Salman Rushdie on Terrorism, Intellectual freedom, and the Patriot Act
Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children, published in 1981, won the Booker Prize and brought him international fame. But it was his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, that the Indian-British novelist is most known for. In the book, Rushdie’s transcription of the Quran is portrayed in an unconventional light and one of the novel’s main characters is modeled on the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The Satanic Verses was quickly banned in India and South Africa. In Iran, the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to execute Salman Rushdie and the publishers of the book, and a million-dollar reward was offered for Rushdie’s death. He was forced into hiding and lived underground for many years. The fatwa was finally lifted in 1998.
In a rare appearance in the United States, Salman Rushdie spoke at an event last week sponsored by the PEN American Center, a fellowship of writers to advance literature, promote a culture of reading, and to defend free expression.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I don’t think any of us who are at this event delude ourselves about terrorism. Terrorism does exist. In this city of all cities, we know that. We know when it exists, what it exists to do, what it has done, what it tries to do. We know it exists and must be fought. I don’t think any of us would question that.
How we fight it is going to be the great civilizational test of our time. Will we become our enemy or not? Will we become repressive as our enemy is repressive? Will we become intolerant as our enemy is intolerant? Or will we not? Will we fight with different weapons, weapons of openness and acceptance, seeking to increase the dialogue between people rather than decrease it? This is a big test. Will we become the suits of armor that our fear makes us put on, or will we not? It seems to us, to PEN, to many of us in the last month, that we are not passing this test very well and that there are serious reasons to say there is a crisis in this country of civil liberties, freedom of speech, and human rights‹the kind of crisis PEN has spent over 80 years protesting when it happens in other countries. It’s exactly the things that we have tried to highlight, whether it was in Cuba or Burma or Iran or China. Those problems are beginning to crop up here: problems of what it is possible to say without being in trouble; what information media it is possible to access; what it’s possible to talk about; the tones it is possible to use in talking about these things when one does have access to media; the way in which the government is increasingly intrusive into areas of our lives that it has no business to go into‹what books we read, what shops we go to, what books we borrow from universities, what we think about. This gets very close to the thought police, and it is not acceptable in a free society.
PEN has identified three particular areas of concern in the PATRIOT Act and the many related laws and executive orders that have been enacted since September 11, 2001. These concerns have to do with privacy, access to information, and compliance with international law and human rights standards. We have launched the campaign that this event is here to support, the Campaign for Core Freedoms, in an effort to restore fundamental protections in these areas. People like me came to America because of our admiration for the protections afforded by the First Amendment. And it is extremely saddening to see those protections eroded. So this is not a question of left or right. It seems to me that whatever kind of American you are, you should know that the First Amendment is the jewel in the crown. And to erode that is to do terrible damage to one’s sense of what it is to be an American and a citizen or a resident of this country.
RUSHDIE: And just by way of starting off, I’m going to read one paragraph of John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty, written close to 200 years ago though it feels fresh as a daisy. The warning he offers us is that if we do not fight for our rights, we lose them:
The dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another until they pass into common places but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries. To speak only of religious opinions the reformation broke out at least 20 times before Luther was put down. It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalty will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either. The real advantage which truth has consists in this: When an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times. But in the course of ages, there will generally be found persons to rediscover it until someone of its reappearances falls on a time when from favorable circumstances it escapes persecution until it is made such head as to withstand subsequent attempts to suppress it.
RUSHDIE: I’m going to finish just by reading two short pieces sent in by writers who were not able to be here today. The writer Francisco Goldman sent in this piece, which is written by the Cuban independence hero and poet, Jose Martí, who was actually, for a long time, a New Yorker. He lived in New York from 1880 to 1895, observed the politics of the time very closely, and wrote a piece about the Presidential election of 1884, which pitted James G. Blaine against Glover Cleveland and is often called the dirtiest campaign in American history. During the course of the election, the Republicans found out that Cleveland had a child out of wedlock. He acknowledged paternity and won the election anyway. By 48.5% to 48.2%. Including Florida. This is what Martí said about that election:
It’s brutal and nauseating, a Presidential campaign in the United States. The mud comes up to the chairs. The white beards of the newspapers forget all about the decorum of old age. They dump buckets of mud on all of our heads. They knowingly lie and exaggerate. They stab each other in the belly and the back. Any defamation is treated as legitimate. Any blow is good as long as it staggers the enemy. He who invents an effective slander proudly struts. A good faith observer has no idea how to analyze the battle in which everyone considers it legitimate to campaign in bad faith. But he who observes this country without rancor, as much as he is disgusted by the primacy ceded to the appetites here and the forgetfulness‹if not the distance‹with which the general qualities are held, also has to recognize that whenever it appears that a danger is imminent or an institution has been profaned beyond redemption or some vice has half-devoured the nation, there arises (with the reliability of a law and without great operators and when the evil can still be cured) the men and systems that can avoid ruin. They appear, do what they have to do, and drop from sight. And it also appears that a condition of this law is that the evil has to be extreme, as if the prosperous peoples never decide to change direction or perturb their habits until the reality is so dire that it is impossible to ignore. This was the law affirmed by the election of Grover Cleveland. The evil was grave. The Republicans entrenched in power cynically abused it. They subverted the integrity of the vote and the press. They mocked the spirit of the Constitution through partisan legislation, copied the tactics of tyrants, used overseas wars to deflect attentions from their actions. Who had a chance to compete against them, defeat them? If elections are won by the force of money, if the Republicans have a free hand with the national coffers . . . But a wave rose up that no one saw forming on the margins (and no one knows how it came, breaking over the heads of all the ambitious and illustrious politicians of the nation) despite the anger of the members of his own Democratic Party, despite time-proven practices and conceits, and landed in the White House a man just a little more than barely known, a tough but humble man fit for the task of fearlessly and patiently reforming the corrupt government. The wave brought Cleveland. Up close, you see that that the change has not been essential or durable, but circumstantial and like a proof. An eruption proving it can be done. The eruption of a fistful of men, a fistful of vulnerable people, nothing more than that, gave victory to Cleveland. A thousand votes less among 10 million voters and the President would have been an impure and sinister man, a brilliant sophist. He would have been [Bush‹sorry Blaine. He would have been] Blaine.
Finally, from former president of PEN, Norman Mailer, from the interview that is in the current issue of New York magazine with his son:
Wisdom is ready to reach us from the most unexpected quarters. Here I quote from a man who became wise, a little too late in life: “Naturally, the common people don’t want war. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always the simple matter to drag the people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or parliament or communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” That was Herman Goering speaking at the Nuremburg Trials after World War II. It is one thing to be forewarned. Will we ever be fore-armed?
GOODMAN: Author Salman Rushdie speaking at an event sponsored by the PEN American Center at Cooper Union in New York.
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