Salman Rushdie has written 14 novels. His latest novel, QUICHOTTE, was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker prize. The NEW YORK TIMES bestseller is inspired by the Cervantes classic DON QUIXOTE. In June 2007 he received knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. In 2008 he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was named a Library Lion of the New York Public Library. His novel, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, was named the Best of the Booker – the best winner in the award’s 40 year history – by a public vote.
ANNOUNCER: From the Bill Moyers Archive, Faith and Reason filmed at World Pen Voices Festival in 2006 now adapted for audio.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I would argue that our sense of good and evil, our sense of right and wrong, our moral sense precedes religion. It’s not created by it — it is, in fact, what creates our need for religion.
ANNOUNCER: Writer Salman Rushdie talks about good and evil, religion as a political weapon and the power of conscience.
That’s in this episode of Faith and Reason.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. I’m Bill Moyers, and I’m pleased you could join me. Our world seems mightily divided right now between the religious and the secular — and even between the faiths which share the heritage of Abraham. Yet I’ll wager most of us don’t live such polarized, one-sided lives. Throughout the double helix of our DNA, it seems, the molecules of faith and reason chatter away, and it’s in our interest, and the world’s, that they stay on good speaking terms. So I have asked some noted writers, storytellers, to sit down with me and talk about faith and reason.
BILL MOYERS: It still strikes me as remarkable and a little scary to meet Salman Rushdie in the open on a downtown New York street corner. He is, after all, the man who spent ten years of his life underground, hiding from Islamic assassins. But there he was — mixing and mingling with scores of writers from around the world who were in New York at his invitation to talk about faith and reason. Rushdie welcomes the presence of kindred spirits. For a long time, he was without their company when he lost his freedom — for the sin of writing a book. THE SATANIC VERSES, published in 1988. It was a satire, based in part on the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Muslim fundamentalists erupted in protest when the novel appeared. Some governments banned it. They considered it blasphemy — an offense to the faith, an insult to the Prophet Mohammed. In 1989, the powerful Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa, calling on Muslims world-wide to kill the apostate Rushdie wherever they found him. Rushdie went into hiding, moving from safe house to safe house, appearing only sporadically in public, always listening for footsteps behind him. Finally, in 1998, with Khomeini dead, the Iranian government, seeking to normalize relations with Britain, backed away from the fatwa. Rushdie came out of hiding.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: It means everything, you know, it means, um, freedom.
BILL MOYERS: Although the fatwa was lifted, some Muslims still call for the book to be taken off the shelves. Rushdie refused.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: There’s not a chance in hell of the book being withdrawn. We have not fought a battle for freedom of speech to give in at the last moment.
BILL MOYERS: Since then, Rushdie has become a very public champion of free speech and an outspoken critic of fundamentalism. Many Muslims still wish him dead. When cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Mohammed sparked worldwide protests and deadly violence, the leader of the Islamic group Hezbollah said there would not have been a problem if the assassination of Rushdie had succeeded. Rushdie still refuses to back down. He was one of twelve people who signed a manifesto defending the paper’s right to publish. Throughout his ordeal, Rushdie kept writing. His nine novels have been translated into 40 languages. MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN won Britain’s prestigious Booker Award. For two years he has been the president of the Pen American center — Pen stands for the organization of poets, essayists, and novelists that works world-wide for freedom of speech and conscience. Before leaving office, Rushdie brought over one hundred writers together for a public discussion about what he calls ‘the hot-button issue’ of the day, faith and reason.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you ask writers to discuss faith and reason and not theologians, philosophers, preachers?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Largely for the reason that we are dreaming creatures and I wanted imaginative acts of response. That’s to say — And I think that’s what writers can offer better than journalists, better than philosophers is that they can use their imagination to look at the world and what’s happening in it and especially I think — And and one of the things in the time we live in is that there is a kind of imaginative failure, I think, of understanding across the gulfs in the world now.
I find myself more and more, trying to tell stories which explore how different bits of the world join up. And I think it’s important to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Religion is a great exercise in imagination, is it not?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Uh-huh. Well, I mean, of course, all religions are created out of human imagination and our imagination. All art began as sacred art. All painting began as religious painting. All writing began as religious writing.
BILL MOYERS: Mythologies and the stories of the gods and goddesses.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: The stories of gods and goddesses. The Old Testament, all these, the birth of all art. All music began as sacred music. So all—
BILL MOYERS: How so in the exaltation of the mysterious or of the praise of the unnamable?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I think you know we as human beings look for transcendence, you know? I think we’re not satisfied with the everyday. Because we are dreamers, because we are an imagining creature, we do have the ability to imagine a world which is not simply the flesh and blood world that we inhabit. And that has, in many great ways, found its manifestation in the world’s religions. And as I say, art came out of that. And then at a certain point, literature, music, painting separated itself from its sacred roots and became, if you like, secularized. And and out of that comes the art of the novel. But I think one has to remember its roots in mythology, its roots in religion.
BILL MOYERS: You were one of several people like you who signed a manifesto. You say “We plead for the universality of freedom of expression so that a critical spirit may be exercised on all continents against all abuses and all dogmas.” That’s the very thing that the tyrants don’t want. They don’t want the critical spirit applied to their-
SALMAN RUSHDIE: But this is— this is the time honored role of the artist to speak truth to power. And if you look at what is happening in the Muslim world some of the writers signing that manifesto are particularly concerned with the oppression of women, which is a very big subject in the Muslim world. Others are concerned with the oppression of freedoms of speech and assembly. And others are concerned with the creation of kind of overarching world view, which makes it impossible for people to consider the concept of freedom. You know, that’s to say it simply not available for discussion. And one of the awful things about long term mass censorship is that, in the end, people can lose a sense of what it’s like to live in a free world. Because there’s nothing automatic about it. It’s a thing you have to fight for and preserve.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, we always think in this country that persecution will lose, but it doesn’t always lose.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: It doesn’t—
BILL MOYERS: It sometimes so changes the frame of references that people who grew up in it, that they no longer have any sense that there’s something beyond it.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Exactly. And that is the final victory. That’s the final victory of oppression. I think we need to make sure that that doesn’t happen, you know. And I think it’s important to speak up. I think it’s very interesting that more and more and more now almost every week you see some new powerful voice being raised. Many of these voices are women. I’ve often thought that in the Muslim world that the big change may come because Muslim women reject the oppression that they’ve been subjected to.
BILL MOYERS: A kind of silent revolution. You think there’s a silent revolution going on.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: No, it’s going to have to be noisy.
BILL MOYERS: Noisy.
BILL MOYERS: You called some time ago for a new scholarship in Islam. What did you mean by that?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I mean that a lot, unfortunately, the degree of censorship in the in the Muslim world is so rigorous at the moment that very few scholars are able to go back to first principles and reexamine the basis of the faith. You know, Islam is unusual in that it’s the only one of the great world religions which was born inside recorded history. That there is an enormous amount of factual, historical record about the life of the prophet and about social conditions in Arabia at that time. So it’s possible to look at the origin of Islam in a scholarly way. Based on historical fact.
BILL MOYERS: Do you expect Muslims to look at their faith in a historical context as opposed to supernaturally?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah, of course many people do. And actually knowing a large number of Muslims around the world, many people do this. It’s just that it’s a public discourse that is forbidden. I mean it’s very interesting about Mohammed, the Prophet, that he has a character. You know, that we know what he was like as a person. It’s very interesting to see how Islam grew out of the social and economic conditions of his time. It’s very interesting to see exactly how he learned from and in many ways borrowed stories and ideas from Judeo Christian culture.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: You know, that’s to say, it’s to me fascinating to see how this important book came out of history. It’s not an event outside history but inside history.
BILL MOYERS: Isn’t the problem that when you have any group of people who invoke God’s word as delivered by God it’s almost impossible to have a political discussion with them.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: The Jews say God promised us Jerusalem. Christians say the Bible is God’s word to be taken—
SALMAN RUSHDIE: But but just as here, so in the Muslim world. There are many, many people who are not literalists in that way. You know, there are many people who wear the religion much more lightly. And—
BILL MOYERS: So there’s a place in Islam for skeptical believers?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, there are plenty of them, you know, is what I’m saying. And there is an intelligencia, there is a scholarship in the Muslim world, which if unleashed would act in very much the ways in which I’m talking-
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean unleashed? Somebody has to say go and it’s okay?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I mean you have to stop oppressing them. You know, I mean I’d say at the moment there has been a very widespread campaign of oppression against Muslim writers and intellectuals. And it’s very hard to publish this kind of work, it’s very hard for anyone to read it. Such scholarship has been has been done outside and is banned inside the Muslim world. So I think if we’re going to push towards the future you can’t go on being hide-bound by ideas which come from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. You have to enter the modern world.
BILL MOYERS: Every religion, you have said somewhere else, has to be subjected to rational argument and discussion.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: And this kind of discourse is normal now in Judaism and in Christianity, and always has been normal in Buddhism and to a large extent in Hinduism. So it’s Islam that needs to modernize.
BILL MOYERS: I looked at the writers on the opening night of the festival, and I realized that by the very nature of their vocation, they can’t do anything but express what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling. I mean, their freedom to criticize puts them in direct contradiction to every orthodoxy, dogma, faction, party. Can there be any kind of peace between writers and authority, religious or political?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Leaving aside the issue of oppression and so on — I think there is quite a valuable creative tension between power and art. I think there always has been and probably always will be. Men of power, women of power seek in a way to define the world in their own image and in a way that suits them —
BILL MOYERS: To their own advantage.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: — gets them elected, so on, keeps them in power. Writers are also trying to create visions of the world, but not to get elected. So, there is a clash of visions, quite often, between writers and people of power. And that’s all right. I think mostly we all accept that that’s how the world is. What’s happened more and more nowadays is that power has begun to take reprisals against artists around the world. One of the things that’s problematic is when the West essentially does deals with the oppressors, because it makes the world safer or more stable to use the political term. So the fact that Western democracies often get into bed with non-Western strong men, of this or that repressive stripe does not help the situation.
BILL MOYERS: The magazine FREE INQUIRY, which is published by the Council for Secular Humanism, a very interesting magazine in this country, actually ran photographs of the Danish cartoons that created such an uproar in Europe. And many American bookstores would not put this magazine on the rack. What do you think about that?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I think that’s straight forward cowardice. And I’m afraid that many of the people who refused to stock the cartoons, who refused to reprint them, claiming that they were being respectful were actually not being respectful, they were being scared. And I think the problem with intimidation is that if you do surrender to it you make sure that there will be more intimidation in future.
BILL MOYERS: You said recently that we’re at a battle of wills. Between?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Between this kind of censorious culture and the culture of freedom. And it seems to me it’s really important to hold the line. It’s really important to say in a free society, “offense is not the limiting point.” Because if we say that we can suppress things that upset people then all of us are silenced.
BILL MOYERS: But the believers say, well, that it’s sacrilegious what you’re doing, and it’s against God.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. Well, unfortunately, that’s something that they may have to deal with. It seems to me that when there is conflict between the liberty of speech and the beliefs of private individuals the liberty of speech must always take precedence. Because otherwise every other liberty, including freedom of religious observance, is put into question. It’s no accident, I think, that freedom of religious observance and freedom of speech are jointly protected by the First Amendment. It’s as important to have one as to have the other. And indeed in my view you can’t have one without the other.
BILL MOYERS: A lot of people don’t want to admit, though, that that First Amendment gives us the right to be irreligious, to be an atheist.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, of course it does. The whole point about freedom is that you can exercise it in a way that you choose.
BILL MOYERS: Is it conceivable to you that the West could appease radical Islam?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I’m afraid there is at the moment a bit too much of that spirit abroad.
BILL MOYERS: How so? How —
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well —
BILL MOYERS: How’s it manifesting itself?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I mean for example in the cartoon controversy, I think there was a desire to appease rather than a desire to say this is how things are. I mean how would you have a respectful political cartoon? It’s a contradiction in terms. I have never seen a political cartoon that didn’t insult somebody. Some of the Muslim critics said, well, how about if they were being rude about the Pope? People are routinely rude about the Pope. You know, so everyone else has got used to the fact that this is how this particular form works. Satirical, political cartooning is what it is. And I think — my view is people have to just learn to deal with it.
BILL MOYERS: Believers need to understand don’t they that their belief system is intact no matter what other people think about it.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Exactly. What kind of a god is it that’s upset by a cartoon in Danish?
BILL MOYERS: From my notebook of Rushdie wisdom, quote, “Human beings understand themselves and shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable, not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men.” Isn’t that exactly what religious extremists do not want to hear?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes, of course it is. Because it seems to me that what I’m trying to say is that the purpose— well, you could even say grandly the purpose of life, but a purpose of our lives is to broaden what we can understand and say and therefore be. It enriches us as people to push outwards against the frontiers of knowledge and, if you like, of acceptable ideas. And there are of course people who don’t think like that. And who want to do the opposite really, want to push those boundaries in.
BILL MOYERS: So when you say that we shouldn’t bow our knee to any man or god you’re going to fly right in the face of their sense of reality.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. I mean I’m aware of that. But I’m not interested in their sense of reality. I’m trying to say that, that is an extremely reprehensible way to look at the world.
BILL MOYERS: Would you ever have imagined when you were a young man having left India — what, you were how old when you left India?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I went to boarding school in England when I was 14.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever imagine this resurgence of religion in the world?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: No, no not at all. I am a member of the ’60s generation. You know, I mean I was 21 in 1968. So I was very much at the heart of or surrounded by all those changes of the ’60s. You know, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, and so on and so on. And religion seemed to be entirely marginalized.
BILL MOYERS: In fact one of the main mag— I think it was TIME MAGAZINE had a cover story, “God is Dead.”
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. I know many people have made that mistake — including me. I mean as a young man the idea that religion would become right at the center of public life seemed unthinkable. It seemed to be at the margins, it seemed to have gone into private life, which in my view was where it belonged. And that it was not a political issue. That, yes, the world has changed dramatically.
BILL MOYERS: In this country today, religion is the continuation of politics by other means. We have a political religion which has become an instrument of political combat.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah, I think political religion is the phenomenon of our times, because that’s true in this country. That’s what we now call Islamism or Islamist radicalism is a politicized movement arising out of Islam, and actually even in India. You know, even Hinduism. Of all things Hinduism, which you wouldn’t conceive of as having a kind of radical dimension, has in the last 25 or 30 years developed a radical and intolerant strain. And there is now a kind of radical Hinduism.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that? Is it because secularism has failed? And I’m a great believer in secular democracy: You believe what you want to, I believe what I want to, but we don’t bring religion to the settlement of our political differences.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I agree.
BILL MOYERS: So what’s happened?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think, you know, certainly in India, in the the foundation of India the great founding fathers of India, like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were absolutely convinced that to secularize India was the only way actually of keeping the various communities safe. That in order to avoid a repetition of the bloodshed of partition, you had to not allow any religious community to dominate any other. And therefore India was given a secular constitution. Now what’s happening, I do think, in a certain way, is that many people perceive failures in secularism. I think if you look at the rise of Islamic radicalism you can say that the rule of the Ayatollahs was created by the failures of the secularist Shah of Iran. And his—
BILL MOYERS: Our good buddy.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: And great tyrant. You could say that in Algeria a secular leftist revolution essentially became a fat cat corrupt regime. And people disillusioned with that revolution and its party move towards extremist religious parties in response. So you can look in different parts of the world and see the growth of religious fanaticism as being a response to a sort of disillusion with secularism.
BILL MOYERS: I have something in my file that you wrote in 1991. “Politics no longer ask why or whether questions but only how. It does not ask what kind of world we wish to live in. It does not analyze the consequences of the choices that are made for us. Nor does it address itself to the grievances and achings of the soul.” What makes you think politics can address the grievings or achings of the soul? Isn’t that for religion and literature to do?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, it often has done. If you look at, for example, in this country politicians have offered visions of the future. You know, they’ve offered new deals or new frontiers, or whatever. You know—
BILL MOYERS: Or great societies.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Or great societies. And they’ve said here is a way for the nation– the idea of the nation itself is in a way a concept which relates to people moving through time together towards a better world. And sometimes politicians have been able to harness that sense. And to say, here’s how we’re going do it together. You know, we’re going to build the future like this. And people have often been excited by and responded to that vision. In the civil rights movement, people like Dr. King offered a vision like that and people responded to it.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s a very old biblical concept to some of us. You know, where there is no vision, says the Hebrew Bible, the people perish.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes. And they see in India this is exactly what Gandhi did. And you can criticize Gandhi in various ways but the thing that he did, which nobody else could do, was to take these hundreds of millions of people in India and turn them into a mass movement of liberation. The Congress Party until Gandhi had essentially been an elitist talk shop. And it was Gandhi’s ability to understand how ordinary people thought and felt and what moved them. That he was able to go out into the masses of India and say actually we need to do something about this empire, we need to control our own future. We need to build our own world and our own country, and to mobilize the masses of the country. So there are in history moments when political visions do seem to encompass the longings of ordinary people.
BILL MOYERS: So do you think the rise of conservative fundamentalist religion is in response to the failure of politics?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: It is, I think, a kind of retreat. I think it’s people saying that the modern world and the way of doing things is not to our taste, and we want to look instead for eternal verities— truths that we can build a house on.
BILL MOYERS: And in a time of crisis such as 9/11 people will send an SOS. They will cry out for some absolute power to rescue them from the calamity, the chaos, the terror that’s around them. Right?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I think that’s right. And I think that does something to explain what’s happening here. And I think, as we were saying, other failures, other calamities in other parts of the world explain it there.
BILL MOYERS: I also have in my file something you told NEWSWEEK.You said quote, “To try and find the spiritual life without mentioning the name of God is a stupid thing to do.”
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah, it’s because we don’t have a vocabulary for it. You know, I mean if you look at the way in which our languages have developed so much of our sense of the transcendent, our sense of ourselves beyond our physical being has always been expressed in religious terms. That it’s actually very hard to find the vocabulary to go in that direction. What do we mean by the word soul, for example, if we’re not religious? And yet whether we’re religious or not, we have some relationship with that word. We think it means something. And I’ve been trying all my life in a way to try and find a language to express our sense of what is not material without having recourse to the ready-made ideas of religions.
BILL MOYERS: But you say it’s stupid to try to do that without using the word God.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, it’s stupid as a novelist because, you see, frankly if I’m writing about a place like India it doesn’t matter that I’m not religious because all the people I’m writing about are. So for me to create those people believably as characters I have to recognize who they are and what they believe. So it becomes irrelevant in a way, what I believe. You become the servant of your characters. And if your characters are religious you have to deal with God.
BILL MOYERS: But wait a minute — are you looking to define what you call a spiritual life only as a writer, or are you ever seduced, tempted —
SALMAN RUSHDIE: No, no, no.
BILL MOYERS: — into thinking that for yourself?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: No, no. Oh, no.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t have a spiritual—
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I’m— I’m a hard-line atheist I have to say.
BILL MOYERS: I know. But what- but 100 percent dyed-in-the-wool atheist saying you have to invoke the name of God to —
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I know.
BILL MOYERS: — get to a spiritual life.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes, atheists are obsessed with God you may have noticed.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, I think the best arguments about God come from atheists.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes, there’s a famous, the great Spanish film director, Luis Bunuel, once teased his friends by saying that he wanted his epitaph on his tombstone to read: “Thank God I die an atheist.” And they were all so upset that he had to tell them he was just kidding.
BILL MOYERS: I was in New York’s marvelous Riverside Church on Sunday. The music was so powerful and majestic and transcendent to use your term that I thought of something you delivered many years ago in Kings College Chapel —
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — in England. You said quote, “To stand in this house is to be reminded of what is most beautiful about religious faith. It’s ability to give solace and to inspire. It’s aspiration to these great and lovely heights in which strength and delicacy are so perfectly conjoined.” More recently you said “Religion is the poison in the blood.” So which is it? Poison in the blood or the muse of inspiration?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, it’s both. Of course it is. It’s both. And religion at its best builds Kings College Chapel. It builds the great masterpieces of the gothic arts. And I do believe that religion at its best has given people profound solace in the travails of life. And—
BILL MOYERS: And at its worst?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: And at its worst it murders people.
BILL MOYERS: Poison in the blood.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah, and I think I’ve lived long enough to see both. You can see how ugly religion can get, and you stand in Kings College Chapel you can see how beautiful it can get.
BILL MOYERS: Which makes me wonder. You know, we all know that religion has a healing side. But we also know it has a killing side. So I wonder if it’s really something else than religion that tips the balance. Is it politics? Is it psychology? What is it?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, it can be I think some mixture of all those things. You know, because I think religion, if you like, answers needs within us. Now those needs, of course, are other than religion. Those needs may be to do with our sense of void in the world. It may be to do with our sense of personal inadequacy. It might be to do with a desire for community. You know, and for kind of mingling ourselves with others. People respond to religion for many, many, many different reasons. And it may be, you’re right, that the thing that can tip them over into violence can also be to do with that need. Or the lack they feel within themselves. So we are all in many ways wounded creatures I think, human beings. Life knocks us about and then we die. So I think the wounds, you know, can manifest themselves in all kinds of behavior. Some of which is very unpleasant.
BILL MOYERS: You know, when I went to India the first time in the 1960’s, there were more gods per capita there than I’d ever seen anywhere. It was almost as if there was one god per person walking.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: That’s really almost true. I think it’s a very personal-service deity.
BILL MOYERS: But God was not an abstraction. These people talked about God as if God was sitting there having tea or walking down the street or sweeping the street.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah, and I think that was important to me in shaping the kind of writing that I did, because if you live in a world in which people believe that the miraculous is not some abstraction, you know it’s not just some theory, but that the miraculous co-exists with the everyday, literally in the public streets.
BILL MOYERS: The miraculous and the mundane.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Are always there. You know, the gods are bumping into you in the street, and if you need something in your life, you know, if you’re going up for a job interview or you want marry a girl, or, you know, somebody’s ill in the family, and you go and make an offering to the relevant god, you believe that that will have a beneficial effect. So you believe that the gods are there amongst you all the time. And it gives one as a writer a different sense, if you like, of realism. If—
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, sure.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: If a billion people think that, you’ve got to take it into account.
BILL MOYERS: Was religion a part of your life there?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, my grandfather, my mother’s father, was deeply religious, and he, um, was a believing Muslim. He went on the pilgrimage to Mecca. All his life he said his prayers five times a day, and he was just about the most tolerant and open-minded man I knew. And I mean, even now, I mean he’s long dead, but for me, he still represents a kind of model of open-mindedness and tolerance.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever say, “Grandfather, tell me about God?”
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yeah, well, I would say: “Grandfather, I’m not sure I believe in God.”
BILL MOYERS: You would say that?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I would say. He’d say, “Sit down here and tell me how you got such a dumb idea.” You know? But he would be completely–you could talk about anything to him, in other words. He– he would say his prayers as I say all the time, and he had flocks of grandchildren heckling him, asking him why he was constantly prostrating himself and he would take it all in very good humor.
BILL MOYERS: You recently went out to a very conservative Christian college in Michigan, Calvin College. And there was a lot of debate about your coming there. Some people said, well we shouldn’t be listening to an atheist. Some students said no, no, we want to hear what this man who has been wrestling with issues of faith and reason in his own work. We want to hear what he says. What do you have to say to Christian young people like that?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: I think it’s very interesting to speak to really openly religious audiences. I think, in many ways, you get a very rigorous hearing. And it’s good. It puts you on your philosophical mettle, if you like. You have to argue your corner. And you have to expect that people will have powerful and well thought through counter-arguments. And I think that’s exactly what the world should be like. The world should be a place in which people debate fiercely from well-argued and thought-out but different positions.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re saying that faith doesn’t have to be unreasonable.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: No. It doesn’t have to be; and often is not.
BILL MOYERS: How do you think the fundamentalists see an atheist? How do you think you are seen in their eyes?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Oh, they— as somebody entirely without a moral sense. That’s to say, it is, in a way, I think one of the weaknesses of religious argument. That they argue that you cannot have a moral life unless you accept the moral code, which is defended by an ultimate arbiter of whatever god it might be. Or godhead it might be, in the case of polytheisms. My view has been, quite simply, that religion has been one of the ways in which human beings, throughout history, have tried to codify and organize their moral sense of the world. But that’s to say, I would argue, that our sense of good and evil, our sense of right and wrong, our moral sense precedes religion. It’s not created by it. It is, in fact, what creates our need for religion. So if we can accept that, as human beings, there’s something intrinsic in us, which wishes to have an understanding of right and wrong, and that religion is an expression of that, then of course, you can find other expressions of that, which are not formal religions. And I think the history of the last couple hundred years will show there’s been much philosophy, much thinking, precisely about this. How do you base a moral view of the world on a non-religious platform?
BILL MOYERS: How do you respond to their argument, that without an absolute God, from whom come universal truths, we will simply descend on that slippery slope of relativism that leads us into anarchy?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well I think relativism is a dangerous slope. I think if we simply see that we all have different ideas, and we have to live and let live, that can lead to a terrible situation. I mean, for example, if one set of people believes that it’s okay to stone women to death for adultery, is it all right? Should we then say, “Oh, well, that’s their culture; we should let them go ahead and do it.” So I think even when you have conflicting moral codes, all of which claim the support of some kind of ultimate arbiter, we still have to exercise a moral choice between them.
BILL MOYERS: Moral as opposed to religious— as a religious belief might confirm or condone that.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Exactly. So my view is that morality is previous to religion. And that religion is an expression of various people at various times’ relationship with morality.
BILL MOYERS: What is morality?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, it’s — it’s, as I say, I think something intrinsic in us which wishes to distinguish between right and wrong. And I think we are hard-wired to it. You know, in the way that scientists now believe that language is an instinct. That we’re kind of hard-wired to develop it. And I think that morality is somewhere in there in the DNA. That we are created, born as creatures who wish to know, is it okay to do this or not okay to do this? And we ask ourselves that question all the time. And religion is one of the answers. But it’s in my view only one of the ways. Well, it’s a lot of the answers. But it’s perfectly possible for me to say that we can as civilized people create moral codes to live by which do not need that ultimate arbiter. And one answer to the question is democracy. And it seems to me that what happens in a democracy is that we don’t have an absolute view of what is right and wrong. We have an argument about it. And the argument never ends. We have a continuing argument about what’s okay and what’s not okay. At a certain point, we believe that slavery’s okay. At the later point, the argument develops and we decide — in that case with a lot of bloodshed — we decide that slavery’s not okay. At a certain point we believe that women should not have the vote. Or that only property holders should have the vote. At another point the argument proceeds and we say that that’s not right, and that everybody, you know, we have universal suffrage. So it seems to me that that argument is freedom. It’s not to win the argument, you know, because actually nobody ever wins that argument. But the argument itself is freedom.
BILL MOYERS: Five years later how does 9/11 figure in your mind?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I do think that it was a hinge moment. And if only because it showed us that we’re now inescapably involved with each other. We can’t disengage. There’s no way, even if America wanted to return to a kind of fortress America isolationist policy, there’s no real way in which America can do that. The world is too interpenetrated. Our political institutions, our financial institution, our armies, our populations are too intermingled.
BILL MOYERS: What does that mean practically, in terms of the radical Islamists that you write so often about?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, I think there is so much mutual incomprehension between the West and the rest of the world. Out of that incomprehension can come many abuses, many morbid symptoms. And I think as writers and as artists it is a thing which every writer I know is thinking about. Is how do you deal with that incomprehension? How do you lessen that incomprehension? And I think there are many ways in which you can do it as writers. There is of course factual writing, there’s reportage. And I think people have rushed out to inform themselves better about parts of the world they don’t know about. But I do think there’s also a crucial role for the imaginative dimension, because we need to understand imaginatively who each other is.
BILL MOYERS: Is America doomed to live under a fatwah as you did? Under the threat of terrorism for a long time, as you did?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Yes, but I mean, I think, you know, everywhere is dangerous now. The world is not a safe place; and there are no safe corners of it. And actually, there probably never have been. I think, in a way, America was insulated from that for a while by the enormous power of America. But even that no longer insulates. So I think we do have to accept that the world is like that now. It’s something I’ve written quite a bit about, that the answer to terrorism is not to be terrorized, you know, and it becomes important to continue—
BILL MOYERS: Last night we stood openly on the plaza before Cooper Union. And I thought what a change in this man’s life since he was released from that threat of death, that fatwah. Do you ever feel a tremor when you’re out in public like that?
SALMAN RUSHDIE: No, no, no really it’s been— I mean it’s just, as you say, it’s a great delight to have regained ordinary life. Because ordinary life is what you most miss. It’s just, you know, taking the subway. I mean it’s ridiculous to say so. That’s the kind of thing that you miss.
BILL MOYERS: You seem perfectly comfortable there, I was a little nervous.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Nah, it’s alright. It’s alright. Allow me to comfort you.
BILL MOYERS: Ok. Thank you very much Salman Rushdie.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening, visit Bill Moyers.com to watch Salman Rushdie read from THE SATANIC VERSES and to learn more about the Faith and Reason series.