October 22, 2007

Cornell Welcomes Acclaimed Author

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In 1989, two book stores in Berkeley, California were bombed for carrying Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. In Great Britain, Muslim outrage erupted in five bombings and two staged book burnings. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers. By the end of the year, 11 Islamic countries had banned the novel. And while it would seem impossible to utter Rushdie’s name without inciting an uproar, the Cornell community was all but amicable throughout his reading last Thursday night in Uris Auditorium. No books were burned, no protests staged. The Cornell Store remains intact.
The sold-out reading, hosted by the Department of English Program in Creative Writing, was preceded by a panel discussion held earlier Thursday afternoon, in which Cornell professors and students alike had the opportunity to ask Rushdie questions in an intimate environment.
During the discussion, Rushdie addressed topics ranging from politics and the Middle East to literature and writing, arriving, ultimately, at the essence of human nature.
“We are a language animal,” Rushdie said. “If you take language away from us, you take something essential. The question of speech goes to the essence of what kind of creature we are.”
Rushdie spoke with authority on the subject of free speech. After Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against him, Rushdie was forced to leave his home and live under the constant threat of violence from Muslims who believed his writing had defamed the prophet Muhammad. After this period, which he described as “horrible, difficult and trying,” Rushdie took refuge in several Western countries, where he was able to resume his writing career.
“[The West] is the place where we can disagree with our governments and not be killed. It is to be valued,” Rushdie said.
“The first amendment is the single thing that people value about the U.S.,” Rushdie said, adding, after a short pause, “except the career of Tom Cruise, of course.”
Rushdie’s witticisms kept the audience laughing. After an audience member asked how Rushdie is able to write with such “verbal gymnastics,” he replied, abruptly, “I go to the verbal gym.”
Yet Rushdie’s humor was only temporal, yielding frequently to more serious, controversial matters. Rushdie, who grew up in Mumbai, India, warned against the propensity of developing countries to blame Western superpowers for their problems.
“It’s [their] own damn fault,” Rushdie said.
On the subject of Islamic fundamentalism, which he has experienced first hand, Rushdie expressed his desire to hear a moderate Muslim voice “more clearly.” He said the isolation of conservative Muslim communities in the metropolitan West, in particular in Great Britain, is “very alarming.”
Still, the overall reaction to Rushdie’s visit, which consisted of readings from two of his novels and one nonfiction essay, was positive. The audience did not question his stance on Islam, which has been the subject of so much of the controversy surrounding him.
Outside of the event, however, Islamic organizations did express some concern.
“I personally think that [Rushdie] should be praised for his literary contributions,” said Aniq Rahman, vice president of Cornell’s Islamic Alliance for Justice, “but should also be more sensitive to what he has to say regarding Islam in his books.”
Mhadi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society, the self-proclaimed “largest Muslim grassroots organization” in America, recognized Rushdie’s right to speak at Cornell, even though he designated Rushdie’s work as “blasphemy” against Islam.
“I don’t like what he said, but he has the right to say it. Blasphemy is not considered speech that can be stopped,” Bray said.
Although Bray said he does not support the fatwa issued for Rushdie’s execution, he does support Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, who has said, publicly, that the appropriate punishment for Rushdie is death.
“It is too bad our government doesn’t respect our right to have Cat Stevens come to the U.S.,” Bray said, remarking on Stevens’ denied entry to the U.S. in 2004.
When informed of Stevens’ support for the fatwa, Bray replied that he was not familiar with this information, which was published in March 1989 by the Christian Science Monitor and again in May of that year by The New York Times.
Thus, while there was little, if any, vocal opposition to Rushdie’s visit on campus, the issue of Rushdie’s right to free speech versus, what is perceived to be, his blasphemous account of Islam is still present.
In July 2007, drawings of the Islamic prophet by Swedish artist Lars Vilks elicited a statement from the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, announcing a reward of “$100,000 for the one who kills” the artist.
Before the drawings were published, three Swedish art galleries denied Vilks publication based on security concerns — an act which Rushdie would have admonished.
It was, according to Rushdie, the owners of the bookstores who continued to carry his novel on display, despite bomb threats, that enabled him to continue writing.
“Those people did not turn tail and run,” Rushdie said to a packed Uris Auditorium Thursday night. “That’s the reason we can be here today.”