At the 92 St Y, on Sunday night, I heard Irshad Manji, aka “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare”, interview Salmon Rushdie, aka Padma Lakshmi’s womanizing ex-husband, aaka one of the greatest living writers. The subject of their chat was Moral Courage. In fact, it was the first conversation in a series started by Manji, which aims to tackle the subject of ethical fortitude from several different angles. Manji, a reformist Muslim, questioned Rushdie, an Indian born devout Atheist, about the effects of the Fatwa, which Ayatollah Khomeini passed against him after the publication of his book, The Satanic Verses.
At the time of the book’s release, Islamic fundamentalists took offense at his descriptions of the prophet Mohamed, and the circumstances of his life. The fatwa called for the death of Rushdie, and when it was issued there were serious attempts to assassinate him, initiated by the government of Iran. As a result of this it was dangerous for Rushdie to travel to the Middle East, imposing a form of exile upon the man, although he was already living in the west. The attacks and threats even spilled over into England and were also used to intimidate his publisher and other colleagues. Rushdie was educated in India, then England and has since lived in Pakistan and here in the United States
A lot of my friends don’t like the man. Rushdie although well-versed in upper-class charm, has often been called sexist and elitist for good reason. However, like that old Woody Allen, it’s too hard to hate him, no matter how much I try. He is a great writer. His brilliant way with words is matched by his lucid mind. It is a rare gift to possess the ability to craft such unique characters and give them appropriate language styles, distinguishing one from the next so effectively that the reader can really get lost in the dreamscape of the novel, without remembering to be cynical. Agreeing to judge the artist, above the man (no matter how much he reminds me of Bridshead Revisited), let us move on to what the Muslim-Canadian-Feminist-Lesbian said to the Indian/British/American- Sexist-Atheist-Booker Prize winning Writer…
Although you could sense a note of resistance between the two, there also seemed to be a significant amount of respect flowing both ways. They both oppose censorship and bemoaned the way that our society has slinked into an Orwellian dystopia. They spoke against the type of moral relativism and political-correctness, which dissuades people from speaking out against things like honor killings, stonings and female genital mutilation. Rushdie said that in the past 20 years people have become more afraid to speak out about things. However, he also called our contemporary culture, “a culture of offense.” He claimed that because of the explosion of identity politics, people now define themselves by what they’re angry about. “Who are you if you’re not pissed off by anything?” Rushdie said.
He seems to want it both ways, and maybe we all do. One should be able to shout at someone else for offending their cultural, religious or gender identity, expecting a degree of “tolerance” or political-correctness. Yet, people should not just accept and respect each other, because their practices fit under the veil of some sort of culture. Now this is tricky terrain. I think the main point is that we can disagree, and even vocalize this, but the danger comes when we back our views with violence, whichever side we’re on. But again, the danger, If the US violently intervenes, for instance, when the Taliban oppress and kill women, this is an example of not tolerating or succumbing to moral relativism. When they attack us as infidels, is it the same example reversed? It is as though they are saying, we are Right, so we can use might, they are wrong, and so they can’t. Maintaining a sense of moral superiority is nice, but somehow not an effective argument against others who believe they are also superior. For all his pretty words, I’m curious as to how Rushdie would respond to this, and for all of her moral courage, how would Manji? I welcome their responses.