Excerpts From Rushdie Address: 1,000 Days 'Trapped Inside a Metaphor'
20 Dec, 2006
Published on December 12, 1991in New York Times
Following are excerpts from a speech at Columbia University last night by Salman Rushdie. The speech was adapted from a forthcoming essay titled "One Thousand Days in a Balloon":
A hot-air balloon drifts slowly over a bottomless chasm, carrying several passengers. A leak develops. . . . The wounded balloon can bear just one passenger to safety. . . . But who should live, who should die? And who could make such a choice?
In point of fact, debating societies everywhere regularly make such choices without qualms, because of course what I've described is the given situation of that evergreen favorite, the Balloon Debate, in which, as the speakers argue over the relative merits and demerits of the well-known figures they have placed in disaster's mouth, the assembled company blithely accepts the faintly unpleasant idea that a human being's right to life is increased or diminished by his or her virtues or vices -- that we may be born equal but thereafter our lives weigh very differently in the scales.
. . .
I have now spent over a thousand days in just such a balloon; but, alas, this isn't a game. For most of these thousand days, my fellow-travelers included the Western hostages in Lebanon, and the British businessmen imprisoned in Iran and Iraq, Roger Cooper and Ian Richter. And I had to accept, and did accept, that for most of my countrymen and countrywomen, my plight counted for less than the others'. In any choice between us, I'd have been the first to be pitched out of the basket and into the abyss. "Our lives teach us who we are," I wrote at the end of my essay "In Good Faith." Some of the lessons have been harsh, and difficult to learn.
Trapped inside a metaphor, I've often felt the need to redescribe it, to change the terms. This isn't so much a balloon, I've wanted to say, as a bubble, within which I'm simultaneously exposed and sealed off. The bubble floats above and through the world, depriving me of reality, reducing me to an abstraction. For many people, I've ceased to be a human being. I've become an issue, a bother, an "affair." . . . And has it really been so long since religions persecuted people, burning them as heretics, drowning them as witches, that you can't recognize religious persecution when you see it? . . .
What is my single life worth? Despair whispers in my ear: "Not a lot." But I refuse to give in to despair . . . because . . . I know that many people do care, and are appalled by the . . . upside-down logic of the post- fatwa world, in which a . . . novelist can be accused of having savaged or "mugged" a whole community, becoming its tormentor (instead of its . . . victim) and the scapegoat for . . . its discontents. . . . (What minority is smaller and weaker than a minority of one?)
I refuse to give in to despair even though, for a thousand days and more, I've been put through a degree course in worthlessness, my own personal and specific worthlessness. My first teachers were the mobs marching down distant boulevards, baying for my blood, and finding, soon enough, their echoes on English streets. . . . At first, as I watched the marchers, I felt them trampling on my heart.
. . .
Sometimes I think that one day, Muslims will be ashamed of what Muslims did in these times, will find the "Rushdie affair" as improbable as the West now finds martyr-burning. One day they may agree that -- as the European Enlightenment demonstrated -- freedom of thought is precisely freedom from religious control, freedom from accusations of blasphemy. Maybe they'll agree, too, that the row over "The Satanic Verses" was at bottom an argument about who should have power over the grand narrative, the Story of Islam, and that that power must belong equally to everyone. That even if my novel were incompetent, its attempt to retell the story would still be important. That if I've failed, others must succeed, because those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
One day. Maybe. But not today.
. . .
Back in the balloon, something longed-for and heartening has happened. On this occasion, mirabile dictu, the many have not been sacrificed, but saved. That is to say, my companions, the Western hostages and the jailed businessmen, have by good fortune and the efforts of others managed to descend safely to earth, and have been reunited with their . . . own, free lives. I rejoice for them, and admire their courage, their resilience. And now I'm alone in the balloon.
Surely I'll be safe now? Surely . . . the balloon will drop safely towards some nearby haven? . . . Surely it's my turn now?
But the balloon is . . . still sinking. I realize that it's carrying a great deal of valuable freight. Trading relations, armaments deals, the balance of power in the Gulf -- these and other matters . . . are weighing it down. . . . I hear voices suggesting that if I stay aboard, this precious cargo will be endangered. The national interest is being redefined; am I being redefined out of it? Am I to be jettisoned from the balloon, after all?
When Britain renewed relations with Iran at the United Nations in 1990, . . . British officials . . . assured me unambiguously that something very substantial had been achieved on my behalf. The Iranians . . . had secretly agreed to forget the fatwa. . . . They would "neither encourage nor allow" their citizens, surrogates or proxies to act against me. Oh, how I wanted to believe that! But in the year-and-a-bit that followed, we saw the fatwa restated in Iran, the bounty money doubled, the book's Italian translator severely wounded, its Japanese translator stabbed to death; there was news of an attempt to find and kill me by contract killers working directly for the Iranian Government. . . .
It seems reasonable to deduce that the secret deal made at the United Nations hasn't worked. Dismayingly, however, the talk as I write is all of improving relations with Iran still further. . . . Is this a balloon I'm in, or the dustbin of history?
Let me be clear: There is nothing I can do to break this impasse. The fatwa was politically motivated to begin with, it remains a breach of international law, and it can only be solved at the political level. To effect the release of the Western hostages in Lebanon, great levers were moved . . . for the businessman Mr. Richter, 70 million pounds in frozen Iraqi assets were "thawed." What, then, is a novelist under terrorist attack worth?
Despair murmurs, once again: "Not a plugged nickel."
But I refuse to give in to despair.
You may ask why I'm so sure there's nothing I can do to help myself. . . .
At the end of 1990, dispirited and demoralized . . . I faced my deepest grief, my . . . sorrow at having been torn away from . . . the cultures and societies from which I'd always drawn my . . . inspiration -- that is, the broad community of British Asians . . . the broader community of Indian Muslims. I determined to make my peace with Islam, even at the cost of my pride. Those who were surprised and displeased by what I did perhaps failed to see that . . . I wanted to make peace between the warring halves of the world, which were also the warring halves of my soul. . . .
The really important conversations I had in this period were with myself.
I said: Salman, you must send a message loud enough to . . . make ordinary Muslims see that you aren't their enemy, and you must make the West understand a little more of the complexity of Muslim culture . . ., and start thinking a little less stereotypically. . . . And I said to myself: Admit it, Salman, the Story of Islam has a deeper meaning for you than any of the other grand narratives. Of course you're no mystic, mister. . . . No supernaturalism, no literalist orthodoxies . . . for you. But Islam doesn't have to mean blind faith. It can mean what it always meant in your family, a culture, a civilization, as open-minded as your grandfather was, as delightedly disputatious as your father was. . . . Don't let the zealots make Muslim a terrifying word, I urged myself; remember when it meant family . . . .
I reminded myself that I had always argued that it was necessary to develop the nascent concept of the "secular Muslim," who, like the secular Jew, affirmed his membership of the culture while being separate from the theology. . . . But, Salman, I told myself, you can't argue from outside the debating chamber. You've got to cross the threshold, go inside the room, and then fight for your humanized, historicized, secularized way of being a Muslim. . . .
It was with such things in mind -- and with my thoughts in a state of some confusion and torment -- that I spoke the Muslim creed before witnesses. But my fantasy of joining the fight for the modernization of Muslim thought . . . was stillborn. It never really had a chance. Too many people had spent too long demonizing or totemizing me to listen seriously to what I had to say. In the West, some "friends" turned against me, calling me by yet another set of insulting names. Now I was spineless, pathetic, debased; I had betrayed myself, my Cause; above all, I had betrayed them .
I also found myself up against the granite, heartless certainties of Actually Existing Islam, by which I mean the political and priestly power structure that presently dominates and stifles Muslim societies. Actually Existing Islam has failed to create a free society anywhere on Earth, and it wasn't about to let me, of all people, argue in favor of one. Suddenly I was (metaphorically) among people whose social attitudes I'd fought all my life -- for example, their attitudes about women (one Islamicist boasted to me that his wife would cut his toenails while he made telephone calls, and suggested I find such a spouse) or about gays (one of the Imams I met in December 1990 was on TV soon afterwards, denouncing Muslim gays as sick creatures who brought shame on their families and who ought to seek medical and psychiatric help). . . .
I reluctantly concluded that there was no way for me to help bring into being the Muslim culture I'd dreamed of, the progressive, irreverent, skeptical, argumentative, playful and unafraid culture which is what I've always understood as freedom. . . . Actually Existing Islam . . . which makes literalism a weapon and redescription a crime, will never let the likes of me in.
Ibn Rushd's ideas were silenced in their time. And throughout the Muslim world today, progressive ideas are in retreat. Actually Existing Islam reigns supreme, and just as the recently destroyed "Actually Existing Socialism" of the Soviet terror-state was horrifically unlike the utopia of peace and equality of which democratic socialists have dreamed, so also is Actually Existing Islam a force to which I have never given in, to which I cannot submit.
There is a point beyond which conciliation looks like capitulation. I do not believe I passed that point, but others have thought otherwise.
I have never disowned "The Satanic Verses", nor regretted writing it. I said I was sorry to have offended people, because I had not set out to do so, and so I am. I explained that writers do not agree with every word spoken by every character they create -- a truism in the world of books, but a continuing mystery to "The Satanic Verses' " opponents. I have always said that this novel has been traduced. Indeed, the chief benefit to my mind of my meeting with the six Islamic scholars on Christmas Eve 1990 was that they agreed that the novel had no insulting motives. "In Islam, it is a man's intention that counts," I was told. "Now we will launch a worldwide campaign on your behalf to explain that there has been a great mistake." All this with much smiling and friendliness. . . . It was in this context that I agreed to suspend -- not cancel -- a paperback edition, to create what I called a space for reconciliation.
Alas, I overestimated these men. Within days, all but one of them had broken their promises, and recommenced to vilify me and my work as if we had not shaken hands. I felt (most probably I had been) a great fool. The suspension of the paperback began at once to look like a surrender. In the aftermath of the attacks on my translators, it looks even worse. It has now been more than three years since "The Satanic Verses" was published; that's a long, long "space for reconciliation." It is long enough. I accept that I was wrong to have given way on this point. "The Satanic Verses" must be freely available and easily affordable, if only because if it is not read and studied, then these years will have no meaning. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
"Our lives teach us who we are." I have learned the hard way that when you permit anyone else's description of reality to supplant your own -- and such descriptions have been raining down on me, from security advisers, governments, journalists, Archbishops, friends, enemies, mullahs -- then you might as well be dead. Obviously, a rigid, blinkered, absolutist world view is the easiest to keep hold of, whereas the fluid, uncertain, metamorphic picture I've always carried about is rather more vulnerable. Yet I must cling with all my might to . . . my own soul; must hold on to its mischievous, iconoclastic, out-of-step clown-instincts, no matter how great the storm. And if that plunges me into contradiction and paradox, so be it; I've lived in that messy ocean all my life. I've fished in it for my art. This turbulent sea was the sea outside my bedroom window in Bombay. It is the sea by which I was born, and which I carry within me wherever I go.
"Free speech is a non-starter," says one of my Islamic extremist opponents. No, sir, it is not. Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.
. . .
What is my single life worth?
Is it worth more or less than the fat contracts and political treaties that are in here with me? Is it worth more or less than good relations with a country which, in April 1991, gave 800 women 74 lashes each for not wearing a veil; in which the 80-year-old writer Mariam Firouz is still in jail, and has been tortured; and whose Foreign Minister says, in response to criticism of his country's lamentable human rights record, "International monitoring of the human rights situation in Iran should not continue indefinitely . . . Iran could not tolerate such monitoring for long"?
You must decide what you think a friend is worth to his friends, what you think a son is worth to his mother, or a father to his son. You must decide what a man's conscience and heart and soul are worth. You must decide what you think a writer is worth, what value you place on a maker of stories, and an arguer with the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, the balloon is sinking into the abyss.