Salman Rushdie

Author and Patron of Humanists UK

To say the solution to the problems religion has caused is more religion… it’s just crazy.

Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) into a Muslim family in 1947, Salman Rushdie was educated in England and now lives in New York. He no longer considers himself a Muslim. He has said:

… whenever I say anything about my work I want to contradict myself at once. To say that beyond self-exploration lies a sense of writing as sacrament, and maybe that’s closer to how I feel: that writing fills the hole left by the departure of God.

His second novel, Midnight’s Children, brought Rushdie to public attention in 1980. It is a magical-realist-comic account of 20th century Indian history, and became a public and critical success, winning the prestigious Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, an Arts Council Writers’ Award and the English-Speaking Union Award. In 1993 it was judged to have been the “Booker of Bookers”, the best novel to have won the Booker Prize for Fiction in the award’s 25-year history. But it was his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1989), that made him famous world-wide when its portrayal of Islam offended Muslims, many of whom had not read the book. There were public book-burnings and in 1989 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning Rushdie and all who translated or published his work to death for blasphemy. Rushdie spent many of the ensuing years in hiding and still has to live protected by bodyguards. He continues to criticise aspects of contemporary Islam, for example in “Muslims unite! A new Reformation will bring your faith into the modern era” (The Times, August 11, 2005).

On ABC’s “Nightline” on February 13, 1989, Rushdie said of The Satanic Verses:

[It] says that there is an old, old conflict between the secular view of the world and the religious view of the world, and particularly between texts which claim to be divinely inspired and texts which are imaginatively inspired… I distrust people who claim to know the whole truth and who seek to orchestrate the world in line with that one true truth. I think that’s a very dangerous position in the world. It needs to be challenged. It needs to be challenged constantly in all sorts of ways, and that’s what I tried to do.

In the March 2 1989 edition of the New York Review, he explained that in The Satanic Verses he:

…tried to give a secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion. For this, apparently, I should be tried… ‘ Battle lines are being drawn today,’ one of my characters remarks. ‘Secular versus religious, the light verses the dark. Better you choose which side you are on.’

One of the most widely quoted opinions about the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11 is that of Salman Rushdie in New York Times. Rushdie discussed the future of Islam:

If Islam is to be reconciled with modernity, these [critical Muslim] voices must be encouraged until they swell into a roar. Many of them speak of another Islam, their personal, private faith…The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern… If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based and without which Muslim countries’ freedom will remain a distant dream.

In October 2006, in an interview in The Independent with Johann Hari on “His life, his work and his religion” he contrasted the secularism of India with what is going on in the West:

” The Muslim population in India is, largely speaking, not radicalised. From the beginning they were always very secular-minded. [Indian Muslims] are a model which could be beneficially studied about how you show a minority community that their interests are best served by secular democracy, and not by religious communal politics. Because if you play the game of religious communal politics, you will always be outnumbered. That was the argument Nehru and Gandhi took to India’s religious minorities, and it worked.”

“…When people ask me how the West should adapt to Muslim sensitivities, I always say – the question is the wrong way round. The West should go on being itself. There is nothing wrong with the things that for hundreds of years have been acceptable – satire, irreverence, ridicule, even quite rude commentary – why the hell not?”

…”But you see it every day, this surrender,” he says. He runs through a list of the theatres and galleries that have censored themselves in the face of religious fundamentalist protests. He mentions that the entire British media – from the BBC down – placed itself in purdah during the Mohammed cartoons episode. “What I fear most is that, when we look back in 25 years’ time at this moment, what we will have seen is the surrender of the West, without a shot being fired. They’ll say that in the name of tolerance and acceptance, we tied our own hands and slit our own throats. One of the things that have made me live my entire life in these countries is because I love the way people live here.”

Rushdie sees surrender stamped on every one of the “faith schools” being constructed by Tony Blair. “To say the solution to the problems religion has caused is more religion… it’s just crazy,” he says. It will only reinforce the sealing off of Muslims from the world that is symbolised by the veil, which he sees as a hideous anti-feminist shroud, ” a one-woman tent”.

Rushdie described today’s division as “a fight between people who want to open the universe a little more, and those who want to shrivel the universe into the stultified vision of one book and one man who lived in a desert more than a millennium ago.

Salman Rushdie is is a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. In his novels and public pronouncements he has allied himself firmly with free speech as well as with secular humanism, for example, in “Defend the right to be offended” (Open Democracy , July 2005) and his 2005 Guardianessay on free speech. He has served as honorary Vice-President, Member Trustee-at-Large, and President of PEN American Center. He was also a founder and first President of the International Parliament of Writers.

See also
British Arts Council biography
A brief biography
More on his works
A 2002 personal perspective on Rushdie’s views by Michelle Goldberg 

Buy his books at Amazon.co.uk through this link and a small commission will go to Humanists UK.

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