The Will to Win
By Salman Rushdie FrontPageMagazine.com | November 17, 2006
On October 11, 2006, the Center for Inquiry in New York City presented the first event of its annual Voices of Reason series, a lecture by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie was introduced by Ibn Warraq, senior research fellow at the Center and author of Why I am not a Muslim. Rushdie took questions from the audience read by the Center for Inquiry’s Program Director, Susan Jacoby. You can also hear a "Point of Inquiry" podcast with Rushdie here. Although FrontPage Magazine does not necessarily agree with every concept in the discourse, he offers many powerful insights in this address.-- The Editors
IBN WARRAQ: Good evening. When I was asked to introduce Mr. Salman Rushdie, I was of course delighted. But I was also asked to provide something more than biographical details, and a list of publications and their dates, something more personal, what Mr. Rushdie’s writings mean for me.
Well let me get the biographical details out of the way. Mr. Rushdie was born in Bombay, now Mumbai, in 1947, educated in Mumbai, also in a boarding school in England and King’s College Cambridge. Mr. Rushdie is a writer, a film critic, political commentator, winner of numerous literary awards, Yankees fan, and author of a number of novels, like Grimus, Shame, Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, Fury, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and his latest, Shalimar the Clown.
Though Mr. Rushdie, rather like Orson Welles, who got fed up with being asked only about Citizen Kane, must also find constant references to The Satanic Verses only in terms of the Rushdie Affair tiresome, I must begin with it, since it was indeed the latter Affair that prompted me to write my first book, Why I Am Not A Muslim, eleven years ago.
In February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini delivered his infamous fatwa. In its immediate wake, there followed short interviews with or articles by Western intellectuals, Arabists and Islamologists blaming Rushdie for bringing the barbarous sentence onto himself. There were condescending asides about understanding the hurt felt by the Muslims, who were urged, in some cases, to beat up Rushdie in some back alley. Here is an example of the tacit approval of the brutish call for the murder of a British citizen by a respected historian, Professor Trevor Roper: “I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police, about whom he has been so rude. Not too comfortably, I hope. I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit and literature would not suffer.”
Nowhere in any of these articles is there any criticism of the call to murder. Even worse, there was a recommendation that Rushdie’s book be banned or removed from circulation. Astonishingly, there was no defense of one of the fundamental principles of democracy, the principle without which there can be no human progress, namely, the freedom of speech. One would have thought that this was one principle they, as writers and intellectuals, would have been prepared to die for.
Long before the fatwa, Rushdie meant a lot to many from the subcontinent. Like nineteenth century German Jews who, during their assimilationist phase, carried a list of Jews who had contributed to German culture, like the composer Felix Mendelssohn or the painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim as a kind of talisman to protect them from anti-Semitism, I carried my own list of examples, particularly of non-English writers of English, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and various writers of Indian origin, V.S. Naipaul, Arun Joshi, Nayantara Saghal, Khuswant Singh, and of course Salman Rushdie.
Finally, soon after Khomeini’s fatwa, there appeared this letter in The Observer in Britain: “Salman Rushdie speaks for me. Mine is a voice that has not yet found expression in newspaper columns; it is the voice of those who are born Muslims but wish to recant in adulthood, yet are not permitted to, on pain of death. Someone who does not live in an Islamic society cannot imagine the sanctions—both self-imposed and external—that militate against expressing religious disbelief. ‘I don’t believe in God’ is an impossible public utterance, even among family and friends. So we hold our tongues, those of us who doubt.”
I do not wish to muscle in on Mr. Rushdie’s act, and you came to hear him, so without further ado, I give you Mr. Salman Rushdie.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: You know, it would be very nice just to stand here and talk about books and maybe I’ll do some of that and maybe when you ask questions you can ask some about books as well as all the usual stuff that we all talk about these days.
I thought that, other than books, I wanted to talk a bit about the thing that I’ve come to call “it,” you know, the subject that is just the subject, which seems to be the only one in the world these days, and not to talk about the distant parts of the subject, not to talk about, you know, Iraq or Al Qaeda or Palestine or any of that, but just to talk about something that’s happening much closer to home.
I just got here from London and I thought I’d bring you some news from London. There was a couple—a few months ago now the comedian Rowan Atkinson and I were involved in an unlikely alliance against the Blair government, which was trying at the time to introduce a law to make it—essentially to make it illegal to be rude about religion. And I remember Rowan and I were sitting in a room with a senior Cabinet Minister—not Cabinet, Government Minister, and Rowan said that, you know, he had recently in his comedy show had a sketch in which there was a piece of news footage of a large number of Muslims at prayer in Iran somewhere bowing down and he had said over this in voiceover, “And the search goes on for the Ayatollah’s contact lens.”
I said that I had once written a sentence in which I said it was hard to take seriously a religion whose believers spent so much time with their bottoms higher than their heads. We made these—we said, you know, would it be OK to go on saying this if your law gets passed or will we go to jail. Of course the Minister that she was convinced that we would not go to jail because, you know, there was no intention to criticize—to ban creativity and besides, you know, one of her colleagues would have the decision, the last word on this. We felt oddly diffident about trusting the Blair government in this matter. We said actually to have such a big issue as whether you could make jokes left in the charge of a politician just really seemed like the wrong way to go.
And in the end—it really went down to the wire in the House of Commons—there was a wonderful sort of, you know, serves you right about the fact that we won in the House of Commons by one vote, by one vote. And that evening Tony Blair went home early, so he actually lost his law because he went home early. And there’s a kind of beauty in that. So he wasn’t there to vote for his own bill.
And so we won. And one can only think, in the light of what has happened in the last months, how often that law would have been used and how often it would have been used in a sort of genuinely oppressive way. And maybe the search would not have gone on for the Ayatollah’s contact lens, which I’m not sure that he ever found actually, based on his general myopia.
Further news from London: there was a moment a few years ago when the Blair government decided that it needed to start funding Islamic schools. There was an argument here which is that for a long time the government, various governments in England, had either partly or I think never wholly but partly funded Catholic schools: one or two Church of England schools, one or two Jewish schools, and so why not Muslim schools was the argument. And, of course, it’s an undefeatable argument. I mean if you’re going to fund religious schools, why not fund more religious schools.
And the other argument, which is that maybe you should fund less religious schools, was one which Blair is not very sympathetic to, since the thing he really has in common with Bush is deep religious belief. And look what happened. There we are. Religion will break your heart.
Anyway, so the Labour government started funding a few Islamic schools and interestingly recently after this—this attempt to blow up planes was foiled by the British police, one of the places which they discovered was a major bomb factory was the basement of one of the Islamic schools that Mr. Blair’s government had started funding. You just kept wondering at what point the penny was going to start dropping. But no, this was not, of course, a reason for worrying about these schools at all.
Meanwhile, the BBC has been instructed we are told that the term “Islamic terrorist” can’t be used because it discriminates against Muslims. Never mind that all the terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of Islam tell us that it is Islam that is their motivation, the BBC can’t say that they’re Islamic terrorists because that’s now this new crime of what’s called “Islamophobia.” I mean I just have some problem with the word because it seems to me if you have a set of ideas which I don’t like, it’s perfectly OK for me to be phobic about them. There were plenty of people who seemed to have no problem being phobic about mine but, you know, “Salmanophobia” didn’t enter the language somehow.
I remember I got a T-shirt soon after the, how shall I put it, soon after the excrement hit the ventilation system. Somebody sent me in the mail a T-shirt on the front of which it said, “Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” I always, I thought there was a truth there. And I think, you know, Islamophobia is also a victimless crime because it must be in any free society OK to be as open as you want to be about your dislike of a set of ideas. I mean otherwise it becomes impossible to think. It becomes impossible to have any kind of interchange of thought in a society if you’re told that there are ideas which are off-limits. Nothing is off-limits.
If you take that further into discrimination against or prejudice towards individuals, that’s another matter. You obviously need to protect individuals against prejudice but you can’t ring fence their ideas, and that’s what seems to me why terms like that, you’re not allowed to say “Islamofascist” either because, of course, no Muslims are fascists, as we know. Even though there was a rather brilliant article recently by an Egyptian journalist in which he pointed out that what Muslims needed to take onboard is that while obviously not all Muslims were terrorists it also did seem to be the case at the moment all terrorists were Muslims. And how you couldn’t avoid that connection if you wanted to look at the world as it really is.
Oh, there was another joke I wanted to say. There was another joke which we offered the Ministers, maybe something that we weren’t allowed to say, which was a joke that happened almost the day after the July bombings in London, which was a joke about two British Muslims who went into a sporting goods store and tried on rucksacks. And Ibrahim said to Abdullah, “Does my bomb look big in this?” So we asked, you know, is this the kind of thing that’s now going to be a hate crime.
What would Woody Allen do if he wasn’t allowed to be rude about the Jews? It’s not just Muslims. It would be also illegal to be rude about Jews or Christians or, you know, Baha’is or Tom Cruise. The Archbishop Cruise. Well actually I don’t know what Scientologist hierarchies are called, but let’s not go there.
So it gets crazier, this refusal to face the simple fact that to create a kind of—theories of linguistic and cultural barriers which prevent you from speaking plainly about what’s going on. A couple of weeks ago in London a Muslim police constable, who had been given the job of guarding the Israeli Embassy, refused to do it. He didn’t say why but he said he didn’t want to. And the thing that was astonishing was that, instead of being fired or disciplined, which would be—I mean I can’t think of another situation in any police force, including the British police, where an ordinary police constable would be given the right to choose what job he did and who he should guard or not guard. But in this case, he was allowed not to guard the Israeli Embassy because he clearly had some objections.
Well and there was almost no discussion about this in the media, that the Muslim police constable was refusing to guard Jews. And that was considered to be OK because, hey, they were Jews. See, it follows, doesn’t it? I see you agree. This is going on.
I got into trouble yesterday, you’ll be amazed to hear—“Rushdie in trouble,” there’s a headline you’ve never seen—because I got ambushed. I was doing an interview which was actually about a sculpture show and there’s been this fuss in London recently about the veil, where—this is very strange—the Labour government has been fantastically craven about appeasing Muslim sentiment for years and years. And one of the people who has been most craven about this is the former Foreign Secretary, the former also Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who is now the leader of the House of Commons, has a constituency with a very, very large Muslim population. But suddenly, maybe sensing some kind of change in the wind, he suddenly announced that he disapproved of the veil and that when women came to meet him who were veiled, he would ask them to lift the veil so he could see him, because he said he felt it difficult to communicate with them if he couldn’t see them. Odd concept.
Somebody said in reply that if they heard Jack Straw on the radio they weren’t able to see him either but it didn’t stop them. So I said to this interviewer that clearly these veiled women wished to be on the radio while the rest of us were on TV, and that seemed old-fashioned of them. And I remember saying at one point, and I think the thing they most disliked was this was a piece of American slang, I said that what Jack Straw was essentially saying was that the veil sucked, you know, which it did. And that I came from a family of many, many, many Muslim women, all of whom would have refused to wear the veil and I didn’t see why we should suddenly start seeing that accepting that was an icon of identity when actually for many Muslim women it’s a thing to be fought against and to be got rid of.
So anyway, Rushdie says the veil sucks. That was all over the paper. And as a result I was abused and called, you know, a rotten writer, a glutton for publicity and celebrity and blah, blah, blah. But it seemed strange that in the third millennium somebody saying that it was not all right that women should walk around the world in black tents, hidden from the eyes of men who might otherwise be roused to uncontrollable lust, that was the provocation, not the fact that women were being forced to do this. Because the idea that this is free choice I don’t buy, given the amount of pressure on these young girls inside the community to do this.
Anyway this, I thought we were living in a very strange time when the thing that ought to be the obvious offense, which is the veiling of women, is treated as an icon of identity and a criticism of that is treated as a provocation. The world is turning upside down. And London has been bad at this but I don’t think that America has any reason to be complacent. And I think there was really to me a very shocking—I don’t know if any of you would agree—editorial in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago demanding that the Pope apologize for what someone had said in the 15th century, which he had explicitly stated he didn’t agree with. The Pope must apologize. Probably I can’t think of a time when the papacy has been obliged to apologize to the world several times for something it didn’t really say. It took them 800 years to apologize about Galileo. It took them about eight minutes to apologize —about this Byzantine text.
It seemed wrong I thought to demand that the Pope apologize. Believe me, I am not usually on the Pope’s side. This is not my understanding of the team I’m on. And I remember at the time of the Khomeini fatwa against my work, one of the most at that time surprising things to me was the fact that the then Pope, Wojtyla, made a statement saying that he perfectly understood Khomeini’s point of view and failed to say anything about how it was a bad idea to kill people for their work. And after that, when many, many Italian writers like Umberto Eco and many others demanded that he clarify his position, he never really did. And that he was joined in this sort of approval of Khomeini by the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and by the Roman Catholic Cardinal of New York.
And I remember thinking at the time that oh there is a kind of a team here. The God Squad is not just some kind of phrase that people use—it really is there. I think the thing that’s interesting to me about Ratzinger is that he clearly doesn’t think that. He doesn’t think he’s on the same team as the other guys. He’s prepared to say that he thinks his religion is better than their religion, which is very unusual these days, except of course Muslims who say it all the time. I mean it seemed to me what was behind that fuss was that suddenly the religious consensus was breaking down. But appalling of The New York Times to demand that the Pope not be allowed to say what he felt like in a really seriously worked-out theological essay.
I suppose one has to mention the Danish cartoons. I ran into a young journalist at a party in New York working for a small New York magazine who said that he’d been obliged to quit his job because his proprietor refused to publish the cartoons because he was worried about his offices getting bombed. And this kind of cravenness was worldwide. And the name that the cravenness was given was respect. When people said that they didn’t publish them out of respect for Muslims, what they meant is they didn’t publish them because they were afraid of their offices getting bombed.
And when you create that kind of a climate of fear, when you concede, you give in to that kind of intimidation, you don’t as a result have less intimidation. I mean as a result you have more intimidation. Because I think with the cartoons, there were really two quite separate issues. One is whether you thought the cartoons were good or bad and should have been published or shouldn’t have been published and those are decisions that every newspaper editor makes every day, and different editors would make different decisions. Some would say yes, we will publish it, some would say no, and that’s, in a way, not even a contentious issue.
But the second issue is when the subject of intimidation enters, then the question is how do you respond to intimidation, and do you give into it or do you not give into it. I think when the intimidation became as heavy as it did, the only proper response was everybody should have published the cartoons the next day. And not to do that was a way of showing that threats work. The purpose of terrorism is to create terror and if you show yourself to be terrified then the terrorists have done their work.
This is a curious climate that we’re living in where people are falling over backwards not to name the phenomenon that’s taking place, which is the progressive intimidation of the world in which we live. But as I say, I’m not talking about these great big geopolitical things going on elsewhere in the world; I’m talking about what is in our own hands to discuss and argue about and fix, what is happening in our town, what is happening in our culture. And the way in which things that, certainly I think we in this room probably all value a deal, are being eroded by this kind of intimidation and cowardice and by an unwillingness to call things by their true name.
And I have found one of the most strange things about the last, you know, 20 years or so that I’ve been involved in all this, is that the left and the liberal intelligentsia have not been good on this. And that in many cases you find yourself agreeing with people that you’ve never agreed with in your life before. The wrong people are on your side. And the “right people”—or in other words, the left people—are on the wrong side because there has been on the left for a long time this view that, Third World, good; First World, oppressive and bad. And that kind of Third Worldism has led to some very strange intellectual mistakes here, part of which is a kind of infantilization of people to say that they don’t know any better, which would not happen if you were dealing with anyone else who was not brown of skin.
There’s also the colossal mistake of cultural relativism, which is, you know, the bastard child of multiculturalism. I mean multiculturalism it seems to me is a completely defensible idea because we do all live in a multicultural society. There is no way that you can walk around the streets of New York City and argue with that fact. It simply is the case and what’s more it’s not going to stop being the case. In the same way as whether you like globalization or not, you cannot deglobalize the planet, in the same way you cannot demulticulturalize the planet. This is the world in which we now live. We all live jumbled up with each other and that’s just how it is and we have to deal with it.
That’s one thing. You say that, and you look at its consequences, good and bad, and that’s so. But there has been, entirely on the left I have to say, a mistake and extension of that, to say —there’s a British politician who said this recently— -that in order to be fair you have to treat people differently according to their cultural background. That’s to say things are OK if they’re your culture. If your culture happens to include stoning adulteresses to death, then hey, it’s your culture. If it includes female circumcision, which of us can argue with that, you know?
You see, the moment you begin to look at it, it doesn’t stand up, cultural relativism, because what it does is it absolves us as individuals and as groups from making any kind of moral choices. And you live in a world, therefore, where there is no such thing as morality; there’s only relative values. There’s only, you know, what’s sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. And at that point you genuinely arrive at what is called decadence, when you lose the ability to decide as individuals and groups, as a society, to agree about and sometimes agree about what is right and what is wrong. When you lose that ability, you’re in deep trouble, deep trouble.
And that is the trouble that cultural relativism has led us into. And only now you find people beginning to notice that it’s not all right for people to live in ghettos in which they reject everything else about the society. This is a classic mistake and the left has made this mistake before because the worst extension of this mistake is when it looks at movements, radical militant movements which are, in fact, intrinsically fascistic and intrinsically oppressive, but use a rhetoric of claiming to speak for the world’s oppressed peoples. This is the mistake the left fell into with Soviet Communism, with Stalinism. Here was a fascist movement claiming to be a revolutionary libertarian movement: we’ll have more of that, please.
And it seems to me that the fellow traveling of a great section of the left with Islamic radicalism is of exactly the same nature. The desire to oppose the many abuses that America and American power has committed in the world leads people to believe that these others, the people who claim rhetorically to be against that, are actually in some way allies. But actually the truth is that Islamic radicalism, whether it’s Al Qaeda, whether it’s Wahhabism, by whatever name you call it, is not interested in creating a world of greater social justice. It’s not interested in liberating women. It’s not interested in tolerance for minorities and sexual dissidents. It’s not interested in democracy. It’s not interested in having more of the community having a larger share of the pie. It’s not interested in economic redistribution. It’s not interested in any of the things that you would call social justice.
It’s interested in what the Taliban is interested in. It’s interested in creating a new religious, fascist rule over the planet, you know, the Caliphate, the Talibanization of the earth. For the left to refuse to understand the nature of the people that they’re refusing to criticize is a historical mistake as great as those who were the fellow travelers of Stalinist Communism in an earlier age. And I’m not alone in this. There’s at least another 12 people saying this. But there needs to be more than that.
And on the other side of the fence, I sort of worry about describing groups only in religious language because I think people are not only Muslims or Hindus or Christians. They also belong to economic groups if they live in certain areas and they’re, you know, Yankees fans, and so on. Our identities are not easily boxed into one box and certainly when that box is religious I begin to worry about how well people put into it. Why do we just talk about people as Muslims or Christians or Hindus instead of people from Brooklyn or short people or obese people or any of the other many identities that people might have more centrally than their religious identities? I think there’s a worry there about how you describe the world that we seem to be falling into a trap of communalist description, where we really describe people, they have a very narrowly defined communal terminology. And that, of course, greatly increases, as Amartya Sen has said, the risk of conflict between them.
Many minorities have made these mistakes in this moment, where they seem to support censorship. They want things to be banned. They want books to be banned, plays to be banned, movies to be banned. Whereas the most cursory glance at the history of the world shows that whenever censorship gets into the driving seat, it is minority opinions that always suffer first. So censorship is not a tool that ever protects minorities against the majority. Censorship is always used to stifle minority opinion and to create a rule of the majority. So it’s a very dangerous path for any minority, whether political, intellectual, religious, whatever, racial, to start thinking that they can be defended by censorship because, in fact, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.
But that is a mistake that’s being made now. There’s another mistake that’s being made now, which is a kind of cultural defensiveness, the one which says that let’s not wash our dirty laundry in public, the sense of having to close ranks against a hostile milieu. What that does is make people outside the given community feel that everyone in the community tacitly or explicitly supports the worst face of the community, which actually has no problem expressing itself and saying what it wants to say loudly enough. Because other voices are not being heard at anything like that volume, it’s very easy for people to make a mistake about the genuine opinions of that community. So again, the closed-ranks, ghetto mentality has exactly the opposite effect of what people think it’s going to have.
People have been saying in recent articles things which I think are true. If you look at what happened in Northern Ireland, one of the things that brought the terrorism to and end there was the so-called “Mothers for Peace” movement, where the mothers of Northern Ireland just said “We don’t want this rubbish anymore” and actually it was one of the major forces which brought the IRA to a halt. Where is the Million Muslim March on Washington demanding an end to violence and an end to terrorism? That would be a way of showing this country that most Muslims don’t agree with the terrorists. I mean, that’s to say, where are the big overt demonstrations of a rejection of terrorism? It would be useful to see them and not to do that is a way of giving the initiative to the worst people in the community.
You know, it just seems to me extraordinary that what is happening—when people are willing to rush around burning, you know, killing nuns because they don’t like what the Pope said and burning down offices because they don’t like a cartoon in Danish, which they can’t even read, at the same time what is taking place in Africa is a major atrocity, which is the murder of African Muslims, black African Muslims by Arab Muslims. Why is that not the source of colossal demonstrations in the Muslim world? And why is it that the Muslim world seems to be agreeing with the oppressors, on the side of the Arabs who are committing the genocide of other Muslims in Africa. Why is that not the major subject on the table of the Islamic Council organization?
It just seems that these absences and silences demonstrate the opposite of what we’re always taught to believe, which is the loving and peaceful nature of contemporary Islam. It wasn’t Muslim countries that came to the rescue of the Muslims of Bosnia. It wasn’t Muslim countries that came to the rescue of the Muslims of Kosovo. And in spite of that absence of Muslim activity, Western countries, which actually did that, are routinely described as being anti-Muslim.
There is a colossal intellectual confusion here, to put it mildly, and the confusion is enormously increased by the fact that people don’t often talk in just straightforward, blunt, declamatory sentences like this, but always try and kind of pussyfoot around the issue. And we’re not going to get anywhere by doing that is my point. We give legitimacy to the conservatives. We give legitimacy to the worst people in the society by doing that.
The way I would describe this, as a writer, is that we need all of us, whatever our background, to constantly examine the stories inside which and with which we live. I think we all live in stories, so-called grand narratives. Nation is a story, family is a story, religion is a story, community is a story. We all live inside and within and with these narratives. And it seems to me a definition of any living, vibrant society, that you constantly question those stories. You constantly argue about them. In fact, the argument never stops. The argument itself is freedom; it’s not that you come to a conclusion about it but that you live in a world in which you argue constantly about that world -and, through that argument, you change your mind sometimes. You decide the things that you used to accept in a society you no longer wish to accept, things that you did not accept in a society you begin to wish to accept. And that’s how societies grow.
When you can’t re-tell for yourselves the stories of your life, then you live in a prison. Then those stories don’t become the source of liberty, they become the source of captivity. Because somebody else controls the story and somebody else says to you, “This is what it means. This is how you think about it. This is the only way in which the story can be told. And if you disagree with that, we will come and do something terrible to you.” Now it seems to me that we have to say that a problem in contemporary Islam is the inability to reexamine the ground narrative of the religion. Every other major world religion allows endless interpretation and exegesis and argument about the core texts, and the fact that in Islam it is very difficult to do this makes it very difficult to think new thoughts.
Anyone who looks at the Koran can see that the Koran is a bit of a jumble. You know, you read the chapters and they suddenly change direction. And 50 pages later the story that’s been dropped gets picked up again and it’s quite clear that at some point in the collation of the book, whoever edited it made a terrible thing, a mistake. You see, you have to be worried about saying the word “mistake” about a text which is supposed to be free of mistakes. Yet, nobody who reads the text neutrally can avoid the conclusion that it’s a bit of a mess. My father once wanted to rearrange it to make better sense but I guess it’s a good idea he never did.
The other thing that I think is very, very worrying that you can’t do with the Koran is that you can’t look at it in historical context. And this is really regrettable because the Koran is really the only one of the great revealed texts that was revealed inside properly recorded history, in which an enormous amount is known about the social and historical conditions of Arabia at the time. An enormous amount is known about the life and the personal circumstances of the Prophet. And it’s perfectly possible to see how those impinge on the text. For example, the Bible stories in the Koran are mostly stories, which correspond more or less exactly to the versions of Bible stories that were prevalent amongst the sect called the Nestorian Christians, of which there were also members in Arabia at the time. And Mohammed the Prophet, as a trader, as a merchant, before he received the revelations, used to go on long caravan journeys and would have clearly met Nestorian Christians on those journeys.
And it’s very interesting that the Bible stories that are in the Koran are identical, more or less, to the Nestorian versions. For example, the story of Christ in the Koran in the chapter called Marium, Mary talks about Christ as having been born under a palm tree in an oasis, and is a kind of desert variation of the story of Jesus. And of course, if you are allowed to historicize you can say how interesting it is that that’s how the stories—not just the New Testament, but also Old Testament stories—enter the Koran. They enter via the Prophet’s connections with these other groups. But of course, if you believe the Koran to be the uncreated Word of God, you can’t say this.
If you historicize the Koran you can actually see how the moral philosophy and the social philosophy of the Koran is partly created by the social conditions in Arabia at the time, where a nomadic, matriarchal society is giving way to a settled, patriarchal society. And the extended family is giving way to a nuclear family and large numbers of people who used to be included in that larger, more extensive family structure are being excluded in the new nuclear family structure and are, therefore, feeling annoyed. And if you look at the plea of the Koran it is actually for essentially for a return to the ethics of the nomadic way of life, in a way for a return to matriarchy against patriarchy. All this stuff is perfectly obvious from a historical study. But if you believe the Koran is the uncreated Word of God you can’t talk about this because God presumably is not very interested in the socioeconomic conditions of the seventh century…maybe should have been, but that’s another story.
There was a wonderful attempt in the 12th century by the man from whose name my name is derived, the great philosopher Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes, who was one of the people trying very hard at that time to argue for the interpretation of the Koran and not for Koranic literalism. And one of his arguments which I’ve always found beautiful is that the Koranic view of God differs from the Judeo-Christian view of God in one very important dimension, which is the Judeo-Christian view is that God created man in his own image and therefore man and God presumably have some kind of resemblance. The Koran says God has no human characteristics, that it would be, in a way, belittling God to say that God had such sort of small things as a human characteristic because He’s God and we’re not.
Ibn Rushd argued that language is a human characteristic and therefore, from the internal evidence of the Koran, it would be wrong to say that God possessed language…that God spoke Arabic would be an improper thing to say about God. Therefore, God clearly communicates or the Archangel Gabriel communicates in some means which is non-linguistic but divine. Therefore, the act of writing down the Koran itself was already an act of interpretation, an act of interpretation of the divine message, nonverbal message, into verbal form.
And he argued, well if the original thing is an act of interpretation, you can go on interpreting. Why not? That good argument didn’t work, unfortunately. That effort was defeated and the literalists have gradually gained strength, and there’s a problem there. So I think when people like me argue that there is a need for a reform movement inside Islam, it’s not just to say that we don’t want terrorist groups. It’s to say that in order to unshackle this philosophy from the literalist chains, you have to create a world in which people can question the first principles. You have to create a world in which people can rethink the core of the text. And until that happens, you will have a paralyzed culture. And I think that is, for me, the bottom line problem that’s happening inside this culture.
And that has resulted in our time in a dreadful decay. I have many friends who are writers from Arab countries and one of the things they bemoan is the decline in the great cities of the Arab world within our lifetime. If you look at cities like Beirut and Cairo and even Baghdad and Tehran, in our lifetime, in the last half century, those were cities which were famous for their cosmopolitan, openness, their intellectual and artistic brilliance. You know, Beirut was called the “Paris of the East.” Cairo was a great, great center of learning. The idea that these cities have decayed to the point that they now have cannot entirely be blamed on American foreign policy. I mean many things can be blamed on American foreign policy, it’s true, but perhaps not that.
And that is, I think, a great tragedy out of which comes the kind of new barbarism. As the intellectual freedoms of these cultures have declined, so the new barbarisms have risen. You can see an exact sort of inverse power, the rise of Wahhabism, the rise of intolerance with the decline of those great capital cities. And you have to see a causal link between them. And in order to defeat the barbarism, the barbaric face of certain parts of Islam, we need to somehow restart that other, that other open, intellectually curious, cosmopolitan culture that within our own lifetimes has existed. To say that this hasn’t existed is also wrong. It has existed; there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be there again. It was there less than 50 years ago all across the Muslim world and it has been defeated but one has to say one hopes temporarily.
You find yourself thinking about this time as a lost world. You know, I’m a great fan of the Doonesbury comic strip and there was a moment a few months after the catastrophe of a few years ago when one of the characters in the strip said to the other, “You know, I really miss September the 10th.” And I think I know exactly what he felt. I think maybe we all really miss September the 10th and that other reality that existed then, or apparently existed then.
And I think there is a kind of sense that I have when I’m thinking about and writing about, as I often am, the Muslim world, that it was better once and not so very long ago and actually I can remember when. And I can remember how it was better. And one of the reasons why I wrote this last novel of mine, Shalimar the Clown, is that I wanted to explore one of the places in which that other world existed, which is the Valley of Kashmir, where my family originally came from and where there existed a kind of Islam which was peaceful and very at ease with its Hindu and Sikh neighbors, and mystical, and in a funny way almost adulterated with the other religions, which were also adulterated with bits of Islam.
And that composite culture showed that actually sometimes human beings do know how to get on and they manage to do it for quite a long time. And the reason why Kashmir was destroyed, why that culture was destroyed, was not because the Kashmiris changed; it was because of forces that came in from outside. You may hear some echoes here. On the one hand, Islamic terrorism and, on the other hand, a democratic country’s army claiming to be defending freedom, which succeeded in oppressing the people in a completely different way. There are two ways of oppressing people: one is democratic, and one is fascistic religion, and both of them work.
And in Kashmir what happened is that the people of Kashmir were crushed between those two forces and a place which was legendary for its peace-loving culture became the most violent place in the subcontinent of India. I felt when I was writing the book that one of the great joys of literature is that you can bring, if you do it right, you can bring back the lost world. That you can actually have it back for yourself in the act of writing it, in the act of imagining it back into being. And when, at least for the time that you read the book, that world exists again and it also shows you that such a world can exist. And it also shows you how such a world can be broken.
So there I felt a kind of curious act of…it’s not exactly nostalgia, but a sense of trying to repossess what was lost in order to show that it doesn’t have to be lost. That became a part of what I was writing about. And the novel ends—I can’t tell you if you haven’t read it—the novel ends on a kind of strange freeze frame, which some of its readers get very annoyed with me about and insist on knowing what actually happens. There are one of two things that can actually happen on the last page but it’s difficult for me to tell you which because it would spoil the ending.
But the point about the freeze-frame is to suggest that we don’t know the ending. That we live in a moment of enormous conflict and we don’t know the ending. And the ending will be determined by which side has the greater will. And you have to say that the will of Islamic radicalism, at the moment, is extremely powerful. The question is whether our will to defend ourselves against it—and I’m not talking about armies and invasions. I’m talking about how to defend the world and the culture that we value against people who despise all those things. Do we have the will to defend it? Because if we don’t, we will lose it.
If any of you have asked any questions, then maybe I’ll answer them. Otherwise we’ll go home.