Salman Rushdie Lectures on Literature and Politics

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The Morrison Center was packed to the gills on the evening of Nov. 20 from a surge of people who had braved the winter cold to see Sir Salman Rushdie speak as part of Boise State University's Distinguished Lecture Series.

Rushdie is perhaps best known for his controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which cast ripples across the Muslim world and precipitated the Ayatollah Khomeini, then the Supreme Religious Leader of Iran, placing a bounty on Rushdie's head. Rushdie subsequently went into hiding—a period of his life that forms the basis of his 2012 book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir.

In his lecture titled "Literature and Politics in the Modern World," Rushdie obliquely referred to his days in hiding, preferring to discuss literature's relationship to politics as a function of historical, cultural and technological forces. As newspapers struggle to keep pace with the internet, he said, content that casts a critical eye on those in power begins to become more scarce.

"The more ways there are of bringing the news, the less news is brought," Rushdie told the crowd.

While journalism fights for purchase in 21st century media, however, Rushdie argued that the novel has retained its power as a medium because novelists are able to probe the truth without being beholden to facts. Novels like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and many others explore individual characters in their natural social, political and economic habitats.

"What the novel can bring us is the lived experience of the new," Rushdie said.

The "experience of the new," as Rushdie knows firsthand, can bring storytellers into conflict with political power but as Rushdie pointed out, he has survived many of the people who, on the publication of his novel, sought to see him dead. 

"We live in an age in which writers are physically in more danger than they've ever been," he said, adding that while artists sometimes need protection from the world, "art can take care of itself." 

Censorship and taboo have played a large part in Rushdie's life, but he said he's optimistic for the future of literature. He advised the audience to "read for love."

"I think we need to cultivate the love of books rather than the study of books," he said.

It was only in the question-and-answer portion of the evening that he spoke most specifically about his experience with Islam. Much of his life after the publication of The Satanic Verses was spent in hiding. Some of the time he was under armed guard, and the situation contributed to the failure of his marriage to American novelist Marianne Wiggins in 1993. Bookstores that carried the book were bombed, several of its translators were murdered—the comet tail of death and destruction caused by outrage over The Satanic Verses goes on and on. When someone asked about his opinion of Islam, Rushdie said he "isn't the person to ask" about defending it. Rather, his remarks on his relationship with Islam drew out nuances that have contributed to tensions between the Middle East and the West, and their relationship to literature. He gave an example of two boys raised in the same province of India.

"What's the difference between the boy who picks up a gun and joins the Jihad, and the other, who does something—anything—else with his life? Character," Rushdie said. The trend of violence that stems from from religious intolerance to the rise of the Islamic State, however, is cause for concern.

"Something ugly has been born within Islam," he said. "Inside Islam something very bad is happening."