Monday, February 19 , 2018, 2:48 am | Fair 48º


Salman Rushdie Urges Enlightenment

The novelist talks of repression and tells a UCSB audience that "the culture of the world is in trouble.”

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, a writer who lives his life under threat of an Iranian Muslim death sentence, may be just as dangerous as the ayatollahs think he is.

The writer-philosopher-public intellectual addressed an almost-full house at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall on Sunday. He was, as he almost always is in the west, warmly received. He was warm, witty, sardonic, erudite and seemingly without fear. He claimed the high ground as a writer of ideas, pointing out that people like him are always looked on as dangerous by some segment of society. Born in India to Muslim parents, Rushdie incurred the wrath of conservative ayatollahs with the publication in 1989 of his novel The Satanic Verses. A fatwa – a call for his murder issued by Muslim clergy in Iran – ensued.

“Islam is the only religion born inside a political culture,” he told the USCB audience. “If the Quran is written by God (as conservative Muslims believe), then that becomes irrelevant.” The practical meaning of that interpretation, he said, is that what is written in the Quran can’t be changed. “You can’t edit God,” Rushdie said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

In Christianity, he said, man is presumed to be created in the image of God, so the Bible is theoretically open to interpretation.

Since the Quran is not open to change, Rushdie said, it leads to political tyranny, intellectual stagnation and collapse. “The young men who are the terrorists,” he said, “they can have very little effect. They have no jobs, no money, no girlfriends.”

Thus, he said, they join something such as al-Qaeda, seeking a kind of “dark stardom” instead of the usual pursuits of young men. “I mean,” he said with a mischievous smile, “very few of them have girlfriends, they have no sex.”

He said the Christian right in the United States fosters a mind-set not unlike that of the Muslim extremists. Open-mindedness and freedom of speech are seen as threatening by any closed religious entity. “It’s an old battle,” Rushdie said. “It was happening in the French Enlightenment 200 years ago, out of which this country was founded. Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, were up against the church then. We have to fight that battle again.”

Rushdie recalled his youthful optimism: “When I was a young man, in my 20s and 30s, we thought that battle had been won. There would be no religion in politics in the new world. But the uncool people took over the world. Imagine, in only a quarter of a century, it has happened. The culture of the world is in trouble.”

Rushdie commented on the Internet as a possible weapon against repression, since it is difficult to control. “Of course,” he said, “the Chinese tried. And Google collaborated with them. For money, what else?”

As for writers, he said, “they have to go to the frontier and push. When they have done this in the past, there have been forces that push back." But for writers, he said, “this is the job.”

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