I recently listened to David Remnick’s interview of Salman Rushdie–his first since barely surviving attempted murder by a young man not even born at the time Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination in 1989. He took the opportunity primarily to talk about his latest book, Victory City, but along the way talked about the attack on him, the impact of the fatwa on him, and democracy and history in India, England, and the United States. There are many places to listen to and/or watch the full interview, as well as reading Remnick’s piece in The New Yorker.
Toward the end of the interview, Rushdie’s response to one of Remnick’s questions did an excellent job of summarizing the danger democracy faces in all the places he is connected to by birth, education, and citizenship. I’ve attempted to transcribe Rushdie’s spoken words below, emphasizing what stood out most to me:
The problem in India is this, that the current government, which to people of my way of thinking is alarming, is very popular. It’s the difference for example between India and Trump. Trump was only just about popular. And his level of unpopularity was at least as high as his popularity, that’s not so in India because the Modi government is very popular in India, has huge support. And that makes it possible for them to get away with it. To create this very autocratic state which is unkind to minorities, which is fantastically oppressive of journalists, where people are very afraid. Which in a way it’s getting to be difficult to call it a democracy.
A democracy is not just who wins the election, it’s whether you feel safe in the country whether you voted for the government or not. India has a problem. The way in which this book just marginally engages with it is that it takes on the subject of sectarianism, and tries to say this is not the history of India. The history of India is much more complicated than that. It’s not that there was an ancient culture that another culture came in and destroyed, that’s a false description of the past.
And as we know we live in a world in which false descriptions of the past are being used everywhere to justify terrible behavior in the present. England pretending there’s a golden age before any foreigners showed up, and completing ignoring the fact that they were <expletive> over foreigners in their countries in order to make possible their wealth and affluence at home. America, talking about being great again. I want to know when was that? What was the date? It was obviously before the Civil Rights Act. Was it before women had the vote? Was it when there was still slavery? What are we hark[en]ing back to? A fantasy past becomes a way of justifying bad behavior today.“David Remnick interview with Salman Rushdie from February 6, 2023
India’s Ministry of Finance searching the offices of the BBC in New Delhi and Mumbai and accusing them of tax evasion so soon after their airing of a show critical of Prime Minister Modi is exactly the point Rushdie was making about oppression of journalists. Shireen Abu Aqla was shot in the head and killed in the West Bank, likely by a soldier in the Israeli military (according to their own investigation). Here in the U.S., police arrested, shot, and tear-gassed numerous journalists covering protests that occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Ali Velshi and his team of journalists were shot by rubber bullets from police during a live broadcast. A photojournalist named Lindo Tirado was shot by police with a non-lethal round and lost sight in one eye as a result. At least one journalist was arrested, handcuffed, and taken away while in the middle of a live broadcast. Nearly three years later, I haven’t seen any evidence of disciplinary action against the cops who did all this shooting.
Rushdie’s definition of democracy was an especially interesting one to me. My parents’ native Jamaica has a long history of political violence where the party you supported could have the most serious consequences for your physical well-being. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written about mob violence and vigilantism occurring w/ the knowledge and consent of political parties not just in India, but elsewhere in southern Asia (https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/09/03/political-violence-in-south-asia-triumph-of-state-pub-82641). Here in the U.S., video from some of these school board meetings, heavily-armed people protesting COVID restrictions, threats and harassment of election workers, voter intimidation, and the insurrection at the Capitol in 2021 make me worry that we’re returning to the sort of political violence which was once the stuff of history books.
What Rushdie says about false or fantasy pasts being used to justify bad behavior in the present resonated the most strongly with me because of how much present bad behavior it explains. Putin comparing himself to Peter the Great as he rationalizes his continuing invasion of Ukraine is a present example. The MAGA movement led by Donald Trump (though leadership of that movement is being quite vigorously contested now) is certainly another. The conservative Christian groups I’ve written about previously are certainly harkening back to a pre-Civil Rights Movement point in American history as the place to which they want the entire country to return. In retrospect, even some of the rulings of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court are explained by this framing. As I wrote last year after the leak of Alito’s draft opinion which would ultimately overturn Roe vs Wade, black men and women had no rights the government was bound to respect and (white) women were scarcely better off than that. I’m old enough now to remember a culture warrior from decades earlier, Pat Buchanan, harkening back to what (in my memory at least) was probably the Revolutionary War with his “ride to the sound of the guns” catchphrase.
Beyond Rushdie’s clear-eyed views of India, England, and the United States, his life speaks volumes regarding how petty and small what we call “cancel culture” today really is. The list of detractors regarding his novel The Satanic Verses is quite long, and included Prince (now King) Charles, John le Carré, Roald Dahl, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the British Foreign Secretary, and Jimmy Carter, among others. Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) agreed with the fatwa calling for Rushdie to be murdered. Remnick’s piece includes the following shameful remark from the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper:
I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them. If that should cause him thereafter to control his pen, society would benefit, and literature would not suffer.”The Defiance of Salman Rushdie, by David Remnick, The New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2023 Issue
Trevor-Roper’s remark can only be seen as more gruesome in the light of attempted and successful murders of translators of the book into Italian and Japanese, the attempted murder of the book’s Norwegian publisher, and the firebombing of bookstores that carried it. In light of the rough reception his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid would receive less than two decades later, I wonder if former president Carter ever revisited and revised his opinion of Rushdie’s book. Rushdie proves far more gracious to at least one of his critics than they were to him:
Meanwhile, the New York Times published a defense of J.K. Rowling–using Rushdie as an example of what could happen to her if she continued to be criticized–just a day after hundreds of current and former New York Times contributors published an open letter critical of the paper’s coverage of trans people. Rowling, like Rushdie, was a signatory of the Letter on Justice and Open Debate published in Harper’s Magazine a couple of years ago. The ways in which the two signatories choose to use their free speech (one to attack trans people, the other to write novels) couldn’t be more different, but the New York Times (predictably, in my view) treats them as the same. I still believe, as I wrote then, that the signatories of the Harper’s letter were asking that “controversial” speech be somehow more privileged than other speech. But Rushdie has paid a far higher price for his art–from other artists and his own government (beyond the one that actually issued the fatwa)–than Rowling has paid (or will ever pay) for using her substantial platform to punch down at a community that has been, and continues to be under siege.