The following is an account of wriiter Salman Rushdie's recent talk at The New York Society For Ethical Culture, presented by the Center for Inquiry on October 11, 2006.
Whether one has been caressed by his smooth flowing magical realism or upbraided by his outspoken views, there is no doubt that Salman Rushdie — the man who lived for many years under a fatwa issued by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — is of fascination to a broad section of society.
Whether it be his writing that has managed to capture aspects of differing continents, from the Indian sub-continent Midnight's Children to Europe and America, Rushdie stands in the tradition of a writer who has a burning passion to say something to us, to not only describe the world he finds himself in, but perhaps to change it a little also.
Rushdie told us that as well as books, the thing he would discuss with us would be the thing called 'it'. Not, however, Iraq, Al Qaeda or the Palestinians, but something much closer to home: The 'it' he was referring to was a new climate of censure where people were scared to name things and call them what they are. He began with 'News from London' and talked about what he called Tony Blair's religious hatred war and how he, alongside British comedian Rowan Atkinson, helped defeat it - or at least helped get it watered down (the 'Racial and Religious Hatred Bill as originally written woud have stifled free speech, they claim, including sketches like this example from Atkinson's TV sketch show, set in a mosque showing Muslims at prayer, bowing to the ground with a voiceover saying: "And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini's contact lens." It also addresses works like Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.)
Rushdie's comments in a number of areas with regard to free speech and language are inspiring in an age where it has become de rigeur to speak deferentially in the hope of not offending. Others have commented on this current climate of censorship imposed through speech codes and etiquette and of course the First Amendment here in the US.
Understandably, Rushdie felt "somewhat diffident" that a politician would have the last say about what could be written about and "that whether we could make jokes was up to a politician seemed wrong."
Rushdie went on to inform us that the BBC had recently been told that it could not use the term 'Islamic terrorist' and Melanie Phillips in the UK accuses the BBC of being the British Orwellian Corporation while the BBC reproduced Blair's speech in full on their site. Rushdie is furious, in his calm, gentleman-like manner, that certain terms cannot be used. "Never mind that they all say they are Islamic terrorists," he explains. He went on to tell us about his dismay at the new 'crime' of Islamophobia. "But if you have ideas that I don't like, it's ok to be phobic about them...there are many people with Salman-o-phobia!"
Rushdie continued explaining his view that in order to have a truly free society we must be as open as possible about ideas. While individuals can be protected, their ideas cannot be. He continued with a myriad of examples, of cartoons about back-packs and bombs and then asked poignantly, "What would Woodly Allen do if he couldn't be rude about Jews?"
From the British Muslim policeman that refused to guard the Israeli Embassy in London, to the issue of women wearing veils, he vociferously argued that the heart of the problem today was a cultural relativism. After all, he asked us, doesn't it seem strange that in the Third Millenium, the fact "that women should walk around in black tents in case they may insight men to uncontrollable levels of lust...is just wrong." The obvious offence here, he argued, was the veiling of women, yet it is the criticism of that offence that is now seen as the problem. "The world has turned upside down."
Maybe so. Or, perhaps the Chinese curse 'May you live in interesting times,' holds true. He went on to site his concern that The Pope is expected to apologise for his views on a Byzantine text, saying "Believe me, I'm not usually on the Pope's side...that's not my team...but it seems absurd that he should apologize." He told us how, when the fatwa against him was declared, the then current Pope said he understood Khomeini's views - rather than saying it was wrong to kill - and that then he got a UK Rabbi involved too and they had a kind of 'God-squad' team. Rushdie concluded that it was appalling of The New York Times editorial to argue that The Pope should not be allowed to say what he thinks on religious texts; Thomas Friedman agreed.
The final part of Rushdie's speech dealt with the mis-use of language and the horror of the substitution of the word 'respect' (ie we won't do certain things out of respect for another culture, whether it be stoning women or behaving in a certain way) rather than calling it what it is, which is fear. His argument was that we are now in deep trouble because so many of us in the west are no longer holding the line and criticising ideas and beliefs. This, he suggested, is truly the slippery slope to decadence, where cultural relativism means there can be no shared meaning about what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. Others have argued that the 'respect' tag is downright patronising.
"The infantalisation of Third World good, First World bad," is an abhorrence he told us and, concluding, made a request for all of us to become involved in questioning the world we find ourselves in and in calling things what they are — naming the things as they are and giving those things names. A good starting point for more debate in my book.