NEW YORK — Nearly 20 years after being driven underground by a religious decree, he is now Sir Salman Rushdie, properly famous and free, yet still burdened by his status as a symbol of persecution.
"This is the albatross around my neck," the novelist said Sunday night during a conversation with author-activist Irshad Manji at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
The 61-year-old Rushdie said he would rather be known as an artist than as a social critic, and worried that the attacks against his religious satire, "The Satanic Verses," had obscured "the real person that I am and the actual value of the books."
But the author did seem to enjoy himself as he took on Islamic fundamentalists, President George W. Bush and other objects of his liberal disdain. He was mostly relaxed and jovial despite his reluctance to revisit the death sentence by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"The Satanic Verses" was released in late 1988 to critical acclaim and furious protest, with Muslims burning copies in the street and demonstrating around the world. On Feb. 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree, or fatwa, calling for the author to be killed.
Rushdie, a native of India who had moved to London, was forced into hiding and lived for years under British protection. The 500-page "Satanic Verses" became an international best-seller, although widely regarded as having far more buyers than readers.
The Ayatollah is long dead and Rushdie has stopped worrying about his safety, although the fatwa has never been withdrawn. On Sunday night, he questioned the accuracy of the Quran, used profanity when referring to Islamic leaders and bragged about once wearing a T-shirt that read, "Blasphemy is a Victimless Crime."
But he believes that "a culture of offendedness," in which any religious criticism is regarded as insensitive or even blasphemous, has intimidated others. Last year, Rushdie strongly criticized his own publisher, Random House, Inc., for pulling Sherry Jones' "The Jewel of Medina" over fears that the novel would set off violence. ("The Jewel of Medina," about one of the Prophet Muhammad's wives, was released by Beaufort Books without major incident).
Calling himself an early victim of attempted censorship, Rushdie likened his place in history to a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, "The Birds." He recalled a scene in which Tippi Hedren spotted a crow outside her window. Hedren paid little attention until she noticed hundreds more had arrived.
"I think I was the first crow," Rushdie said.
The author, otherwise known for his classic "Midnight's Children," said he always considered the reaction to "Satanic Verses" a political, not a religious problem. He noted that Iran's government had recently ended a long war with Iraq and was highly unpopular, and so used Rushdie to regain approval.
Few of his enemies knew anything about "Satanic Verses," Rushdie says. Years after he was out of hiding, Rushdie met a young "British-Asian" guy who confided that he had once been a demonstrator against the author.
"Then I read your book," the man told him, "and I couldn't see what the fuss was about."