader, issued a religious decree, a Fatwa, offering a multimillion-dollar award for Rushdie’s assassination. He spent most of the next decade in hiding, until 1998, when the Iranian government disassociated itself from the death threat. After long years working and living in England, he now lives in New York City, and has just published “Step Across This Line,” his first collection of non-fiction in ten years.

And the title itself is provocative, since you write so much and so often in fiction and non-fiction about frontiers, borders, and the way ideas and people move around the world

SALMAN RUSHDIE, Author: Yeah, it’s been really the story of my life, the engagement with the frontier, you know, because as you mentioned, I was born just before the partition of India, and that frontier that was driven across the Indian subcontinent that split my family, not to mention led to the deaths of many, many thousands of people. I mean, there’s disputes about whether there was fifty or a hundred or even more thousands of people. So I grew up in the aftermath of that piece of line drawing. And ever since then, the frontier has seemed to me to be not just a scary place, but a place to confront, you know, and as I suggest, if possible, to step across.

And then in my own life, you know, I stepped across all sorts of frontiers– literal ones, the frontiers that brought me to the West and to England, and then later, as you mentioned, to the United States, but also metaphorical frontiers, you know, because I think every serious artist, including myself, tries to work at the edge, not in the middle. You try to go to the frontier. You try to go to the borderline, if not step across it, then at least try to push it outwards, you know, to increase the sum of what it is possible to say and to think, and to increase the ways in which it is possible to express one’s self in a work of art. And I guess sometimes, as in the case of “The Satanic Verses,” that gets writers into trouble.

RAY SUAREZ: I’ve read a lot of your writing from other places in the world about the United States, and how it fills the imagination of people all over the world.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Indeed.

RAY SUAREZ: But one very striking change in tone across these ten years of essays comes with September 11, where the sort of undercurrent of your writing changes quite abruptly, and you begin to write about the United States with a lot of sympathy, a great deal of empathy that might not have been there before.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think, you know, I felt that attack on New York City– I speak particularly of New York because that’s where I was living– I felt it very much as a kind of domestic assault. I felt, as many New Yorkers felt it, all New Yorkers felt it, as an attack on their home. And I amazed myself, actually, by the depth of my action, and then felt I had to honestly write out of that. So, yes, I think it was a very emotional event in all our lives who watched those terrible things.

RAY SUAREZ: For years before this arrival in the United States, you had your own very rough and difficult encounter with worldwide Islam, one that the United States is now engaged in. Now you write in several essays, at one point chiding, “Well, this isn’t about Islam– of course it’s about Islam!” But the question is, what does that mean? What does it mean?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, what I meant to say is, if you look at figures from the Christian fundamentalist extreme wing, if you look at a Jerry Falwell or whoever, you can’t say that they have nothing to do with Christianity. Of course they do. It’s a view of Christianity which maybe most Christians would not share, but clearly Christianity is a part of who they are. And in the same way, if you look at the extremists in the Muslim world and their actions, you can’t say it’s got nothing to do with Islam. It’s to do with a view of Islam, which most Muslims would reject, but on the other hand, it’s a view of Islam that is being purveyed across the Muslim world by religious schools and by fanatical organizations, and it’s clearly something to grapple with, not only for us outside the Muslim world, but I believe for people inside the Muslim world, because I think in the end, the war on terror can only be won when Muslim societies themselves reject this kind of rhetoric, this kind of highly inflamed, retrograde rhetoric from which fanaticism springs.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you saying that that’s already begun? At one point, you refer to Osama and Mullah Omar as yesterday’s men, in a widespread feeling that maybe jihad is no longer cool.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think clearly the defeat of al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan did make many people think again. Many young people… actually, a lot of them European Muslims, you know, in places like Britain made them think again about joining up, signing up for this kind of catastrophic army whose leaders hide in caves while recommending that their followers commit suicide in the name of God. I don’t think they look that glamorous in the aftermath of the American intervention in Afghanistan. And I think there’s other signs that fundamentalism, in certain places, anyway, may have peaked. You know, in Iran it quite clearly has. In Iran, it’s quite clear that the regime of the mullahs is now loathed and detested by the people, who would get rid of it tomorrow if they could. In other places, such as Algeria, where in the last decade the fanatics have had a lot of momentum, and have killed and scared a lot of people, they now seem to be in retreat. So there is evidence, in my view– not even across the world– but there is evidence to show that fundamentalism tends to be like a short-lived illness in a society that, once people have had a serious taste of it, they soon wish to recover from it.

RAY SUAREZ: So by emphasizing Islam versus the west, we miss out on what might even be the more interesting Islam versus Islam, that internal tug of war?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think there is, you know, a great internal struggle. You sometimes see its effects. For instance, when the Taliban fell, you saw the rejoicing of the people of Afghanistan. That showed how great the unhappiness of the people of Afghanistan had been under the Taliban rule. I think when and if the rule of the mullahs ends in Iran, you’ll see something similar. You’ll see celebration at the fall of a regime that is so unpopular. So, yes, of course, the first people who are oppressed by fundamentalist Islam are Muslims, people in Muslim countries where those forces are at their strongest. I do think there are great problems remaining associated with it. And a lot of that has to do with the very murky role, in my view, of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, after all, allowed bin Laden and his group to fund-raise and recruit freely for years before September 11. Saudi Arabia is also the source of the financing for these extremist Muslim schools, the so-called Madrassahs, which are spreading all over the world, in which the Taliban were trained, in which many of the radicals now creating terrorist actions in Kashmir were trained– a phenomenon in my view as dangerous as al-Qaida, the spread of the religious schools, and entirely financed by supposed ally of the West –Saudi Arabia.

RAY SUAREZ: One passage in “Step Across This Line” really caused me to sort of sit up and put on the brakes: “America finds itself facing an ideological enemy that may turn out to be harder to defeat than militant Islam; that is to say, anti- Americanism, which is presently taking the world by storm.”

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Mm-hmm. Well, this is… I mean, I am not here representing my view. I’m representing a phenomenon that really worries me profoundly, a union, if you like, of opposition to America from, on the one hand, fundamentalist Islam, and on the other hand, kind of leftist European thinkers and commentators who ought to be in such a war on America’s side. And I think this clearly is an issue that Washington needs to confront, and clearly feels so itself. I mean, it’s only recently that the State Department actually held a major conference on the subject to see what could be done about it. And clearly one of the things that I would suggest should be done about it is that the United States needs to regain an ability to act in concert with other nations, and not unilaterally and preemptively. I think the breaking of treaties by the Bush administration annoyed a lot of people in Europe, and now we’re once again in a situation where European leaders are trying to persuade the United States to act in concert with them and with the United Nations, and not off its own path. And I think there is something important to think about.

RAY SUAREZ: Salman Rushdie, thanks for being with us.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Thank you.