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‘Free Speech Is the Whole Ballgame’...

<i> Salman Rushdie's comments were adapted by the author from a forthcoming essay titled "One Thousand Days in a Balloon." </i>

At the end of 1990, dispirited and demoralized, I faced my deepest grief, my sorrow at having been torn away from the cultures and societies from which I’d always drawn my inspiration--that is, the broad community of British Asians, the broader community of Indian Muslims. I determined to make my peace with Islam, even at the cost of my pride. Those who were surprised and displeased by what I did perhaps failed to see that I wanted to make peace between the warring halves of the world, which were also the warring halves of my soul.

The really important conversations I had in this period were with myself.

I said: Salman, you must send a message loud enough to make ordinary Muslims see that you aren’t their enemy, and make the West understand a little more of the complexity of Muslim culture, and start thinking a little less stereotypically.

And I said to myself: Admit it, Salman, the Story of Islam has a deeper meaning for you than any of the other grand narratives. Of course you’re no mystic, mister. No supernaturalism, no literalist orthodoxies for you. But Islam doesn’t have to mean blind faith. It can mean what it always meant in your family, a culture, a civilization, as open-minded as your grandfather was, as delightedly disputatious as your father was. Don’t let the zealots make Muslim a terrifying word, I urged myself; remember when it meant family.

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I reminded myself that I had always argued that it was necessary to develop the nascent concept of the “secular Muslim,” who, like the secular Jew, affirmed his membership of the culture while being separate from the theology. But, Salman, I told myself, you can’t argue from outside the debating chamber. You’ve got to cross the threshold, go inside the room and then fight for your humanized, historicized, secularized way of being a Muslim.

It was with such things in mind--and with my thoughts in a state of some confusion and torment--that I spoke the Muslim creed before witnesses. But my fantasy of joining the fight for the modernization of Muslim thought was stillborn. It never really had a chance. Too many people had spent too long demonizing or totemizing me to listen seriously to what I had to say. In the West, some “friends” turned against me, calling me by yet another set of insulting names. Now I was spineless, pathetic, debased; I had betrayed myself, my cause; above all, I had betrayed them.

I also found myself up against the granite, heartless certainties of Actually Existing Islam, by which I mean the political and priestly power structure that presently dominates and stifles Muslim societies. Actually Existing Islam has failed to create a free society anywhere on Earth, and it wasn’t about to let me, of all people, argue in favor of one.

Suddenly I was (metaphorically) among people whose social attitudes I’d fought all my life--for example, their attitudes about women (one Islamicist boasted to me that his wife would cut his toenails while he made telephone calls, and suggested I find such a spouse) or about gays (one of the imams I met in December, 1990, was on TV soon afterward, denouncing Muslim gays as sick creatures who brought shame on their families and who ought to seekmedical and psychiatric help).

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I reluctantly concluded that there was no way for me to help bring into being the Muslim culture I’d dreamed of, the progressive, irreverent, skeptical, argumentative, playful and unafraid culture which is what I’ve always understood as freedom. Actually Existing Islam, which makes literalism a weapon and redescription a crime, will never let the likes of me in.

(Twelfth-Century Islamic philosopher) Ibn Rushd’s ideas were silenced in their time. And throughout the Muslim world today, progressive ideas are in retreat. Actually Existing Islam reigns supreme, and just as the recently destroyed Actually Existing Socialism of the Soviet terror-state was horrifically unlike the utopia of peace and equality of which democratic socialists have dreamed, so also is Actually Existing Islam a force to which I have never given in, to which I cannot submit.

There is a point beyond which conciliation looks like capitulation. I do not believe I passed that point, but others have thought otherwise.

I have never disowned my book, nor regretted writing it. I said I was sorry to have offended people, because I had not set out to do so, and so I am. I explained that writers do not agree with every word spoken by every character they create--a truism in the world of books, but a continuing mystery to opponents of “The Satanic Verses.”

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I have always said that this novel has been traduced. Indeed, the chief benefit of my meeting with the six Islamic scholars on Christmas Eve, 1990, was that they agreed that the novel had no insulting motives. “In Islam, it is a man’s intention that counts,” I was told. “Now we will launch a worldwide campaign on your behalf to explain that there has been a great mistake.” All this with much smiling and friendliness. It was in this context that I agreed to suspend--not cancel--a paperback edition, to create what I called a space for reconciliation.

Alas, I overestimated these men. Within days, all but one of them had broken their promises, and recommenced to vilify me and my work as if we had not shaken hands. I felt (most probably I had been) a great fool. The suspension of the paperback began at once to look like a surrender. In the aftermath of the attacks on my translators, it looks even more craven. It has now been more than three years since “The Satanic Verses” was published; that’s a long, long “space for reconciliation.” Long enough. I accept that I was wrong to have given way on this point.

“The Satanic Verses” must be freely available and easily affordable, if only because if it is not read and studied, then these years will have no meaning. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

“Our lives teach us who we are.” I have learned the hard way that when you permit anyone else’s description of reality to supplant your own--and such descriptions have been raining down on me, from security advisers, governments, journalists, archbishops, friends, enemies, mullahs--then you might as well be dead.

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Obviously, a rigid, blinkered, absolutist world view is the easiest to keep hold of, whereas the fluid, uncertain, metamorphic picture I’ve always carried about is rather more vulnerable. Yet I must cling with all my might to my own soul; must hold on to its mischievous, iconoclastic, out-of-step clown-instincts, no matter how great the storm. And if that plunges me into contradiction and paradox, so be it; I’ve lived in that messy ocean all my life. I’ve fished in it for my art. This turbulent sea was the sea outside my bedroom window in Bombay. It is the sea by which I was born, and which I carry within me wherever I go.

“Free speech is a non-starter,” says one of my Islamic extremist opponents. No, sir, it is not. Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ballgame. Free speech is life itself.


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