Dale Neal, dneal citizen-times.com 10:35 a.m. EST February 19, 2016
(Photo: SPECIAL TO CITIZEN-TIMES)
ASHEVILLE - Writing remains a dangerous vocation for individuals worldwide, but literature will outlast even the worst dictatorships, according to Salman Rushdie, who speaks from hard experience.
The acclaimed novelist spoke Thursday before a packed house at the 3,000-seat Kimmel Arena on the campus of UNC Asheville, championing freedom of speech and decrying creeping censorship.
“I’m not going to say a lot about the Ayatollah Khomeini other than to say one of us is dead and it’s not me,” Rushdie quipped.
In his 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” Rushdie mixed his trademark magical realism with a satirical stab at Islam. The book included dream sequences about a Messenger receiving revelations or extra scriptures dedicated to three pagan female deities.
Many Muslims worldwide considered the book as blasphemy against the prophet Muhammed. Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa, or religious decree calling for Rushdie’s death. After several assassination attempts, the Indian-born novelist was forced into 10 years of hiding in Great Britain, his book banned in many Muslim countries.
Rushdie spent most of his 45 minutes on stage talking about the vital role of literature in the Internet Age.
“Reality no longer has the solidity it did in the age of the great realist novel when writers and readers agreed on what was real. We live in a more fractured moment. The world is becoming, in a way, fiction.”
Sept. 11, 2001 saw two narratives literally crash into each other like the hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers. “The story of the Arab world collided with and became part of New York City. It became impossible to understand one without the other.”
In the Information Age, understanding has become a rarity as partisans and countries and religions argue their own realities. “I am beginning to see the Internet as a place where information is not what you get,” Rushdie said. “Donald Trump is impossible in an age without the Internet, which is possibly the worst thing you can say about the Internet.”
Novels, newspapers and print remain vital in passing on the news that people are individuals and individuals are contradictory, multifaceted beings. With the rise of identity politics, Rushdie said “we are asked to define ourselves as this and not that in ways that have to do with religion, gender and race. The novel knows that this is a problem.”
Censorship doesn’t just happen in undemocratic countries overseas. Rushdie, who currently teaches at New York University, is concerned about the rise of political correctness on American campuses.
“I worry this generation of students has the idea that silencing certain kinds of speech is worth doing even though you live in the country of the First Amendment.”
While students have the right to expect physical safety on campus, they should also expect to be challenged by ideas they may not like or even find threatening. “Universities should be safe places for ideas, not places safe from ideas,” Rushdie said to the crowd’s applause. “If you think it’s okay to silence or de-platform speakers you don’t agree with — how should I put this? You are wrong,”
Khomeini died in 1989, but his fatwa still remains in effect against Rushdie, who has since championed writers worldwide through the American PEN American Center.
“It remains dangerous time to be a writer,” Rushdie concluded. “But facing up to power, speaking truth to it, in spite of all the dangers, writers would agree — it’s the job.”