War of the Worlds

At the Kimmel, Salman Rushdie discusses Islam, fiction and the "aesthetic of dirt."

By David Adler
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 27, 2008

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"I can't help the fact that a dead cleric from Iran always gets into my introductions," said Sir Salman Rushdie from the podium at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall Monday night. "I just feel the need to point out, talking of death sentences, that he's the one who's dead."

Appearing as part of Widener's annual Philadelphia Speaker Series, Rushdie talked for an hour about what he jokingly referred to as "it"--the issue on everyone's minds, the putative clash-unto-death between West and East, America and Islam. Having received a death warrant from an Islamic government over his novel The Satanic Verses in 1989, Rushdie is taken quite seriously on the subject, and good thing, since he offers clarity in a time of confusion and muddle.

"It seems the worst of the East is at war with the worst of the West," he said, "and the rest of us are rendered spectators. We have a version of Islam that is overtly anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic, and this is presented to us as Islam. We have a view of Western civilization which is self-aggrandizing, imperialist and gratuitously violent, and that, we are told, is Western culture. Well, excuse me for not recognizing either culture in those descriptions."

Though the Satanic Verses affair was not Rushdie's focus, it hummed in the background of his musings on literature and politics. He began by citing Nicholas Nickleby and Uncle Tom's Cabin and recalling a time "when the novel would bring the news," even exert influence on public policy. Today, he argued, fiction may be more functional than ever:

"As the world is getting more surreal and less naturalistic by the minute, one feels sometimes that only imaginative writing can in fact respond to the full bizarreness of the everyday. The greatest fiction these days is that we live in something called 'ordinary life.' Through the surface of what people call ordinary life there burst out bizarre, phantasmagoric growths--what should one call them?--Bushes. Only fiction writers can address vegetables as strange as that."

A staunch opponent of the Iraq War, Rushdie has nonetheless been attacked as a neoconservative for saying what the far left regards as heresy: that the problem is not only with America, and that Islamic culture must be held accountable for its faults. (Fellow Brits Martin Amis and Ian McEwan have said the same, and been called the same.) Rushdie drove home the point during his talk, warning against "surrender from within" in the U.S. and Europe. Surrender from the left he described as appeasement, the wish to "understand" what should be firmly deplored. Surrender from the right he characterized as bigotry, warmongering, torture--behaviors and policies that simply mirror the Islamist hardliners.

Noting that ethnic conflict often employs "metaphors of laundry"--"cleansing," "purification" --Rushdie cited Bengali thinker Amartya Sen and proposed "an aesthetic of dirt," an embrace of mixed and overlapping identities. Here he began referring obliquely to The Enchantress of Florence, his forthcoming novel. In an excerpt that appears in the Feb. 25 issue of The New Yorker, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, "a barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer," must grapple with human subjectivity, the idea that we are all "bags of selves."

Rushdie also ventured a critique of present-day Islam, "the only religion that exists fully inside human history and is best suited to be studied historically, yet it forbids that study." On that note, few realize that the "blasphemous" parable of The Satanic Verses is not Rushdie's invention, but arose from an anti-literalist tradition within Islam itself. (For more on this, see Fred Halliday's 100 Myths About the Middle East.) Khomeini's death warrant wasn't just an attack on free speech, therefore, but a glaring example of what Rushdie calls "intellectual paralysis," fostered by an authoritarian religious-political culture.

It was also not a mere threat, but a campaign of actual violence: Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie's Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in 1991; Ettore Capriolo, his Italian translator, and William Nygaard, his Norwegian publisher, were seriously wounded.

Rushdie declared that his personal safety hasn't been a problem for nine years, and that local security personnel had overreacted on the occasion of this Philly appearance. However, no overt security effort could be detected in the Kimmel Center lobby or on the part of ushers.

There are still those in the West who, probably not having read The Satanic Verses, choose to discuss the book on Khomeini's terms, holding Rushdie guilty of "going too far." Some argue that the knighthood bestowed on Rushdie in June 2007 was itself "insensitive" to Muslims. But as Rushdie pointed out during his Q&A, hundreds of Muslim writers leapt to his defense when it counted. Muslims regularly attend his readings and ask him to sign their books. "Why is their opinion less important?"

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