Thursday, October 06, 2005

An Evening With Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie was in town, promoting his new book Shalimar the Clown. He was interviewed on KQED Monday morning, and in the evening I went for his book reading at a bookstore in Mountain View. Though I am not into English literature I am aware that Salman Rushdie is one of the literary giants of our day, and he was largely responsible for ushering in a new era of Indian writing in English with Midnight’s Children. I have also read his occasional columns and op-ed pieces with great interest. Rushdie's new book has got a very poor review in the New York Times. Though I've not read the new book, the story does seem somewhat artificial - a Kashmiri village girl running away with the American Ambassador! The American angle seems forced - maybe it is in the book in order to engage American audiences and connect with the American experience with terrorism. It appears that none of Rushdie's recent books display the brilliance of his earlier work. In any case, no way was I going to miss this event. Other than the fact that the bookstore was packed and I had to stand through the event, it was a very enjoyable evening - the Q&A session more so than the book reading itself. I got a copy of Midnight’s Children signed by him.

A couple of things from Salman Rushdie’s interview and his talk stood out. One was his critique of the Tony Blair government’s handling of Muslim extremism in Britain. Apparently their approach is to ally with the most orthodox elements in British Muslim society that are willing to denounce terrorism. The leader of this group is one Sir Iqbal S. While this group and its leader do indeed denounce terrorism, they also happen to follow a very conservative (medievalistic ?) form of Islam. Rushdie thinks that such people are not truly representative of British Muslim society. I got the impression that the British govt., like many non-Muslim leaders think that the more conservative (some equate conservative to authentic) Muslim leader they can get to denounce terrorism, the more weight the denunciation carries. We often see examples of this approach – statements from non-Muslim leaders like “this famous cleric has denounced terrorism” or “the Koran promotes peace”, etc. The logic is that if even a conservative cleric denounces terrorism or if the Koran itself does so, then surely the jihadists are mistaken. I find this approach to be fundamentally flawed. I think that by saying that terrorism is bad (or that women should be treated equally, etc.) because a cleric says so or because the Koran says so, we are only legitimizing the power of clerics. It is implied in our statement that if the cleric had claimed the opposite (i.e., that terrorism is acceptable), then it would be ok to blow up innocent people. Instead of trying to make use of the authority of conservative Muslims, I think we should simply tell young Muslims that terrorism is bad (or that women should be treated equally) because it is a self-evident and fundamental truth – a truth that does not require endorsement from anybody, let alone from conservative Muslims.

Another interesting topic that Rushdie talked about was the connection between repentance and forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness are often considered to be intimately related to each other. However, as Rushdie very rightly and very insightfully pointed out, this is not so. Repentance and forgiveness are completely independent of each other. Repentance is done by the repenter while forgiveness comes from the forgiver. Often even serious repentance is not reciprocated by forgiveness, while at other times forgiveness is offered even without any corresponding repentance. Many other considerations and/or feelings go into repentance/forgiveness than just the repentance/forgiveness of the other side, for e.g., a winning personality may be enough to win forgiveness, or “if I don’t forgive my spouse, then I will be left all alone”, etc.

A recording of Salman Rushdie's interview with Michael Krasny on KQED radio can be found here.

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