Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
After Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or death sentence, against him in 1989, author Salman Rushdie was forced into a life on the run. When police asked him to choose an alias, he picked “Joseph Anton” after two of his literary heroes. Rushdie, who just completed a memoir, joins us to reflect on his work and his journey — and its relevance to the uncertain future of the Muslim world.
- Salman Rushdie Author, "Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie"
Videos: Inside The Studio
Novelist Salman Rushdie reflected on the toll that being asked to live underground for more than a decade took on his mental state. “I felt very often ashamed of the way I was being asked to live,” Rushdie said. “It felt degrading and humiliating and not honorable.” Rushdie also discussed how powerful the values of honor and shame are in Eastern culture.
Rushdie shared a humorous childhood story, and explained why a member of his security detail earned the moniker “King of Spain.”
Listen To An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Joseph Anton” by Salman Rushdie. Copyright 2012 by Salman Rushdie. Reprinted here by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.
Read An Excerpt
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. In March of 2012, the New York Times ran a headline proclaiming that the author Salman Rushdie, the author of "The Satanic Verses" had gone from exile to everywhere, words that carried a loaded meaning in the months that followed.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThen a very different piece of work, a YouTube video, triggered violent protests throughout the Muslim world. It's been more than two decades since the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini famously called for Rushdie's death, a fatwa that forced him underground into a life of hiding under police protection.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat exile is long over, but Rushdie's name and his story are as relevant now as they ever were. At a time when countries throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East are confronting combustible questions about freedom, religion, art and modernity, he joins us to explore his life, career and the future of political Islam in the modern world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISalman Rushdie is an author whose works include the aforementioned "Satanic Verses" and "Midnight's Children." His most recent work is a memoir titled "Joseph Anton." Salman Rushdie, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. SALMAN RUSHDIEHello, nice to be here.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation with Salman Rushdie, you can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIYou have one of the most recognizable names in the entire literary universe, but this book's title comes from the alias you chose for yourself in the years you lived under police protection in Britain. Why did you decide that now, this was the time to explore those years that you lived in exile and what did you learn about yourself from studying the person you were back then?
RUSHDIEWell, the reason why now is simply that I, for a long time, just didn't feel emotionally ready to write. I wanted to write this book when I found myself in a calmer place and I could, as they say, reflect in tranquility, you know, look. I wanted to be in charge of the material, not have the material in charge of me and I just thought I'd wait until I felt that I was in that shape.
RUSHDIEWell, one of the things I learned is that, and it's one of the reasons why the book is written in the third rather than the first person, is that I felt that the person that the book is written about, the me that the book is written about, is a little bit different than the person writing the book.
RUSHDIEYou know, first of all, of course, I mean, I was just, to be obvious, I was much younger. I was in my early 40s then rather than my mid-60s. But also that that was a person under colossal and sometimes deforming stress and pressure and so I wanted just to suggest to the reader that there is this slight gap between the Salman Rushdie who is writing the book and the one whose story he's telling.
NNAMDISomething that every reviewer got, but I suspect the challenge for a writer is that you're looking at yourself through the eyes of another and as every reviewer has noted, it somehow manages to work in the book. But how difficult was the process?
RUSHDIEBut, you know, actually, for me, the sort of key that opened the door to the book was switching out of the first person into the third. Obviously, I thought it's an autobiography, write it in the first person. That's how I started and I just didn't like it.
RUSHDIEI thought it was narcissistic and self-regarding, all this I, I, I, me, me, me stuff and I found it difficult to be properly objective about myself, you know. And I think my novelistic instinct that if you're going to make a character live on the page, even if that character is you, you have to be able to look at them in the round and be very, you know, be very objective about them and be, you know, even perhaps more critical about the character that is you than of anyone else.
RUSHDIEAnd the moment I switched into the third person, I just felt that I could do that.
NNAMDIDid you feel when you switched into the third person that it immediately established a distance between yourself and the character...
NNAMDI...that heretofore you couldn't?
RUSHDIEYeah, I mean, it was just like taking one step to the left of myself, you know, and being able to look at myself from both inside and outside.
NNAMDIYou've made it clear that this is not an autobiography, but a memoir of your experience getting caught up in a historic event, a moral event. What do you mean by that term?
RUSHDIEWell, I mean, it asked very profound questions about the nature of freedom and the artistic process and what it is that the life of the mind and the imagination gives to society and why that should be valued and defended. And I felt that one part of the attack on the book came out of a, more or less, pernicious idea of cultural relativism which suggested that we should treat different cultures differently because of their different background.
RUSHDIEAnd so if, you know, to put it bluntly, if some people felt that it was within their cultural rights to kill writers for what they wrote, then, you know, maybe one should respect that. Well, I'm obviously biased, but I think that's not so.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Salman Rushdie. He is the author of works that include of course "The Satanic Verses" and "Midnight's Children." But we're talking about his most recent work, a memoir titled "Joseph Anton." I'm taking your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you think the arc of Islam has changed if at all, since the time a fatwa was issued calling for Salman Rushdie's death more than 20 years ago? 800-433-8855.
NNAMDIYou write that Islam itself is a bit of a paradox, a backward-looking, conservative theology that appeals to a vanishing culture, but one that's become a revolutionary force in modern history. How do you explain?
RUSHDIEWell, there, I'm talking about the origins. What I'm saying is that much of the value system of Islam as it began was in a way a plea for the values of the then vanishing nomadic society which was being replaced by a kind of urbanized society.
RUSHDIEAnd the reason it became revolutionary is that all the people disenfranchised by the move from nomadic Arabic life to urban life, a kind of street mob became the first adherence and so it became politically dangerous. And I'm talking about then not now, toward the 7th century in Arabia.
NNAMDIIn the wake of the September 11th attacks, you wrote in the New York Times that poverty is the great helper of people trying to mobilize and organize extreme Islamic groups. In the era of the Arab Spring, a decade later, do you feel anything has changed in how poverty affects the dynamics, if you will?
RUSHDIENo. I mean, I think it's very much a factor, you know, and I think if you look at a lot of countries in the Muslim world, not just the Arab world, you know, Pakistan also, places like that, you have countries in very poor economic conditions with, you know, with a generation of mostly young men who are really unable to imagine that they can get a decent living, make a good life for themselves, get married, raise a family, be able to support an ordinary life.
RUSHDIEAnd that's, of course, makes people feel very -- I mean, it's bad for the self and it's demoralizing and annoying and angers people and that anger can be channeled and I think frequently has been into the voice, into the language of radical Islam.
NNAMDIYou mentioned in the memoir, "Joseph Anton," that your father was a person who I would probably characterize as an Agnostic, who nevertheless occasionally allowed you and your brother and sister to kind of indulge in a few of the religious ceremonies of Islam. But he nevertheless was fascinated by the Koran and Islam, a fascination that you seem to have inherited yourself.
RUSHDIEYes, I think I'm, in that sense, one of the nice things about writing the book was to make this portrait of my father and to show to how much I am, in fact, my father's son because he was really very, more or less, completely lacking in religious belief and he passed that on to me.
RUSHDIEBut he also passed on to me his enormous academic interest in the origins of Islam. I mean, he was more scholarly than I and he could, you know, he knew classical Arabic and Farsi and was able to read texts in their original and so on, which I'm not. But he certainly gave me that interest in wanting to know about it as a big idea coming into the world, you know, as an event in history.
RUSHDIEAnd since I was a student of history at university, I carried on those studies there.
NNAMDIWhat were the issues that your father had with the Koran and how did that inform the way you would go on to see the world as an adult? You write that the birth of Islam fascinated your father because it was the only one of the world's great religions to be born completely within recorded history.
RUSHDIEYeah, well, you know, unlike any of the other great religions, we have enormous amounts of contemporary information about the birth of Islam, about the Prophet of Islam, but also about the society into which he was born and into which this idea came. And it seems to me obvious if you study that, if you study the history of Arabia at that time, you can see how the ideas of the Koran, the kind of ideology of the Koran arises out of the needs of the country as it then was.
RUSHDIEAnd sadly, of course, if you're a literalist and you believe that the only thing to know about the Koran is that it's the word of God then that kind of historical enquiry is more or less forbidden or termed blasphemous. And it seems to me frustrating that this possibility of studying the birth of Islam historically is something which is made impossible by the, you know, the bans on this kind of enquiry.
NNAMDIYour father died when he was 77 years old and during the course of the last decade of his life, he mentioned, apparently fairly frequently, his intent to write and publish a scholarly review, if you will, of Islam and never did. Is that one of the reasons you think you did?
RUSHDIEMaybe I just wanted to step into his shoes, yeah. It is very strange that he did talk about it a lot and when he died, we found no trace of it. I mean, there was no manuscript or anything so I don't -- I think he never did anything except talk about it.
NNAMDIWhen you were crafting "The Satanic Verses," why did you find it necessary to write about Muhammad in a human light to begin with?
RUSHDIEWell, as I say, because, first of all, remember that the material in "The Satanic Verses" is very much a secondary plot and it's also the prophet is not called Muhammad. The religion is not called Islam. The city is not called Mecca and it happens in a dream sequence. And what's more the dream sequence of somebody who is losing his mind.
RUSHDIESo there's a great deal of fictional distancing there. But what I wanted to do was to talk about the birth of, let's say, of a revelation, but to do it from, let's say, a non-religious point of view, from a secularist point of view. How would -- what is the accommodation one can make with an act such as revelation?
RUSHDIEYou know, if you were standing on the mountain next to the prophet, do you think you would have seen the Archangel who came to talk to him? And if not, then what's going on? I mean, it's an interesting question, I think, because the nature of mystical experience is quite well documented by many people.
RUSHDIEI need only to think about Joan of Arc or, you know, St. John the Divine or, you know, and what is interesting is that they all talk about it in very similar terms. They all talk about it, a very similar experience. So clearly there is such a thing as the mystical experience.
RUSHDIENow if you're like me, if you're my cast of mind, you think of that as being a subjective experience not an objective reality. But it's worth exploring. It's very interesting and that's what I thought I was doing.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. I'm going to get on to your life as Joseph Anton in a second, but what were your expectations prior to the publication of the book for how people would react?
RUSHDIEYou know, I was in a very good place at that time in my career because my previous two novels had been wonderfully well received and had done very well, "Midnight's Children" and "Shame," and I just hoped that that kind of interest and enthusiasm for my work, you know, would continue and I had perfectly good reasons to believe that it would.
RUSHDIESo -- and indeed that's perhaps what gave me some of the confidence to attempt what is quite a complicated book, you know. That's to say it's not -- "The Satanic Verses" is not the kind of book you write if you're aiming to make a number one best seller, you know, 'cause it's quite complex. But I thought because there had been this great popularity of the previous books I could maybe get away with doing something complicated and people would be interested in it. That's really what my expectations and hopes were. I certainly wasn't expecting this storm to descend upon me.
NNAMDIWell, the thing that struck me most about the dramatic aspect of what happened to you after the fatwa was issued is that yes, you were informed about it by a reporter from the BBC, yes, you took it seriously. But you say in the book that you left your home that night, the home in which you'd been living for the previous what, five years...
NNAMDI...precious eight years or so. You were going to an event that night and you figured of course there'll probably be need for some precautions to be taken. But you left that home that night and didn't realize that you were...
RUSHDIENever going home.
NNAMDI...never going back.
RUSHDIEYeah, I think in retrospect, I wonder if that was a mistake on my part, you know. I mean, everyone else in England who receives police protection receives it in their own home, you know. And I was told not to go home again. And I think one of the reasons I agreed to do it is that we all believed, myself and the police and commentators, believed that this would be over very quickly.
RUSHDIEYou know, because it was -- it seemed so outrageous that the head of one country should reach across the world and order the murder of the citizen of another country who is living in his own country and had committed no crime in that country. It seemed so outrageous and, after all, the end of the 20th century. But everybody assumed this is going to get fixed, that they're going to be -- there's going to be discussions between the governments, diplomats will do what they do, politicians will do what they do. And some agreement will be struck and this will be set aside. That's what we all thought.
RUSHDIEAnd what the police said to me is, you know, yes, don't go home, but their idea was just go -- let's just go away for a few days. Let's go and lie low somewhere for a few days and let all this diplomacy take place. And so on that basis I left home and, you know, it was over a decade before it was -- before it ended.
NNAMDIAnd that severance from your last home it seems to me was symbolic of the severance with your past that is chronicled in the "Memoir of Joseph Anton." We've got to take a short break. Our guest is Salman Rushdie. "Joseph Anton: A Memoir" is his latest book and we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think explains the rise of conservative Islamist groups in Arab Spring countries, something that we'll be talking about with Salman Rushdie very shortly? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Salman Rushdie. He is an author whose works include "The Satanic Verses" and "Midnight's Children." His most recent work is a memoir titled "Joseph Anton." He joins us in studio. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Honor and shame are themes you've spend a lot of time exploring in your writing. You say that being told to go into hiding was a humiliation. What kind of toll did that take on you in the 11 years you spent underground?
RUSHDIEWell, I mean, I think it was very tough. I think -- you know, I kept a journal throughout that time and really I hadn't looked at it since. I mean, I hadn't really looked at it in a decade. And I went back obviously to read it before I wrote this book. And one of the things that's absolutely obvious reading it is that there are long passages of time when the person writing the journal is not in very good mental condition, you know. And I just -- I think in a way at the time I was so absorbed in the day-to-day of it that I didn't realize until I look back on it now exactly how burdened by the pressure I was.
NNAMDIYou weren't raised as a Muslim but you were raised in Muslim culture. How are the ideas of honor and shame different in Muslim culture than in other religious cultures?
RUSHDIEWell, one of the things I wrote about in my novel "Shame" and a bit since, including in this book, is that it seems to me that those two concepts, the concepts of honor and shame are the kind of -- if you like the poles of the moral axis of that world in -- unlike in a Judea Christian world you would have -- or a Christian world certainly you would have guilt and redemption as the opposite poles of that axis.
RUSHDIEBut those ideas are not central to Islam whereas honor and shame are very powerful. Not just in Islam but in Eastern culture generally.
NNAMDIAnd if you're raised in a culture like that it therefore has a very profound effect on you.
RUSHDIEYeah, I mean, I did notice during these years of, you know, semi invisibility that I felt very often ashamed of the way I was being asked to live. You know, that it felt degrading and humiliating and not -- you know, if you like -- not honorable to be living in this way. And I've noticed, you know, people not from the East reading the book would often wonder why I was using those concepts, you know. But why was that such an issue for me? And I think it's just because of where I grew up and those ideas that were, you know, very important shaping ideas for me.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones we will start with Steve in Greenbelt, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEThank you. Mr. Rushdie, it's an honor to speak with you.
STEVEAnd you, too, Kojo.
STEVEMy question is this. In America, in Europe, the Protestants or Judea Christian conservativism is hardening. In, of course, the Arab world, there is a conservative hardening in this. And you hear the pundits on radio stations saying, the Arabs say or the Mohammads say wherever a Mohammad foot has stepped, that is Arab land. And they worry about the Arab populations in France and England and here in the United States. Do you see in your -- since you've studied this so deeply, the possibility that there would be a civil war or a war would break out within countries between conservative Christians and the conservative Arab people?
RUSHDIEI don't know and I don't see that as being very probable because -- but I do think that what's happening is the development or the rise of a kind of identity politics which asks people to define themselves very narrowly, you know, to define themselves by their religious beliefs or even by a version -- a very narrowly expressed version of their religious faith. And the more narrowly you define your identity the more likely it is that you're going to be in conflict with somebody else.
RUSHDIEI think one of the things that literature has always done is to try and show us that identity is very broadly based. It's very complicated, contradictory and many-sided. And I regret very much the way in which both -- as you say, both in the Christian world and in the Muslim world and indeed in India and the Hindu communities this idea of narrowly defined identities is leading to extremism.
RUSHDIEI mean, why it happens, it's hard to say but one of the things I think is that we live in a world which is transforming at an incredible speed. You know, everything about the world is shifting it seems like week by week. And religion offers some people a fixed point, you know, a fixed point in a very changing world. And they reach for it and cling to it as something eternal and unchanging. And that can lead to a kind of dogmatism. And, I mean, that's, you know -- this is a big subject obviously, but that's just one thought.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. However the thought leads us into the next caller, Michael in Myersville, Md. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. I think Michael has to do with just how powerful notions of religion can be. Michael, but it's your turn.
MICHAELThank you. It's honestly a sincere honor to talk to you, Mr. Rushdie. I am a big fan.
MICHAELI've read everything you've written and I love it.
RUSHDIEOh, that's nice.
MICHAELMy question is, I actually -- like maybe with many people, I started with "The Satanic Verse" only because of the hubbub surrounding it. And then only after that did I discover really the marvelous stuff that you've done other than "The Satanic Verses." So my question is, do you feel in some ways like "The Satanic Verses" as a novel has sort of come to define who you are? And if so, how does it feel to have that sort of the only thing over your head when you've done so much other noteworthy work?
NNAMDIThere is a certain irony there, is there not?
RUSHDIEYeah, I mean, you know, it's true that that book's had a disproportionate amount of attention. And a lot of the people providing that attention never felt the need to actually read it. But what I think is now -- you know, as we were saying, this is -- all this happened more than 20 years ago. And as things have died down -- I mean, I'm happy to say that the books are getting, you know, read just -- including that one just getting read as books rather than as kind of political hot potatoes.
RUSHDIEAnd, I mean, I always say to people, I don't care which of my books they start with but it might be -- sometimes I do think it might be better if somebody started with a book other than "The Satanic Verses" just because there's been so much noise around it. You know, maybe people should read one of the others, "Midnight's Children" or "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" or something and work their way around to "The Satanic Verses."
RUSHDIEIn the end it all evens out, you know. I mean, the only reason why books ever survive in the world is that people like them. You know, books don't survive because of scandal. We don't care about the political controversies, the literary controversies of 100 years ago. Books survive because people like them. And I think if this book survives, if any of my books survive it'll be because ordinary readers in the end make the decision that they're worth reading.
NNAMDIMichael, Salman Rushdie clearly feels that it won't survive because it offended people, because he has now famously said that most of the people who were offended probably didn't read the book. Because you don't go through 600 pages in order to be offended. Did I quote you correctly?
RUSHDIEYeah, more or less, yes.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Michael. On now to Vic in Virginia Beach, Va. Vic, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VICYeah, thanks very much, Kojo. I was wondering if Mr. Rushdie has ever looked at the first few paragraphs in his book that actually he wrote it way before 9/11 but in one of the pages there's actually a very similar incident that he described. I think it was the third page, somewhere there. If he has ever looked at both -- at that incident and compared it to 9/11 and probably that could've been the blueprint for those people who were trying to hurt us in the United States. That they night have used that particular illustration as part of their blueprint for their actions.
NNAMDI12 years later.
RUSHDIEYeah, no. Well, I mean, actually the incident that the -- if you're talking about the novel begins with a hijacking of a plane which is then blown up by terrorist bombers. And actually that incident in the novel was based on something that actually happened with an Indian aircraft, Air India flight coming out of Canada which was hijacked and exploded and went into the sea off the Irish coast.
RUSHDIEAnd an enormous number of people were killed in it, many of them Indians including one of my childhood friends. So I had a lot of personal connection to that story. And the episode in the novel comes from my memory of that. I think it's probably a more accurate way of describing it. I don't believe that -- I mean, I don't believe that Osama bin Laden read "The Satanic Verses" and used it as a model. I'm sorry, I can't believe that.
NNAMDIVic, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. What lessons do you think can be taken out of the reaction to Salman Rushdie's work and the Muslim world or the reaction to the incendiary video that's been sparking so many protests today? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. We're talking 1989, long before the YouTube Facebook generation, the Twitter generation was sitting behind its keyboards. Yet the outrage over your book spread like wildfire. Other than that most of the people who were outraged hadn't ever read the book, how do you account for that?
RUSHDIEWell, it was very carefully organized. I mean, that's the thing. I mean, actually it was very well organized, even using the rather simple communications devices that existed then, you know, the fax machine. But it was organized to the point that, you know, single page -- single sheet documents containing bullet points of what should be objected to in the book, you know, were very widely disseminated and through Mosques to make sure that everybody was, you know, singing form the same song sheet.
RUSHDIEAnd I mean, it was a very impressive -- I mean, I can say this as the target of it but it was a very impressive political act, this attack on this book. And of course had we had in existence the things we now have, you know, the internet and, I mean, you know, there were barely any mobile phones in those days. It was the very, very beginning of email, you know, and so on. I mean, if we had the tools that we now have then the attack, in my view, would've been much more powerful, much more dangerous, in many way much harder to resist.
NNAMDIWell, that was going to be my next question, if we had the tools that we now have -- but allow me to change it to something else that struck me about the book. It seems to me that when you said earlier that when you looked at the journals that you were writing you found that this was someone who was clearly having mental difficulties from time to time. The segment of the book in which you are somehow persuaded to declare that you have become a Muslim seems to be the part of your life during your life as Joseph Anton in which you were most disappointed.
RUSHDIEYeah, well, it was and not just I but many of my friends. In fact my sister called me up and accused me of having lost my mind and I think she was -- I said to her she might have been right, you know. But I do think that I was at that point at a very low ebb emotionally.
NNAMDISome people have compared it to Stockholm Syndrome.
RUSHDIEIt wasn't that exactly. What it was was a kind of despair. And also there was an enormous amount of external pressure on me in England. Basically there was a quite wide spread attitude that this essentially had been my fault and I needed to do something to defuse the situation. You know, you broke it, you fix it. There was a lot of that which came from politicians and the conservative government. It came from political commentators in the media. It also came from the public at large.
RUSHDIEYou know, there were opinion polls taken amazingly about whose fault this was. And quite substantial numbers of the British people thought that it was my fault, you know. So under all that pressure I got suckered into -- and I think I was trapped -- into a meeting with a group of Islamic leaders who promised me the world by fixing everything. And the price of the ticket was that I was supposed to make this declaration of faith which, I mean, obviously I shouldn't have done because first of all it wasn't true.
RUSHDIEAnd yet so great was my desire to kind of, you know, get this thing fixed, which everybody in the world was telling me I had to do, that I found myself, you know, willing to make this statement. And immediately knew that I had done the stupidest thing of my life.
NNAMDIYour subconscious, however, seemed to be operating because you didn't consult with any of your closer friends...
NNAMDI...because I suspect that your subconscious said, you know what they're going to say.
RUSHDIEYeah, they would all have told me not to be an idiot, you know. And I of course had a voice in my head telling me not to be an idiot and I managed to suppress that voice at that time. But, you know, in retrospect I thought of that moment as a pivotal moment in my life because, I mean, the thing about hitting bottom, which I think, you know, is that then you know where the bottom is. And then you know that you never want to go there again.
RUSHDIEAnd I think it actually gave me a kind of strength to, once I repudiated those remarks and said I shouldn't have done it and it wasn't the truth, which I did pretty quickly, I knew that I was never going to try and make that kind of compromise again. You know, that I was not going to compromise on issues or values that shouldn't be compromised with. And I just thought enough with appeasement and apology and regret and atonement and all that. I'm not going to -- just forget all that. I'm just going to fight my corner now and argue for what I believe to be right. And if people don't like it then, you know, tough.
NNAMDIBut in the book "Joseph Anton" I inferred that in England at that time, given the fact that you were being denounced by segments of the media and there were politicians denouncing you, that in a way you felt trapped because...
NNAMDI...you seem to contrast it with what happened when you would come to -- when you finally came to the United States, how you were treated by members of Congress...
NNAMDI... how you were treated by the media in general...
NNAMDI...and how you were treated by the publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham in particular.
RUSHDIEIndeed. You know, I really did feel the moment I crossed the Atlantic, you know, and was suddenly in this environment, that there was a much greater degree of understanding and sympathy for what I was going through. And yes, I mean, I was one of the early visits in those years that I was able to make to America was here to Washington to speak at a human rights conference. And various helpful intermediaries, I mean, including Bob Woodward, helped to arrange a meeting with Katharine Graham and other senior staffers at the Washington Post.
RUSHDIEAnd I was really moved by how -- well, first of all, they were very -- they're good journalists, so they asked plenty of tough questions. But it was very moving how supportive they were, and how supportive in fact the general public was here, and in general how much more I felt understood. And I think -- I don't think there's any doubt that one of the reasons why when all this ended why I made my home in New York City was because of the difference in that reception.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy go to our website kojoshow.org, send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a question or comment for Salman Rushdie. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Salman Rushdie about his latest book. It's a memoir titled "Joseph Anton." He is of course the author of "The Satanic Verses," and "Midnight's Children" among other works. A conversation you can join by calling us at 800-433-8850. The video that was called "The Innocence of Muslims" that caused a lot of chaos, a lot of sometimes violent reactions in the Muslim world, do you find that the events unleashed by this video have revealed anything unique, anything different about the relationship between Islam and populism compared to other religions?
RUSHDIEWell, certainly I think, you know, it's clear that -- I mean, I've seen this video which even by the standards of YouTube is a pretty poor piece of work. It's really clumsy incompetent thing. And the thing that I think it very disappointing to put it mildly, is that instead of just being dismissed as the piece of trash that it obviously is, that it was used as a pretext to extraordinary acts of violence around the world which far, far exceeded the -- let's say the -- they were far more injuring than anything in the video, you know.
RUSHDIEAnd it makes one feel that in the end the video was just a starting point or a trigger point, but what was being unleashed there was a much more generalized hostility towards -- I mean, towards America and towards the west in general, and that's part of what I think has become pretty obvious as it kind of manufactured outrage. There's a kind of outrage industry at work in the Islamic world. People are being encouraged to define themselves by their rage. You know, the thing that -- the thing that enrages you is what gives you your identity, and that's being done for political reasons, not for religious, and I think it has to be understood as such.
NNAMDIThe Washington Post ran a front page article yesterday about the sharply rising influence of Salafis in Arab Spring countries. Where did you think this kind of conservativism was going to fit in when democracy movements started to emerge in the past couple of years?
RUSHDIEWell, I think everybody's been really surprised by the rapid rise of the Salafis movements across the Arab world, because, I mean, they are by far the most extremist, and they, you know, they make the Muslim Brotherhood look like liberals and Muslim Brotherhood are not liberals. It's -- I think it's alarmed everybody, because it's certainly not at all what the people who -- who rose up in the Arab Spring were arguing in favor of.
RUSHDIEI mean, one of the interesting things about those movements last year is the almost complete lack of religious dimension, you know. They really weren't about religion, they were about an old-fashioned idea of revolution, you know, jobs and liberty, and that's not what's happened sadly, because it's been hijacked by these extremist religious groups, and one can only hope that that's a short term phenomenon, but, you know, it looks pretty powerful right now.
NNAMDIHow easy, if you will, is that hijacking process? Because if we look at politics around the world, it's often easier for politicians to encourage hatred of anything to which they are in opposition than it is for them to get more complex programs accepted. Well, after September 11, you challenged people in the Islamic world to ask themselves if the ills of their society were not primarily America's fault, and where they might be to blame for their own failings. To what degree do you think that that happened in the initial wave of the Arab Spring?
RUSHDIEYeah. I think that's what was happening. I think the young people -- because they were primarily very young people across the Arab world were looking at their leaders and seeing them as corrupt and tyrannical and incompetent, and wanting to be ruled, you know, by better people and wanting to be ruled by better principles as well. And it's, I think a tragedy that is not the spirit that has in the end, um, won the day.
RUSHDIEAnd a lot of that has to do with organization, you know. The Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood both have really been much more effective in creating and maintaining political organization than many of these young progressives, you know, who rose up in the square. And I think it's a lack of political organization amongst the progressive elements that has allowed the religious, very highly organized religious parties to come through.
NNAMDIBut you also seem to be suggesting that it's a lot more difficult to have conversations about how do we reorganize our own societies, how do we change the social relationships that we have, how do we change the economic relationships we have.
NNAMDIIt's a lot more difficult to do that than it is to simply point the finger at the United States.
RUSHDIEYeah. It's very easy to say it's the super power's fault, you know. And, I mean actually, it's depressing to see how in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt for example, even many of the people who were the architects of that movement were still extremely misogynistic, the treatment of women in Tahrir Square was very bad, you know. The subsequent treatment of women in Egypt by the new leadership has also been very bad. There's now talk of, you know, allowing child marriage and all kinds of extraordinary medievalist ideas. So it's been a real disappointment.
NNAMDIHere is Sally in Alexandria, Va. Sally, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALLYThank you. I wanted to make a comment in reply to Mr. Rushdie's comments that there's a politics of outrage for its own sake, and I think that the Arab world, or the Muslims have -- are justified in being outraged at some of the things that have happened just since 9/11. There is the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, there are the drone attacks, there's bombing Libya, there -- Yemen, Somalia. There's -- excuse me, Gitmo, dispossessing the Palestinians and occupying their land.
SALLYI don't think it's very difficult to bring them to spark the outrage, and it seems to me that the film in question was not -- was just the spark that lit the fire. It was not -- it was blowback from many years ago, or --
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Salman Rushdie respond. Sally says there are valid reasons for outrage. The film might not be one of them, but that's just one.
RUSHDIENo. I think some of that's absolutely right, you know. And it feeds into it's easy for a film like this, or a trigger point like this -- I think you're right. That's what I was saying earlier that the film is just a trigger point to unleash a much wider anti-American sentiment. Now, some of that's justified, some of it isn't, but the point I'm making is that these societies also have enormous internal problems, and in many cases the organization of these demonstrations has been as part of a power struggle inside the societies.
RUSHDIEYou know, using the rhetoric of anti-Americanism to try and establish power inside the societies, and I think that's been less looked at perhaps than it should be.
NNAMDIHere is Jim in Falls Church, Va. Jim, your turn.
JIMYes. Notwithstanding what your prior caller said about some of the hot spots in the different areas of the Muslim world, I would say as a non-believer in Islam, I'm a Christian, I somewhat am disturbed at times at the arbitrariness of Muslim rage. For people who are not aware of what the guidelines and what the tenants of Islam is, it seems that we don't know what makes them angry at times and, you know, I respect all religions, but it somewhat is disturbing that a poorly made, very disorganized film can enrage people so much.
JIMWhat are some of the guidelines that you have seen, I mean, when do you know that you are upsetting a religion that seems to be offended at times by everything?
RUSHDIEWell, certainly, I mean, I don't know that it's the religion because I think in many cases, the level of religious sophistication in some of these attacks is very low. I certainly felt, and that's one of the things I try and say in this memoir, is that the attack on "The Satanic Verses," was, I mean, not only was it not an isolated incident, but that it was maybe a harbinger. Maybe it was one of the early examples of this kind of Islamist intolerance, and I make the difference between Islamist and Islam because Islamist is a word which refers to the political organization of Islam.
RUSHDIEAnd I think you can see, if you look at this -- this last quarter century, since the attack on "The Satanic Verses," you can see how that attack broadened, how there were growing numbers of attacks on other writers and inter-philosophers, journalists, intellectuals across the Muslim world for the crime of free thinking, and the -- and what they were always accused of was the same thing - insult, offense, you know, angering somebody. Turkish journalists -- journalists were killed. An Egyptian philosopher, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz, was stabbed in the neck.
RUSHDIEA major Algerian writer was murdered. Across the Arab and Muslim world, these kinds of attacks began to increase in number, and their purpose was always the same, it was to shut down free expression. It was to shut down dissenting voices, to shut down differing views of the society, and to narrowly insist on a very conservative interpretation of religion in the service of usually tyrannical regimes.
NNAMDIJim, thank you very much for your call. On another subject, if you will, a few weeks ago, the Indian journalist Manu Joseph wrote that people in your native country view your Indianness, so to speak, with suspicion, and that you and India have, quoting here, "good reasons to be fully confused about where you stand with each other."
NNAMDIWhere would you say you stand with India?
RUSHDIEYeah. I'm afraid I thought was an extraordinary malicious and ignorant piece, and -- written by a malicious and ignorant man. My relationship with Indian readers has always been one of the things I take great pride in, you know. I have an enormous number of them, and -- and my books have always been very well-liked in India. My own relationship with India is intimate. You know, I know it very well. I go all the time. And, yes, there's some -- there are some bits of official India that I've had arguments with, but that's one of the things that happens to writers quite often.
RUSHDIEEspecially if they take issue with public subjects, you know. And to use that to somehow discredit my relationship with the country was, as I say, underhand.
NNAMDITwo stories. There are a few events from your very early schooling days that seem to have rippled into the political world much later on in your life. Why is it that you felt that a study sale of an armchair contributed to the eventual creation of a fascist politician who belonged to the British national front?
RUSHDIEOh, I'm glad you brought up something important. No. It's true. When I was leaving school...
NNAMDIYou ripped off the man -- no. Go ahead.
RUSHDIEYes. I managed to rip off this kid who was somewhat, you know, enamored of me to get him to pay too much money for an armchair that I was selling as I left the school. He must have discovered later that he'd been terribly ripped off, and many years later, I was watching television during the British election campaign and saw the same little boy now grown up standing as a national front, you know, neo-Nazi candidate, and I thought -- I found myself thinking, oh, my God, it's my fault.
NNAMDIYes. This Asian student ripped me off, that embarked on a different kind of career. We got this email from Mike in Alexandria. "The funniest story I've ever heard is the King of Spain by Salman. It relates to his security detail during the era when he was under protection. Would you please ask him to tell it?"
RUSHDIEOh, well, you know, one of the things that really was very comic in those years was police humor. You know, the police have a very, very black sense of comedy, and one of the police drivers who was driving me around, I noticed was being called by his colleagues, the King of Spain. And I kept saying, why do you call him that? He's not Spanish or anything. And eventually they told me that there had been an occasion when this driver had been, you know, had parked his police (word?) to go into a store and buy some cigarettes or something and forgotten to lock it, and when he came out, the police (word?) had been stolen.
RUSHDIEAnd as a result of this, he acquired the nickname of the King of Spain, because if you say the name of the King of Spain slowly, his name is Juan Carlos.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much, Mike for having Salman Rushdie repeat that story. Salman Rushdie is an author whose works include "The Satanic Verses," and "Midnight's Children." His most recent work is a memoir titled "Joseph Anton." Salman Rushdie, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe mentioned earlier that our next Kojo in Your Community event is coming up in Columbia Heights. Well, we want to make sure you know exactly when it is. It will be in Columbia Heights this Wednesday evening at 6:00 p.m. That's Kojo in Your Community this Wednesday at 6:00 in Columbia Heights. Hope to you see you there, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo explores what's next for Chinatown residents fighting against a developer who wants to demolish their building.
Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
Fairfax County residents will vote on whether to adopt a four percent meal tax ballot measure on November's ballot. We explore why the ballot question has become such a hot-button issue in the county.