World renowned author, winner of the Booker Prize and the 13th greatest English novelist according to the TIME Magazine, Salman Rushdie sits down with The Daily Mirror for his first interview with the Sri Lankan media. Rushdie, currently a Professor and Distinguished Writer at the New York University, speaks on literature, childhood, his views on religious and political freedom among many others.
“I learnt to question religious and political orthodoxy and to be a person of ideas".
Salman Rushdie, acclaimed author whose second book ‘Midnight's Children’ (1981) was awarded the ‘ Booker of Bookers’ prize, Professor and Knight of the British Empire and Hafeel Farisz of the Daily Mirror speak on, literature, the freedom of expression, his childhood, religion and much more.
Q: You have been very vocal about the idea or notion of the freedom of expression. Where does this voice in you toward the need for unfettered freedom of expression come from?
A: I have lived in places where there were a serious attempts to repress speech. I remember, it was at the time I began to write 'Midnight's Children', being in India during the emergency, when press censorship was very heavy. People were put in jail for expressing their opinion, including members of Indira Gandhi's own family. I've had family in Pakistan all my life.-Because of the partition my family was almost split down the middle. Half my family lived in Pakistan, and the other half in India. I had cousins, aunts and uncles in India, and I would go there quite often as a young person. To be in Pakistan during various dictatorships -- the Ayub Khan period, the Zia Ul-Haq period-- was to experience first-hand the stifling effect of censorship. Not just censorship, but the fear of saying what you thought. I remember visiting my cousins in Karachchi, and we were just spending an evening in somebody's house. I can't remember what I asked, but it was a political question regarding what was happening in the country. My cousin who was sitting across the table from me kicked me from under the table. Because I wasn’t born yesterday, I changed the subject and asked something about cricket. About 20 minutes later my cousin said to me, “It's okay now”. I asked, “What do you mean it's okay?” And what he said was that the person who left the room was one whom they had identified as an informer, and now that he had left the room it was okay to talk. So I asked them why they would invite him if they knew he was an informer? And they said, If we didn’t invite him we wouldn’t know who the informer was, and somebody else would be sent along”, and that “it was better to know who the informer was than not”. So I have lived in times of censorship and I've had a very strong reaction against it : the moment one starts to express one's view of the world, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, in my case it's predominantly been fiction, there are plenty of people who won’t want you to do that. Indira Gandhi at one point wanted to take me to court. The case disappeared because unfortunately she was murdered. But it's not unusual even for imaginative writers to run up against the power structure. If you look at literature, you see this happening in country after country. Writers trying to say " I think it's like this" run up against people who try to prevent them saying that. In the Soviet Union of course many writers had their lives destroyed by trying to speak up against Soviet power. At this moment in China it's very much the case. Journalists and creative writers are oppressed and disappearing, and living in a very precarious way. For me it seemed natural that one should object to that. Actually the first great writer I met was the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I knew him as a child because he was a very close friend of one of my aunts, and he became like an extra uncle to me. His work fell into two kinds. On the one hand there were ‘Gazzals’ – beautiful poetry, much of which was love poetry, and much of which of course was set to music and became popular, and made him such a popular figure. Then on the other side, there was poetry which was political. He directly engaged with the big subjects of his time, partition being the biggest. He quite naturally moved between those two worlds -- the world of the public and the world of the private. And I just thought. "Oh that’s what you as a writer are supposed to do"; that you engage both with the public subject and the private subject. I have tried to do that, and of course you know, like everyone else who does that, you run up against people who don’t want you to do that.
Q: But doesn’t such unfettered freedom gives rise to intolerance? A double-edged sword of sorts? You would know this, because you have been vocal against bigotry and racism, which in reality spirals through this unfettered freedom?
A: One of the problems with any form of liberty is that people will misuse it. Yes, it's true. One of the problems of free speech is that people will use it badly. They will use it to say many things that you or I might find objectionable. Unfortunately, that’s the price of the ticket. Because if you want to have the liberty to express your thoughts, then you have to accept that other people will use that in ways you might object to. If you look at the history of free speech, very often the work being defended is, inferior, problematic or reprehensible in some way. I don’t see a way around that. Otherwise you have to decide, ‘who is the censor and where is the line going to be drawn?’ Today the line will be drawn at a place you and I could approve of, but once you have accepted the principle that one could draw the line, then it would silence the work of both you and me. Human beings are speech animals. We define and express ourselves with what we say, and anything that makes it hard for us to do that, makes it a kind of existential problem. It’s a crime against human nature. And yes it means that people will say terrible things. But I'd rather know sooner who these people are and be able to confront them. For example, take what happened in Europe after World War Two? There have been all kinds of Neo Nazi voices denying the holocaust, and there are countries in which (denying the holocaust) it is a crime. I think it’s a mistake to make it a crime because it glorifies, by making into victim figures, the people who should be allowed to speak so they could be demolished. What I’m saying is yes, you have to tolerate your opponents, or people whom you despise. The question then is, what are the limits of tolerance? I've always thought the only limit to place on liberty is to deny it to the people, whom if they had the power, would deny it to you. The limit to freedom would be to not give freedom to people who would end the process of freedom.
Pictures by Veda Shastri
Q: So do parties like the Shiv Sena and other extremist parties fall within the definition of the limits you speak of ?
A: The Shiv Sena is borderline permissible because they seem to be working within the lines of the electoral system. I'm no fan of the Shiv Sena, but I also know that they are not trying to overthrow the system (free speech). They are rather sometimes effectively using the system. Of course my view is that the period of time in Bombay, after the rise of the Shiv Sena, has been a very sad period. Because it has changed the character of the city -- from being a tolerant inclusive city, to being an intolerant and exclusive city. I worry in India that people have moved so far away from the idea of liberty that liberty has become more and more circumscribed. I don’t like to see India turning into Pakistan. It was always the fact that India was unlike the countries around it. Around it there were authoritarian, puritanical regimes, whether it was Burma or Pakistan. To see India become less tolerant is very upsetting. India had always taken pride as the so called, "world's greatest democracy or the world's largest democracy" anyway. It seems less democratic than it used to be. Democracy is not just about elections. It is not just that every five years you get to vote. It is also, that in between those periods, you should feel safe in expressing your views against the government. You should feel safe in saying whatever you want to say about the way you're being ruled, even though they are not the views of the ruling party. In other words, that minority opinion, oppositional opinion, dissident opinion, is a very important part of a democratic society. What is happening now in India is that kind of opinion is now becoming vulnerable. More precarious. Many journalists would say that they haven’t known a time like this in India -- in terms of the rising level of fear. I think the least worst case is free speech. Now free speech is an imperfect thing, because as you say, people will use it badly. But of the options available it’s the least bad option. It’s the one least capable of tyrannizing us all.
Q: On the same subject- today there is an idea of some sort of western infused liberalism toward the need for ‘political correctness’, in everything we say and do, which I find silly. Why do you think this has happened and where do you stand on it?
A: I've never been a fan of political correctness and I think it's begun to infect the academia in America. I hope it is a short-term phenomenon, and I have reason to believe that it is a short-term phenomenon. There are signs that students are reacting against it. There is this whole range of new terms -- "micro aggression" (laughs). What is micro aggression? These seem like first-world problems to me. There are people across the world that have real problems. I think we have reached an age where people have become very thin skinned. We just need to develop a slightly thicker skin, and not to fly off a handle at tiny provocations. Otherwise we can't talk to each other anymore. Speech is not perfect, and people will talk to each other clumsily. We all do it. Nobody speaks perfectly, and to be held responsible to trivial unimportant misuse of vocabulary just seems pathetic. Also, there is this argument that was put forward, initially, by religious groups -- which is that it was a bad thing to offend people. That if your religious sensibilities were offended, that was not your problem but it was the problem of the person by whom you were offended. That really started off as an argument against blasphemy, in the days where blasphemy was a legal offence. But it seems to be one of the great things that happened in Europe during the period of ‘enlightenment’ that the Church lost its ability to place those limiting points on people. Then blasphemy ceased to be a crime. My view on the whole is that if somebody says something that offends a person of sincere religious belief, that’s their problem, not the others ( the person saying it). I mean everybody is offended all the time. If I go into a bookstore I can find plenty of books that contain material I don’t like, which I find offensive. There are books by Donald Trump in bookstores. They contain much material that I find offensive. But it doesn’t even occur to me to think that therefore Donald Trump should be punished for having offended me. Or to prevent him from speaking. Maybe that would be a good thing (laughs).
Q: Speaking of people taking offence, you became widely known in Sri Lanka following the controversy surrounding ‘The Satanic Verses’. This is despite you authoring 'Midnight's Children' and 'Shame', which were written years before 'The Satanic Verses'…
A: Well I've written seventeen books, and I don’t think that most of the people talking about 'The Satanic Verses' have read it. Is it banned in Sri Lanka or not?
Q: No it isn’t...
A: But you know, the number of people who read 500-page literary novels is not that great, but the number of people who can have political opinion is much larger. So one of the problems have been having a book talked about by people who don’t bother, or don’t seem to feel the need to inform themselves about it. ‘The Satanic Verses’ was my fifth published book, and my fourth novel. I just published my seventeenth book. I've written twelve books since then. I'm very proud of 'The Satanic Verses', I think it is one of the best novels I've written, and I encourage people to read it, in order to find out whether they actually object to it or not. And if they object to it, I have another suggestion to them, -- stop reading it (laughs). Because books don’t offend you unless you try rather hard. If you are going to read 500 pages in order to say you are offended, it means you are doing a lot of work to be offended (laughs). I mean, I read books I don’t like, and on the whole I shut them -- I think I can't be bothered with this -- I don’t like it. Everybody has the right to do that. The book at that point loses its power to offend you. Actually 'The Satanic Verses' is a damn good novel, and it's funny. People who read it might actually like it. You know, I'm not defending my novel anymore because I don’t see anything which I have to defend. I think people who condemn things unread -- they are the ones who have something to defend.
Q: In your memoirs you write about the amount of work you put into that book which took you five years to write it. For it to then be called an insult -- how did you perceive it?
A: I can insult people much faster than that. If I want to insult people it doesn’t take five years work. I can insult them in five minutes. But you know, all these people failed to read the book. Actually it's anything but that (an insult). First of all, most of it isn’t anything about religion at all. Ninety percent of it is about migration. It's about South Asian communities in Thatcher’s England, and in the middle of this there is this dream sequence -- which one of the characters is having, which was what the fuss was about. It was really a secondary theme of the book. What I am saying is read the damn book. Read the book. Then if you object to it, tell me why.
Q: It's very interesting though that the opposition to the book came from the Government or leaders to the masses- from top to bottom, rather than the other way around. If you take where it all began in India it was a politician, and even in Iran, your work was in circulation before the Government stepped in.
A: Yes, yes. Unfortunately it's easy to mobilize the masses if you talk about their religion being under threat. It's not only in my case, instead it's used all the time. What happened in India was a couple of Muslim MPs, at a time when the Rajiv Gandhi Government was coming up for election, threatened that the Muslim votes would not come their way unless they acted on this matter, and Rajiv Gandhi, rather cravenly, gave in. He gave in without having the book read. He gave in without going through the normal due process which was there in India for this type of thing. So that is where it started. Khomeini of course had all kinds of resources at his disposal. Unfortunately, fanaticism is one of the curses of our time. It seems very easy to mobilise a crowd against almost anybody.
Q: Did it hurt you when you saw this reaction, which came without paying heed to the literature and the literary quality of the work?
A: Of course it hurt me. But I have to say it was 27 years ago, so I'm not still hurt (laughs). I've been living my life and writing my books. I have to say I'm a lucky writer -- from a very early age, my second book acquired wide readership, and fortunately for me much of that has stuck around. Fortunately for me I am one of the writers who is able to publish a book and have a sense that it will be widely read. That’s all I've ever wanted to do in my life. I am pleased. I've had one book that hit a kind of rock, but as I say that’s 12 books ago. I do think it's one of my better books. People ask me which book of mine they should read, and I never say to read that first. Because there has been too much noise around it. It's very hard to read it without some sense of that noise, if it's is the first time they are reading my work. So I say, read another and read 'The Satanic Verses' later. Truthfully I was a writer who was interested in politics, but I never expected to be so much in the middle of it. My view is that I'm going to write my books and I'm lucky that people read them. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. I'm done with trying to even explain. I don’t want to explain my books. I want people to read them. Leaving aside the political issues, one of the problems for writers these days is that the industry has become such that writers are expected to be the salesman of their books. So when the book comes out, you have to give 100 interviews explaining it. I don’t want to explain it. When a book comes out, the book should be read, and the great pleasure of reading is that the imagination of the reader meets the imagination of the writer. In that encounter, the book takes shape for that reader. The book can be different for every reader, because the reader's own sensibility comes into contact with the writer's sensibility, and together they construct a meaning of the book. That is the beauty of literature. It is this meeting between strangers that takes place in the privacy of your own head. The problem with being asked to say "this is what my book is about", is because the voice of the writer is very powerful, if I say my book is not about this but about that, many people would think, “It must be about that because the writer says so”. That is the prescription of the books, which I don’t want to do. I want people to discover the book, not to have it prescribed to them like medicine. The fact that writers have to go on book tour and constantly explain it is a bit difficult. I remember when I started publishing books there was much less of this.
Even when 'Midnight's Children' won the Booker Prize (1981), despite the huge amount of attention, I only had to do one radio interview and one TV interview. Because the amount of space the media gave to books was much greater and so I didn’t have to do it -- other people did it. So people would discuss the book. The weight was not so much on the author to explicate the book -- because there was space in which other people were doing it. But now, book pages are shrinking, literary editors are being dismissed from their jobs, book supplements in newspapers are being cancelled -- there is so much less space for that conversation to happen. What replaces it is feature journalism -- suddenly if the writer is well known, newspapers want to do profiles. And these profiles with the writer as self salesman, takes the place of what used to happen, which was the discussion of books as books . To my mind, this world is less attractive to that one. I’m just sounding like an old guy saying it used to be better before -- but the fact is, it used to be better before (laughs).
Q: Let me take you back to before then. Your first novel ‘Grimus’ (1971) was something I found absorbing. Is there some inherent element in you which has fascinated you about mysticism? About spirituality?
A: Yes. As a confirmed atheist I was very interested in mysticism. Because - mysticism is different from religion. Mysticism is a way of understanding the world non- naturalistically. I have always been interested in literary mysticism. In this case the inspiration was Farid-uddin-Attar, his work ‘The Conference of the Birds’, which occupies, in Eastern literature, the place that a book like 'The Pilgrim's Progress' occupies in Western literature. And also it predates, what the Germans came to call the ‘Bildungsroman’ -- the novel about the getting of ‘wisdom’. Where the young person goes into the world and has a series of experiences as a result of which he learns something. 'The Conference of the Birds' is about this group of birds that sets out to discover this Bird God- the ‘Simorgh’, and they have an allegorical journey. They go through a number of zones, which are all in some way educational or challenging. They have to overcome moral and physical obstacles in order to get through, and when they get on top of the mountain -- what the poem basically suggests is that -- by going through that series of purifying and enlightening tests – that they have actually become the god the 30 birds seek.
Now I think that’s a very non-religious kind of religion. That’s simply saying that if we make ourselves better, we become the thing we are looking for. That is a completely non-religious way of understanding. Anyway, that is where that book came from. I don’t think it was wholly successful at all -- I have a lot of problems with that book. ( Laughs)
Q: You mean looking back today?
A: Yes. And even then the book was not particularly well received when it came out. And after it I had to really think about why that might have been and what I should do about it. What it made me do was it made me want to come back much closer to something like my own experience. I had the idea to write a novel about my childhood which would be based around a my childhood in Bombay. Initially the plan was for it not to be more ambitious than that. It was going to be a novel of my childhood. But at a certain point I thought, supposing the boy is born at the same time of the country. I wasn’t born on the 15th of August, I was born exactly eight weeks before the night of independence (in 1947) .At a certain point I thought that, and immediately I thought on the one hand that’s a good idea, and on the other hand it was quite clear that it was the sort of idea that enormously expanded the canvass of the book. Because then It stops being a novel about childhood, It also becomes a novel about history. It becomes a novel about the world that the child is in. I suddenly understood that I had just made it a much bigger book. It was quite frightening because I was a very inexperienced writer, very uncertain about my ability to write that book, and to make it work. It took me a very long time, it took me over five years to write the book. In a way it took me that long because I was finding out how to write it. That’s what became ‘Midnight’s Children’. So in a way, the poor start of the first novel obliged me to rethink my writing, and in a way led to the ideas that became 'Midnight's Children'. You can't have one without the other. One thing leads to the next. And then I felt I found my way as a writer.
Q: Since you brought us to 'Midnight's Children' – in it you write about the role of the press -- which is portrayed in it as being the mouthpiece of the government in times of war. How do you view that perception of the Press today, in comparison to what you wrote over 30 years ago?
A: Well certainly what happened with the press during the emergency is that it did succumb to Mrs. Gandhi's censorship without that much protest. Even when she called the election, that in the end she lost, the press until very late in that campaign were genuflecting towards her and describing her as the certain winner. But right at the end, you could see this if you look at the newspapers, four or five days before the vote -- all the journalists at a certain moment realise something else is happening here. They go "oh my god something else is happening here, it may not be what we think is going to happen", and you can see all the newspapers desperately backpedalling in order to not be ludicrously wrong. As you know, Mrs. Gandhi lost that election very heavily. I think we've reached a point of such cynicism that the willingness to dismiss the press as being either corrupt or slanted or ignorant, the desire to dismiss what Sarah Palin calls the "lame-stream" media (laughs) is almost like a reflex. You don't believe it because it's in the newspapers. And in the age of the internet, that has the side effect of making people much more credulous of things outside the mainstream media -- in one of the huge series of websites and some of which are more reputable than others. I find that very worrying. I feel actually that the standards of reportage and credibility in some of the recognised newspapers are far higher than the standards used on the internet. On the internet anything can be said without there being an editorial structure in which the writer has to justify what he is saying. Much of which is said on the internet is full of nonsense. And as flawed as the mainstream media may be, I find them less distorted, and I feel that we are in a very sloppy age -- because there is so much of information out there and because all of us can do it, and have access to it, we begin to look at that as being truer than the really hard work of journalists. And journalism is not easy. To find out things in any kind of reliable way -- there are people trying to conceal things from you, your resources to find things out are limited, the time available to report on something is limited -- there are all kinds of reasons why journalism is an inexact thing, and yet out there every day there are journalists doing their best to tell us the news. And I don't like that their work is now so routinely dismissed, because certainly I will believe something on the New York Times before I believe it on an internet news website. Because who is controlling that? Where is the evidence on which these things are put out there? There may well come a time when new technology makes financially viable news gathering organisations which may have the same degree of scrupulousness and editorial control as the newspapers. We live in this moment where the old is dying and the new has not been born. I don't think there is any internet based news gathering organisation which has anything like the resources or the scrupulousness of a great newspaper. If you look at the news websites they are all aggregation sites. No one is writing for them, they are stealing stuff from everywhere. So they are on the one hand stealing the work of the mainstream media and then jeering at it, but without that (mainstream media) they don't exist. What we don't have is a news gathering site on the internet which runs like a newspaper used to be run. With journalists in the field reporting back. Now that may come. There may come a time when there is a financial model which makes it viable. The problem right now is that nobody wants to pay for news on the internet. And the truth about life is you get what you pay for (laughs).
Q: You once wrote that English writing has overtaken the vernacular, especially in the Global South. Why do you say this, and on what authority?
A: Look, I'm a writer in English. So I am biased in its favour. What I think is quite clear is that English has become the world language. For a while there was a bit of competition with French, and now that argument is over. What is interesting about English is as a language it's very flexible and malleable. So it is possible to make English different to reflect different realities. All over the world people have remade English. Apart from England itself. The Irish were probably the first to do it. Irish- English literature has become very eminent in the world. The way in which the Irish use English is different from the way the English use English. In America there are many differences -- there is a rationality in the way the language is used here. There is also an ethnic variation. English becomes responsive to all those different needs to different constituencies. There is a very rich and extensive English literature in the Caribbean, South Africa, India and Pakistan. I don't know so much about Sri Lanka. But what is interesting is that this is not standard English imposed on the world in a colonialist way. There was a time it was so. But what is happening for a long time now is that countries which have acquired English through whatever means are re-shaping it for their own purposes. That is very interesting. As far as the effect of the dominance of English where other languages are concerned, yes there is some concern there. But if you are talking about dominance of languages, for example in India, the problem is more Hindi than English. The dominance of Hindi is having an unfortunate effect on some of the other languages, even those in North India. The amount of languages people in a given generation, who grow up being fluent in other languages, is declining because of the power of Hindi as a kind of lingua franca. My view is that the world is what it is -- in the sense that whatever you think of globalisation, the world is not going to de-globalise(laughs). Whatever you think of industrialisation, the world is not going back to homespun. In the same way, whatever you think of the English language, here it is -- and it will be a little while before that changes. So the question is how do you make the best of it. The question of globalisation is how do you more equitably distribute the resources of the world. The question of English is how can you use it best for your own purposes, and I think writers around the world are answering that question rather brilliantly.
Q: How important was the need to question for you as a child. In your memoirs you speak of the influence of your father?
A: Well I had a difficult relationship with my father. But the more I think about it,-- because he died a long time ago in 1987 aged 77 it has been almost 30 years since he passed away, what I think now more and more is that a great deal of my way of seeing the world actually was his way of seeing the world. I understand now, how much in fact he gave me. He was a difficult man, but I was his only son, and I think I learnt and enormous amount about how to see the world from him. I mean, he was a person uninterested in religious beliefs, he was a person interested as a scholar in the culture of Arabic and Farsi, and unlike me he was a student of Arabic and Farsi and he was able to read those languages in the original, whereas I only read them in translation. So he was a more considerable scholar in many things, including Islam, than me. He was interested in philosophy, so was I. He was interested specifically in the philosophy of Ibn Rushd ( Avveroes, Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd), and so am I. When he was alive, people used to say that our voices were so similar that people would mistake us for each other on the telephone. I would answer the phone and his friend would start talking to me as if I was him (laughs). It was a difficult relationship that ended well. By the time he died our relationship was much better. And yes I learnt an enormous amount from him. As I've just described him, he was the kind of person who questioned orthodoxy. He was just a businessman. He wasn't an intellectual or a Professor. But he had the wisdom to question religious orthodoxy, to question political orthodoxy, to be a person of ideas. He liked to argue. I would have very long arguments with him during which he always told me how stupid I was. But he enjoyed arguing. He taught me dispute, he taught me to argue properly. Don't argue emotionally, don't argue to the person or attack the person, argue at the level of ideas, -- not at the level of insult. So it was a sharpening of my mind and I know that's why he did it. He would let me sit with him in the evening and he would start an argument because he knew our views on things were quite different. Our politics were different. I was generationally very different from him. You know, I was from the generation of the 60s. That certainly was not him. So we had plenty to disagree about, which he knew, and he would make me have the argument, which I think was very helpful.
Q: Was that inculcation of the spirit of questioning what was before you, which led you to read the subjects that you took as a student in Cambridge?
A: Well yeah, I mean what happens with the Cambridge history degree is that in your final year you simply chose three special subjects, and that's all you do. They give you a range of 60 to 80 subjects to chose from, and you chose three, and your whole final year is those three things. I chose three very interesting, to my mind, roughly hundred year periods. One was the history of India from 1857 to 1947, from the uprising to independence -- the 90 year period, a very interesting period. Similarly I chose the first century of American history -- from 1776 to 1877 -- from the declaration to the end of reconstruction. Again an amazing century. And the third thing I chose was, also a very interesting period. Mohammad and the rise of Islam, and the early Caliphate. So from the lifetime of the Prophet just into the first years of Abu Bakr and so on. I just thought these were three of the most interesting periods of time that I could possible learn something about. So that's what I did. And that is of course when I first heard about the so-called incident of the Satanic Verses, which is there in the historical record (of Islam). What interested me, as it interested my father, was to look at Islam as an event inside history. Because it's the only one of the great world religions to have been born inside a period of recorded history. So we know a lot about it. We know a lot about the Prophet, his family, the economic circumstances, and the social, economic and political circumstances of Arabia at the time, the transition from a Nomadic society to an Urban society, the transition from matriarchy to --which the Nomads had -- to patriarchy -- which is what happened in the cities, and the tensions created by those changes, and the way in which the ideas of the Quran reflect that. It reflects that time of great transformation. To me, that was very interesting. To see how the ideas were born. And to do that you have to look at the idea as in its time. So that's what I did. My study was history, but when I left Cambridge I didn't want to study history because my interest in fiction, narrative and storytelling was greater and I didn't want to spend my life in libraries researching old texts.
Q: Before I move on to the last few questions, how important was Ibn Rushd (Averroes ), Gazzali and the rest -- the entire dialogue which took place among them -- to you?
A: Well, it became important. The fact that my name is Rushdie because of my father's admiration for this philosopher (Ibn Rushd) obviously attracted me. And then I did find him an attractive thinker. His desire to include Aristotelian ideas of reason and logic into Islamic philosophy -- I thought that was interesting. And then later when my work was being persecuted, it of course was another echo. Because his work was also persecuted during his lifetime. So I felt a kind of affinity with him. But it's not something that has dominated my life, but I wanted to write about it, and eventually I did.
Q: How do you view Islamaphobia as it is today? You were a victim of ' Islamism' and today the general Muslim population seems to be victims of both Islamism on the one hand and Islamaphobia on the other?
A: I don't like the word Islamaphobia because we have to make a distinction between people and the ideas that they have. I have spent my life fighting racism. I have been involved fighting racism through voluntary work and writing. Anyway, I think clearly there should not be discrimination against any group of people as a result of their ideas or the colour of their skin, and so on. But you can't, I think, protect the ideas. I told you about my father. It was not only my father who taught me to argue but one of the important things the Oxbridge education gives you is that it also teaches you about argument. What it teaches you is that you should be always respectful of the individual, but absolutely savage about ideas. So if you tell me the world is flat, I will be polite to you, but I will also say that -that is nonsense. We have to be able to be completely disrespectful of each other's ideas, while being careful to treat people well as people. Islamaphobia -- the word to me to blurs that line. If I don't like Islam for whatever reason I should be able to say so -- if I then refuse to hire you because you are a Muslim, then that is bigotry, unless you being a Muslim in some way interferes with the ability to do your job. And if that (interfering with the job) is not clear and there should be no reason it would be clear, then it can't be a factor. My view is that you have to separate people from their ideas. At the moment this is a very divided country right now. It's a very polarised country. Half the country holds ideas which the other half detests. If you just look at the gun issue, you've got a very big chunk of this country believing that it is their god given right to have guns, or at least the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to carry guns and it would be in some way - un-American to deprive them of their weapons. There is another part of the country which thinks that it is insane, and all you have to do is look at the amount of gun deaths in this country to understand that there is a big problem. These positions are difficult to reconcile, and are very strongly, vehemently held. The point is, in an open society you must be able to have that argument. You must be able to attack the opinion while remaining respectful of the individual's concerned. That is what I have always thought. I am not respectful of religion, and I think religion is garbage. All of them. And I retain the right to say so. But I don't think you should discriminate against human beings because they hold beliefs that are not yours.
Q: How do you view the importance of literature and art to a society? What impact does it have on the evolution of a society?
A: If you look at history, it's the art of the past that defines it. We see Elizabethan England through the eyes of Shakespeare as much as from Queen Elizabeth the First. If we look at the early 20th century, we see in France the impressionists and the literary modernists and so on as being the thing that the world takes away from that period. Much more than the politicians and the battles. Art is what in the end defines a culture, it was defines a society. That is what is the most memorable part of that society. The paintings drawn, the books written, the films -- that is what endures. It's the way in which we portray ourselves to ourselves which is most memorable.
Q: And in contemporary terms, how do you view it?
A: I think in terms of literature, it is quite a rich moment. In English literature, there has always been a tendency for the literature of England and of the United States to dominate. But what has happened during my lifetime as a writer is that the fact that the English language has spread so far, means that the literature of the English language is kind of the literature of the world. English changes everywhere. So you have in India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka or Australia or the Caribbean. Everywhere that English has spread you have a really rich literature which is becoming the mainstream of those countries. Much of the greatest world literature written in English is not written in England, but everywhere else. I find that to be an interesting development. It's something new in our times. And I think it's a time of really exceptional writers. The problems in the literary fields are industrial. It has to do with economic recession, and publishing companies having financial difficulties, and so on. In terms of the quality of work that is being done, I think this is as richer a time as I can remember. It's not just in English either -- there was a great Latin American boom from the mid 50s to the mid70s. There is an enormous number of talented young African writers emerging now, many of whom are women. Writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It's not only her, but there are many gifted young African women writers, and that is something new. One of the things I think that is interesting to see if will happen is that in the former Soviet Union -- at the time of the Soviet Union, there was this very rich underground literature that was smuggled outside, the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn etc. Somehow since the end of the Soviet Union, it seems as if literature lost its enemy, and in a certain sense lost its impetus. Now I am kind of waiting to see what happens next, in the literature of the former Soviet Union. Check literature -- Hungarian literature is having an enormous renaissance right now. Writers like Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy, who just passed away, Imre Kertész who just won the Nobel Prize. In Hungary there is a new rising of literature. Poland also has had a recent great tradition of poetry. Poets like Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert. So there are great literary traditions in parts of the former Soviet Union, but Russian literature itself I think is not as rich as it used to be. But that will change. Everything goes in cycles.
Q: What is the most important work of literature that influenced you or impacted you the most?
A: It is very difficult to choose one. I started out being very influenced by the wonder tales of Eastern Literature like the Panchathanthra and the Kathasaritsagara, the Arabian Nights, the Ramayana and Mahabaratha and all of that. And then I think what happened is that my mind connected that with a Western surrealist tradition. So I became interested it writers like Kafka (Franz) and Gogol (Nicolai) and Bulgakov (Mikhail), Marquez (Gabriel Garcia) etc. This tradition of surrealist, non-naturalist writing in western literature, which to me connects to the non-naturalistic writing of Eastern literature. And to me bringing those things together showed me what I wanted to do.
Q: Finally, you have made very few mentions of Sri Lanka. I remember there was one in 'Midnight's Children'. What are your impressions of Sri Lanka?
A: I have never been there, and I would love to go. I mean I know about its great beauty because we just made a film there. We made the film of 'Midnight's Children' there. I wasn't there for the shooting, but I can see the incredible natural beauty of the place. And I know from the people who were making the film, what a pleasurable experience it was for them to be there in Sri Lanka making the film. About how helpful the Sri Lankan people were. We found quite a few of the cast from there as well. So it was a very good experience. I'd love to go. I have been invited a few times to be in Sri Lanka for literary events and so on. It just hasn't been convenient. I will come. There is no question because it's a part of the world that I would love to see. Of that whole block of South Asia, it's the bit that I've never seen. I would like to put that straight.