Thoughts on Sir Salman Rushdie

Like most Americans, I have trouble taking knighthood seriously. But I guess I’m pleased to know that a writer I’ve encountered in real life more times in the last few years than I’ve encountered some members of my own family (mainly because I go to a lot of PEN World Voices events, and occasionally indulge in some Manhattan literary nightlife) is actually a Sir. Then again, Ginger, the Irish setter I had as a kid, was actually a Sir too, according to his pedigree certificate. And I am not pointing this out in an attempt to mock Sir Salman Rushdie, a writer I like and respect very much, though I’ve always had mixed feelings about him.

In fact, I feel more ambivalence towards Salman Rushdie than almost any other writer alive today. For example, I hated the apathetic, uninspiring introductory speech he gave at a recent PEN festival, which captured none of the excitement many of the audience members felt. He then went on to close the show with the best performance of the night.

Likewise, I absolutely loved the first segment of The Satanic Verses, an instantaneous tour de force involving two men falling from an airplane that could easily be extracted from the novel and anthologized as a riveting stand-alone piece. I marveled at the opening to this novel … and yet the postmodern denseness of the endless pages beyond oppressed me, and I found I did not continue. I’ll always remember the beginning of Satanic Verses, and I may never read the end.

All in all, I have to admire this brave and hardworking man for his experimental writing as well as for his tireless stewardship of New York’s best and most progressive literary festival. I say this even though his New Yorker article on The Wizard of Oz was cloyingly cute, and even though I don’t understand any of his books, and even though he annoyingly shows up in a tuxedo at every damn literary event he goes to (raising the dress-code curve for the rest of us, and it doesn’t even look good on him). I respect him, and I suppose I’m glad he’s now a knight, even if it is silly.

As for various controversies regarding this selection, such as the Pakistani government’s official protest that the gesture is offensive to Muslims, I’m sorry to hear that this argument seems to be reaching a high pitch very quickly, which serves no positive purpose for anybody. Authors Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan have been quoted as demeaning the Pakistani government’s official notice of protest, and this is about the thousandth time this week I’ve been painfully disappointed by the lack of sympathetic dialogue between the different corners of our world. Why can’t these British intellectuals simply listen to what certain Muslim governments, organizations and individuals have to say and respond with calm civility that their objections have some merit, but that the Queen is not going to change her mind? I expect a more intelligent level of discourse from the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan (and the fact that I raved about McEwan’s great new novel just three days ago doesn’t mean I can’t criticize his rather limited political vision today).

Anyway, congrats to Sir Salman, and may he continue to be as brave as the greatest literary knight of them all, Don Quixote de la Mancha.

24 Responses

  1. What merit?___Why can’t these
    What merit?

    ___Why can’t these British intellectuals simply listen to what certain Muslim governments, organizations and individuals have to say and respond with calm civility that their objections have some merit, but that the Queen is not going to change her mind? ___

    I’d be curious as to what possible merit there could be in this.

    Once upon a time I may have been more open to some sort of complaint, but not now.

    Islamofascism is very real and very dangerous. The earlier fatwa against Rushdie was part of it and it came back in what were more innocent days, meaning more ignorant days. It was really hard to believe they’d put out a death warrant on a guy for writing a book. And, it simply seemed weird and goofy.

    Now we know it is not weird and not goofy. If they caught him they would cut off his head with a knife and show it on the internet like they’ve done with Daniel Perl and others.

    I’m not any sort of Rushdie fan or supporter and once may have been a little indifferent to his situation, thinking something like, if you are going to stir up a hornet’s nest, you might get stung. I think to some degree that attitude is like your idea that there may be some merit to the objections.

    But, the fallacy is that the Islamofascists are not hornets, they are human beings just like all of us. It is actually condescending and belittling to expect any less of them than we would of ourselves with respect to norms of civilized human behavior.

  2. Sir RushdieWhilst I have read
    Sir Rushdie

    Whilst I have read some of his works on and off in my life, and whilst I do agree that there have been moments of interest, these moments have been far and few between. What does puzzle me, however, is how HRH Queen Elizabeth came to the conclusion to put him on her honour’s list. I can name dozens of writers more deserving and frankly, whether we like it or not, his knighthood (tee hee) has had such an effect on human relations and hurt so many humans, muslim and others, that one wonders what this whole honours list has become. Has the dear old duck taken advice from anyone at all??? Or is she turning into a typical selfish and stubborn old person who should, really, move on and go and live with her children and let someone more sane take over the reins. Really HRH – I expected more from your esteemed office than a faux pas of this magnitude. We are actually trying to create peace in the world (you know that thing that happens when people respect one another, tolerate one another and stop murdering one another!)

  3. Hearing of Pakistan’s
    Hearing of Pakistan’s official complaint, Ian McEwan responded that their comments are “a disgrace” and also mocked the vote as coming from a “rubber stamp parliament”.

    I find this kind of ping-pong match useless and devoid of intellectual value. Note that the Pakistani statement is not a call for violent action or fatwa (I understand one Pakistani government official did make a contemptible comment to that effect, but that should not be confused with the government’s statement), and as a public statement I think it deserves to be considered fairly and sympathetically. To respond with a blunt dismissal is symptomatic, I think, of the lack of the basic beginnings of political dialogue between these parts of the world.

    An actual example of merit? Well, how about the irony — I truly wonder how Salman Rushdie feels about this fact — that “knighthood” represents a military tradition that has been most associated with the Crusades, and with the centuries-long medieval battles between Christendom and Islam (in Spain, in Transylvania, in Jerusalem, etc. etc.). So for Salman Rushdie to become a knight, given this historical context, seems rather strange.

    As for Islamofascism, which certainly does exist — we are all against that, but I don’t believe Pakistan’s statement represents an example of this.

  4. As I See ItFundamentalist
    As I See It

    Fundamentalist extremists demonstrating outside Westminster Cathedral (which is a nice place, by the way) demanding death to the Pope, overthrow of the British Government, and imposition of Islamic fundamentalist law. Queen says screw you Bud, I’m knighting Rushdie. The only silver lining is showing everyone the insanity of thought control that is religion.

  5. It seems that if a writer (or
    It seems that if a writer (or other person in the arts) suffers at the hands of the bad guys, his stock as a writer goes up. Solzhenitsyn for his time in Russian prison camps; Rushdie for the fatwa.

    While I salute these men, particularly Solzhenitsyn, for standing up to the worst mankind has to offer, I must point out that this has nothing to do with the quality of their writing which, for the most part, I find mediocre.

  6. I can’t agree with you there,
    I can’t agree with you there, Stokey. Religion is just a proxy here — a proxy for ethnic divisions, socioeconomic divisions, nationalistic divisions. Do you really think that subtracting religion from the world would improve human nature one bit?

  7. Actually, Levi, if you add
    Actually, Levi, if you add power, money, greed, and control to your proxy list you can apply your statement to all religions at all times.

    Unfortunately, religion seems to be an essential part of human nature; to remove it would require changing our basic makeup.

  8. Oh absolutely, Levi. Name a
    Oh absolutely, Levi. Name a religion that doesn’t advocate divisiveness. Christianity was a driving force in the Cold War, the genocide of Native Americans, imperialism in Africa – to fight the atheistic Communists, to convert the pagan natives. Religion maintains ethnic/nationist divisions – Arabs are Arabs (some Sunni, some Shi’a), Semites are Semites (some Jewish, some Palestinian), Africans are Africans (some Christian, some Muslim). These wars are all about religious hate. The Pakis you speak of fought for centuries against the Indians (still at it) – Muslim against Hindu.

  9. ___Do you really think that
    ___Do you really think that subtracting religion from the world would improve human nature one bit?______

    Answer: No.

    I agree 100% and think this is important to say and thank you for saying it so clealry and forthrightly.

  10. Thanks, TKG.Stokey, I try to
    Thanks, TKG.

    Stokey, I try to be open-minded, so I will be open to the fact that you may have a point there. But it sure doesn’t add up like that to me. Every religion is divisive; every religion also promotes charity and compassion (yes, every religion), and most importantly every religion teaches people to think beyond the material, to consider the broader, universal, existential meanings of life.

    The 20th Century’s two most powerful atheists were its two greatest genocidal murderers: Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. How does that figure into your theory that athiesm beats religion for human values?

  11. You say “most importantly,
    You say “most importantly, every religion teaches people to think.” What do Muslims think of Rushdie? Truth is – every religion teaches people not to think, or reason, or question; but to blindly obey – or be an outcast bad evil sinner. To be a Christian is to know that every unbaptized Jew, Muslim, Hindu, will never get to heaven. Never be one with God. I suppose the converse also applies.

    Mao and Stalin replaced religious tyranny with state tyranny – same difference. Examining the meaning of life has always been the function of philosophy. The 20th century’s most powerful atheist was Sartre. The century before, it was Neitzsche. They believed in freedom, not tyranny. They believed in people, not ficticious divisions like nationality, ethnicity, religion.

    Hamas and Hezbollah do all sort a charitable works, but it doesn’t cancel out their terrorism.

  12. Hurrah for the gross
    Hurrah for the gross generalizations, Stokey. I am a Christian and I do not “know that every unbaptized Jew, Muslim, Hindu, will never get to heaven. Never be one with God.” Certainly there are people who do believe that, but there are also people who believe that Dan Brown is a good writer, so whatever. People. What can you do? Most people with religious faith aren’t fanatics or fundamentalists. Hate to break it to you. I know a lot of Muslims (half of my family) and though I haven’t called them up to ask them about it, I seriously doubt that they care about Salman Rushdie being knighted. You know, because they’re just regular people with jobs and families and lives who don’t freak out and hate on people who aren’t exactly like them. Again, the majority of Muslims aren’t fundamentalist wackos. They’re just people who adhere to a religious faith. Which, last time I checked, was allowed. Striving toward the divine (in any form that takes, from following a religion to creating art to getting lost in the vastness of a starry sky) is one of the oldest — if not the oldest — human endeavors there is. And to lump all people who have religious beliefs into one group of closed-minded blind idiot sheep bigots is not only offensive, it’s pointless and counterproductive to any sort of rational discussion of the subject.

  13. It is neither religion, nor
    It is neither religion, nor politics, nor Salman Rushdie’s boring wrting that makes man kill… though, if I was ever forced to finish that godawful book, maybe… It’s man’s fundamental will to power, the nature of man, that kills time and time again. Religion, political factions, nationalism, are tools used by those that covet power for whatever reason, fear, hatred, mommy issues, whatever, to divide and conquer the masses. It is the one common bond that all these beasts mentioned, from atheists to fascistmentalists to our current regime (not mentioned so I thought I’d throw a kevlar hat in the ring), all hold in common. You could put Khomeni, Stahlin, Hitler, and Bush in a room, and I doubt there’d be much pertinent dialogue, but they’d all be sizing each other up for weaknesses, looking for a way to assume command or destroy, or both. That is why there are so many “gross generalizations” and, in my point of view, fallacies to almost every argument and point I see here. Let me make an example. Aetheists have killed more people in the twentieth century, etc… True, Levi, but what of those Crusades you mentioned yourself and all of the centuries leading up to the twentieth? I could go through each argument I just read and find a hole in it for one simple reason. Everyone seems to be blaming the weapon and not the shooter. Religion in and of itself is noble. Sadly, it does not operate sans PEOPLE at it’s helm, and people can make religion or any other public device harmful. It doesn’t make religion a bad thing, and I’m an aetheist. I contend and will contend until my dying breath that education is the only solution to all of these problems. I’ve lived and stayed in some of the poorest places on this planet, and some of the richest. The main difference is the lack of education in the poorer parts of this planet. It has been used for centuries to keep people down. Ignorant people are easier to control and whip into a frenzy. Do you believe for one second that the Middle East would be as contentious a place if it’s masses were educated, if it’s women were educated and allowed a voice? Do you believe that nuclear rally flags would ever be carried if everyone understood the ramifications of such actions? The problem is, only a few in this world are truly educated enough to form rational decisions. A boy raised in a hot climate with no food who has been taught no skills to improve his plight and who is constantly told that this is all the fault of the infidel westerners who don’t heed the word of Allah and let their women run wild and free in public is highly likely to hold a contempt for Americans and to lack respect for women as well. A boy in a hot Southern climate who is raised in a tin trailer oven and doesn’t get to go to MacDonalds like the other kids and is told every day that it is because the black people are getting everything for free and being given all of the good jobs because of those Kennedy’s is likely to be a racist and hold a contempt for anything a liberal will ever say. He’ll probably therefore never listen to anything the liberal ever says, just dismiss it summarily. The only things that these two children have in common, other than the heat, is that they are not receiving a very good education (the public education system in the US, be it the 60’s or now, as well as the mideast sucks)and what they are being taught, by those they love in most cases, is irrational hatred.

    It is time that we face the geopolitical problems that have plagued this world once and for all with a different plan of attack. The internet has opened most of the planet up to discussions such as this, to educational tools and games. Now what we have to do is find leaders that will spend time and effort on utilizing this tool to “educate” the planet so that there can be more dialogue and less chest thumping, but as I see it, for several thousand years, higher education has been a toy of the rich and powerful, those that naturally covet, and they don’t seem to want to share this wealth. They seem to like things just the way they are.

  14. Seems it’s always the
    Seems it’s always the fanatics that stand out and give a bad name to the good people. I really don’t think wars are about religion. Not really. Religion is one of many tools, which leaders use to stir people up.

  15. The End of ReligionIt’s
    The End of Religion

    It’s interesting reading these comments about religion and it’s involvement blah blah blah.

    It’s hard to look at history and not see religion in general as an institution full of bloodguilt/bloodshed.

    I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I see a day in the future when religion will be done away with. Not saying it won’t go down without a fight – from the institution itself or from adherents. But, over the brow of the hill, coming our way, is a day when religion will be outlawed.

    For good or bad I don’t know, but I think it will be a reality one day.

  16. Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens,
    Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens, before converting) was asked what Muslims think of Rushdie. He said Allah wants him executed. His rationale – the clerics tell us what to think. Hence Yusef was denied entry into the US.

    I usually agree with Don that education is the panacea. But I went to Catholic school all my life. The sweet Sisters taught me that the un-baptized would never know God. I can choose not to believe what my religion teaches, or to not even go to church. Or I can accept what they teach as the moral basis for how I live, what I know.

    Schools in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, provide a similar “slanted” view of things; as do Liberty University and Bob Jones University. When I lived in the Bible Belt, school integration was forced down our throats. There immediately sprang up all these private academies for the white kids to go to school without the dreaded Negro kids.

    Perhaps religion is fine, as long as you don’t believe what they teach.

  17. Levi, The mere citing of a
    The mere citing of a grievance doesn’t grant merit. Knights of the British Empire had absolutely nothing to do with the Crusades. Again, what is the merit of this response:

    Pakistan’s religious affairs minister suggested that the knighthood was so grave an offence that any Muslim anywhere in the world would be justified in taking violent action.

    “If somebody has to attack by strapping bombs to his body to protect the honour of the Prophet then it is justified,” Mr ul-Haq told the National Assembly.

  18. Happy to answer, Tomcat …I
    Happy to answer, Tomcat …

    I don’t think this statement by this Pakistani politician has much merit. But this statement is not what the Pakistani parliament voted on, and I was referring to the text of the statement Pakistan’s parliament delivered. They said that this knighthood was insulting to Islam and demanded that England reverse their decision.

    As I wrote above, I think Pakistan’s official protest (not this one politician’s offensive statement, which he later rescinded) is deserving of a fair hearing. As I also wrote above, I don’t think England should respond by rescinding the knighthood. But I do think Pakistan’s complaints deserve a fair, civil hearing. The kind of mockery and insults that greeted the news of Pakistan’s protests seems to me all to typical of a world political climate defined by the refusal of various parties to even attempt to establish a sympathetic dialogue about the issues that divide us.

    Now, about the knights — well, as I understand it the “Knights of the British Empire” is a specific order that was only founded in modern times, so of course this specific order has no ties to the Crusades. I am speaking of the European and English traditions of knighthood, though, and I think you’ll agree with me that during the so-called “age of chivalry” — the age during which knighthood was taken most seriously as a military status — knighthood was closely associated with Christendom’s battle against Islam. Isn’t that so?

  19. I agree, Stevadore. I’m not
    I agree, Stevadore. I’m not arguing pro or con for belief in a god, I’m simply saying, if there were no laws pertaining to god, and no church buildings, and all the rest, then anyone could still believe in God if they wanted to. You can’t enforce belief or disbelief with all the armies in the world, even though you might compell someone to speak or act a certain way.

    Having said that, I do not believe religion will ever be outlawed. It’s too handy for politicians. Anyone who runs for President, Governor, or Mayor, can say that they go to so & so church and they “thank God” for this or that. The people who don’t believe in God, as long as the politician is for all the other things they want, will think, “I know they are just saying that to appease the weak-minded voters. I dig. It’s what you have to do.” And the people who do believe in God will either think, “Well, I’m glad he believes in God, that’s a good thing,” or “How do I know if he really believes in God or not?”

    You know that rock group, Faith No More? Someone once told me, “That’s terrible, to have no faith.” I said, “Well, if you believe in God, then some day when you are finally with God, we will need faith no more because faith is believing in what you can’t see!”

  20. Sir Salman Rushdiei think the
    Sir Salman Rushdie

    i think the average joe blow american associates him with bravery. i don’t know him but I choose to believe that he is brave.

  21. There have been organized
    There have been organized political movements to do away with religion for hundreds of years. The bloodshed in these movements (French revolution, Russian revolution, Chinese revolution) has typically dwarfed that which can be ascribed to Christianity or Judaism. Consider, for example, that over hundreds of years, the number of people executed by the Inquisition probably numbers in the low thousands. The Jacobins in the French Revolution, who aimed at providing a utopia free from impure influences like religion, executed tens of thousands in a single year.

    To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil is drawn not between believers and atheists, but through every human heart.

  22. I didn’t know that about the
    I didn’t know that about the Jacobins in the French Revolution, Tomcat. And I like what you said about the human heart.

  23. I think he is brave, too. I’m
    I think he is brave, too. I’m not sure Rushdie knew how much flack he would get, though, because in the U.S. it is very common for writers to challenge beliefs of every kind – religious, sexual, political. Once in a while, someone tries to get a book banned from the public schools, but the fanatical idiots tend to threaten violence more for actions than books. Like abortion doctors. Or flag burners. Or gays.

  24. Salman-ellaI agree with you

    I agree with you about Satanic Verses – I finished it, myself, but I don’t remember much about it apart from the wonderful beginning.

    I never find Rushdie an easy read, but I often find him exquisitely rewarding. My process with his books is slow and difficult. Once I figure out what on earth he’s doing, and once he leads me (slowly, often painfully) to where he’s going, I (sometimes) have my satori and carry on with trust established. With Satanic Verses, he won me over early by describing the full moon as a chapati hung in the sky. Yes, Salman, you had me at “chapati.” I didn’t get it all, but I was glad I rode along.

    Not all of his books work, and I’m not sure all of them are supposed to. As far as knighting the man, though, I guess I feel it was inevitable. The award isn’t just a measure of literary talent, as I understand it. It also considers nobility and service to Queen and Country. Laurence Olivier was a great actor in a country of theatrical tradition, but would he have been knighted if he had not founded the National Theatre? Well, maybe. But once he did it was essentially guaranteed.

    Rushdie is so solidly placed as a reluctant warrior of words and works, and as an artist who rose to the burden that was forced upon him, that I don’t think there was much chance he wouldn’t be knighted. Frankly, I trust Pakistan’s literary tastes as much as I trust Giuliani’s grasp of modern art, which is to say not at all.

    For that matter, I found Solzhenitsyn unreadable. Not to mention that he made things up wholesale to prove his points. But he was a warrior of a writer, and to my mind he deserved his acclaim. Better Sir Salman any day, I say.

    Also: Haroun and the Sea of Stories is completely enchanting and delightful, all of his magic without any of the burden of credibility or reputation. I recommend it.

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