News & Politics

Listening To Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, no longer hiding from a fatwa declared against him 16 years ago, calls on Muslims to push for reform of Islam.
"What's blonde, has big breasts and lives in Tasmania?"

"Salman Rushdie," says the author with a chuckle.

No longer hiding undercover from a fatwa, Rushdie can now joke about it. But as someone who had a close encounter with religious fundamentalism long before "jihad" became part of the daily vocabulary of the West, he takes the issue with deadly seriousness. His latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, is set against the backdrop of a world of fundamentalist terror, and in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post he called for reformation in Islam.

Pacific News Service editor Sandip Roy recently interviewed Rushdie on the radio.

After the bombings in London, some people said the British concept of multiculturalism had allowed London to become 'Londonistan,' offering shelter to violent extremists.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: That's not the fault of multiculturalism. The mistake was a deliberate government policy to allow radical Islamic groups to come in and set up shop in London, to set up bank accounts and come and go as they pleased. The justification was twofold -- one was if you did that you would be able to monitor them, and the other was if you gave them safe haven they would not attack their own safe haven. On July 7 both those arguments went out the window.

But when Tony Blair says you can deport people for inciting hatred are you not punishing people for what they are saying, not doing? You yourself said, "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."

The decline of Blairite politics into the kind of arrogance and opportunism that now characterizes his government is one of the great disappointments I can remember. I don't trust Blair and his new laws further than I can throw them.

But I have to say the expulsion of some of those Londonistan figures I would not grieve about at all. Taking off my liberal hat for a moment, to throw out some of these firebrand mullahs who have been working up kids like these kids who blew themselves up, frankly I wouldn't give a damn. But there is a problem when you define offense so broadly that you can kick out anyone whose face you don't like. And given the authoritarian nature of the government one has to be very, very worried.

You are calling for a reformation in Islam. What do you mean?

In a way maybe the use of the word "reformation" was wrong. That makes people think about Martin Luther. And the Christian reformation was a Puritan movement and that would be a movement in the wrong direction.

But I was talking about a reform movement. The purpose of that would be to reclaim Islam from the radicals. Islamic radicalism is relatively new. It had much less power 30 years ago. I think back to my grandfather, who was an extremely devout Muslim and went on the Haj to Mecca, but nevertheless an extremely open-minded and tolerant man. That's why I dedicate this book to him. Even though he was devout and I am not religious, he was a kind of model for me.

But does a call for reform, coming from a writer who many thousands of Muslims regard as blasphemous, have any legitimacy?

You are right. There are many who will never listen to anything I say because it's me saying it. That's fair enough. I am not asking to lead anything. I am not asking to even be a part of anything. What I am saying is if something like this does not happen, the danger is that all Muslims will begin to seem as if they are complying with the activities of the radicals. If there isn't a strong rejectionist voice, many people, particularly in the diaspora where Muslims are in the minority, will readily come to think that if you are not rejecting the stuff, that's what you secretly think. That would be catastrophic.

But standing up to extremism is hard. In 1990 you yourself published a statement of remorse.

There were enormous pressures on me, including government pressure to make some kind of gesture. But I regretted doing it. I felt the thing that gives me credibility is I say exactly what I think. And if I compromise that I lose myself and that's what I felt briefly at that moment. So I tried rapidly to un-say it.

But I think there are voices out there beginning to speak up. In response to the piece I wrote (for the Washington Post), a lot of people wrote and said they agreed.

What is the best thing the United States and the West can do to facilitate this reform? Just stay out of it?

The danger is to do deals with the bad guys. I think the problem is the West, for its own economic purposes, makes agreements and thus shores up regimes that would more easily fall. We support regimes that in another part of the forest we condemn.

In the end I don't want this to be a story of what the West is doing to the East. Because I found all my life as a writer it was too easy to make that statement. The more interesting thing to say is suppose this is our own fault, supposing we are doing this to ourselves. The reason why I try to stress the need for changes inside the Muslim world is not that I don't believe there is racism, of course there is racism, it's not that I don't believe there is oppression, of course there is oppression. What I am saying is that to take responsibility for your life is a better way to live than to assume you are an endless victim.