Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Thinking of Rushdie

Published in NY Times on July 1, 1993

hen I sat down to write this morning, the first thing I did was think of Salman Rushdie. I have done this every morning for more than four years, and by now it is an essential part of my daily routine. I pick up my pen, and before I begin to write, I think of my fellow novelist across the ocean.

I pray that his English protectors will keep him hidden from the people who are out to murder him. They have already killed one of his translators and wounded another since his novel "The Satanic Verses" brought the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death sentence down on his head because it was seen as blaspheming Islam.

I pray for this man, but deep down I know I am also praying for myself. His life is in danger because he wrote a book, and I know that if not for the quirks of history and pure blind luck I could be in his shoes. If not today, perhaps tomorrow.

Talents vary, ambitions vary, but any committed writer will tell you the same thing: To write a work of fiction, one must be free to say what one has to say. I have exercised that freedom with every word I have written -- and so has Salman Rushdie. That is why his predicament is also mine.

I can't know how I would act in his place, but I can imagine it -- or at least I can try to imagine it. In all honesty, I'm not sure I would be capable of the courage he has shown. The man's life is in ruins, and yet he has continued to do the thing he was born to do.

Shunted from one safe house to another, cut off from his son, surrounded by security police, he has continued to go to his desk every day and write.

Knowing how difficult it is to do this even under the best of circumstances, I can only stand in awe of what he has accomplished. A novel, another novel in the works, a number of extraordinary essays and speeches defending the basic human right to free expression.

All that is remarkable enough, but what truly astonishes me is that on top of this essential work, he has taken the time to review other people's books -- even to write blurbs promoting the books of unknown authors. Is it possible for a man in his position to think of anyone but himself? Apparently, it is. But I wonder how many of us could do what he has done with our backs against that same wall.

Salman Rushdie is fighting for his life. The struggle has gone on for nearly half a decade, and we are no closer to a solution. Like so many others, I wish there was something I could do to help. Frustration mounts, despair sets in, but given that I have neither the power nor the influence to affect the decisions of foreign governments, the most I can do is pray for him.

He is carrying the burden for all of us, and I can no longer think of what I do without thinking of him. His plight has focused my concentration, has made me re-examine my beliefs and has taught me never to take the freedom I enjoy for granted.

For all that, I owe him an immense debt of gratitude. I support Salman Rushdie in his struggle to win back his life, but the truth is that he has also supported me. I want to thank him for that. Every time I pick up my pen, I want to thank him.

Paul Auster is author, most recently, of "Leviathan," a novel, and "The Art of Hunger," a book of essays.

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