A beacon of sanity

In an age of religious fanatics, patriotic zealots and self-righteous leftists, Salman Rushdie champions free thinking and fun.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published October 1, 2002 7:03PM (EDT)

Given the world's current conflagrations, anyone who has written about the dangers of Muslim fundamentalism now seems prescient. Still, there's something eerily prophetic in some of the newspaper columns reprinted in Salman Rushdie's new collection of nonfiction, "Step Across This Line." As a man with terrifyingly acute firsthand experience of what Christopher Hitchens, to whom this book is dedicated, calls "Islamo-fascism," Rushdie has spent years fighting through the issues currently being hashed out on a thousand Op-Ed pages. Though this scattershot book ranges, with varying degrees of success, over subjects including "The Wizard of Oz," Gandhi and Elián González, the most penetrating pieces here deal with Rushdie's refreshingly ecumenical abhorrence of religious fundamentalism.

Right now, when so many progressive paradigms -- respect for other cultures, solidarity with the oppressed and reverence for civil liberties -- seem flaccid in the face of a monumental threat, Rushdie offers a voice that's both resolutely moral and proudly, expansively liberal. He has, in the last few years, fallen from vogue, but the events of the world have conspired to prove his enduring relevance. He offers a model of a progressivism that's clear-eyed about the dangers of Third World tyrannies while vigilantly opposed to our own administration's authoritarian tendencies. Furthermore, he transcends the hectoring left's tendency to define itself by what it's against, offering a celebration of secular freedom whose ebullience belies the current notion that conservatives have more fun.

Religious and nationalist obsession have always informed Rushdie's most brilliant novels -- "Midnight's Children," a sweeping, careening story of India's birth; "Shame," an allegory of Pakistan's corrupt elite; "The Moor's Last Sigh," with its indictment of Hindu chauvinism; and, of course, "The Satanic Verses," a hallucinatory riff on the birth of Islam. It's in this frightening ferment that he does his best work.

During what he calls his "plague years," after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his 1989 fatwa, Rushdie could no longer go to India (nor freely travel anywhere else); cut off from the wellspring of his imagination, the incandescence of his art began to dim. Though he's professed annoyance at the colonial idea that writers from the Third World can't tackle the whole world, Rushdie just doesn't have the same visceral feel for America, his recent subject, as he does for the subcontinent -- especially for the multifarious megalopolis of Bombay.

"The Ground Beneath Her Feet," his 1999 rock 'n' roll take on the Orpheus myth, went slack as soon as it left India, and in "Fury," his 2001 New York novel, his take on boom-time Manhattan seemed somewhat secondhand. Rushdie writes amazingly close to events -- he was finishing "Midnight's Children" during Indira Gandhi's Emergency. With his best books, he elevates news into myth, but he lacked the intimate feel for New York necessary to create a real-time vision of Gotham to match his revelatory panoramas of fecund, fantastical Bombay.

Yet if Rushdie has yet to develop a specific American aesthetic, his career has nevertheless given him a special understanding of the challenges this country is currently facing. Sure, some of his essays about America, which originally ran as syndicated columns in the New York Times and elsewhere, suggest an uncharacteristic cluelessness -- for example, a piece about the debacle of the 2000 presidential election that makes the apparently earnest parliamentary suggestion that Bush and Gore take turns running the country, à la Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres in the 1980s. More often, though, he seems positively oracular, especially now that the subjects on which he's honed his craft consume the world's attention.

Take the January 2000 piece in which he declares that "the defining struggle of the new age would be between Terrorism and Security" and warns, "It is also alarming to think that the real battles of the new century may be fought in secret, between adversaries accountable to few of us, the one claiming to act on our behalf, the other hoping to scare us into submission."

Then there's the 1993 New Yorker essay in which he writes, "[T]here is a great struggling in progress for the soul of the Muslim world and, as the fundamentalists grow in power and ruthlessness, those courageous men and women who are willing to engage them in a battle of ideas and of moral values are rapidly becoming as important for us to know about, to understand, and to support as once the dissident voices of the old Soviet Union used to be." This was written before the Taliban rose with American help. Imagine if people had paid attention to it.

As a journalist, Rushdie lacks the eviscerating insight of Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul, a fellow critic of Muslim fundamentalism whose new book of essays, "The Writer and the World," is far more substantial than "Step Across This Line." Being more pessimistic and alienated than Rushdie, Naipaul is better able to convey the despair that breeds extremism -- be it black power, Islamism or militant Hinduism. And yet when Rushdie takes Naipaul on in several articles, the contrast, though not always flattering to Naipaul's challenger, highlights what is so valuable in Rushdie.

While both are Indian diaspora writers, Naipaul is more truly rootless. Rushdie, for all his insouciance, is essentially committed to a certain leftish humanism, while Naipaul, though often sensitive to the dignity of individuals, can seem nihilistic in the breadth of his contempt for whole societies. You never quite know where Naipaul is going to come down -- thus the shock, after his early scathing writing about India, of his recent defenses of Hindu nationalism, which he has called a "historical awakening."

Rushdie is more predictable. He stands for things. Though at one point he warns, "Beware the writer who sets himself or herself up as the voice of a nation. This includes nations of race, gender, sexual orientation, elective affinity. This is the New Behalfism," it's hard, reading "Step Across This Line," not to see Rushdie as the champion of things like cosmopolitanism, sensual relishment and, above all, a fierce love of human multiplicity that goes beyond mere tolerance.

Naipaul allows himself to play with dangerous, combustible notions. Rushdie, meanwhile, is steadfast in his morality and quick to excoriate fanaticism of all kinds. In his anguished 2002 article about the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat, he attacks Naipaul, writing that in supporting Hindu nationalists, Naipaul "makes himself a fellow-traveler of fascism and disgraces the Nobel award."

Rushdie's position here isn't daring, and thus not as perversely fascinating as Naipaul's provocation, but it is unabashedly right. In this way, "Step Across This Line" is more like a beacon than an investigation. For years now, Rushdie has been vigorously fighting religious fanaticism and colonial condescension, anti-Americanism and American backwardness, the "new behalfism" and and the old locked canon.

This is crucial at a time when the left -- whatever that is -- is mired in tired reflexive reactions and defensiveness. On one side there are people like Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and Susan Sontag, who have spent so long admirably championing the powerless against the depredations of the powerful that they seem unable to intellectually adapt to a situation in which imperial forces might be in the right. Set against them are the new liberal patriots like Todd Gitlin, Christopher Hitchens and Michael Walzer who, bracing and brilliant as they were after Sept. 11, tend to write as if anyone who feels alienated from contemporary America is morally suspect.

"[L]eftists have no power in the United States," Walzer wrote in "Can There Be a Decent Left?" a damning essay for Dissent, "and most of us don't expect to exercise power, ever. Many left intellectuals live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriotic feeling as politically incorrect." It's a fair point, but one that makes no room for the very good reasons that good people might feel cut off from a country in thrall to puritanical plutocrats.

You can't badger people out of their alienation. What you can do is reclaim the meaning of the country in a way that draws the disaffected in. This has been the genius of the populist right, which hates American culture -- its sex, its art, the possibilities it offers for escaping the bonds of family and religion -- but never gets accused of hating America.

It's also the genius of Rushdie, who has a Whitmanesque ideal of America as a bastion of modernity, of immigrants and rock music and blessed godlessness. He has yet to figure out his take on the texture of American life -- a must for an American novelist -- but he's got an inspiring vision of the country that he recently made his home. "We must agree on what matters," he implores, "kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love."

With such ideals in mind, he skewers creationists in Kansas, sanctimonious Joseph Lieberman ("a moral throwback") and John Ashcroft. He attacks these people not as examples of America's essence, but as betrayals of it. Perhaps this idea of America is far from the country that actually exists, but then again, it's closer to the truth than the land of god-bothered virgins, wholesome clergy and righteous capitalists envisioned by those who claim a monopoly on national definition.

In this context, the lovely, playful meditation on "The Wizard of Oz" that opens the book is especially well chosen. In it Rushdie argues that the real moral of that American fairy tale has nothing to do with the movie's disappointingly conservative ending, with Dorothy waking up to accept the drabness of Kansas and the "limitations of her home life." Instead, Rushdie turns to the L. Frank Baum books, in which Oz was no dream, Dorothy gets to go back to the fairy kingdom, and "Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all." The American dream, as Rushdie sees it, doesn't lie in settling for some colorless heartland 'burb, but in the freedom to build a life in the most dazzling place you can find.

Rushdie the cosmopolitan is a defender of an idea even less fashionable, at the moment, than moral relativism -- secular humanism. It's a cause some of our best thinkers, such as Hitchens and Martin Amis, are increasingly taking up. Though hardly politically expedient, the fight against religion's tyranny makes intellectual and emotional sense right now. It could even replace the struggle against first-world imperialism as the organizing principle of radical thought, encompassing as it does the fight against the lunatics of al-Qaida, the butchers in Gujarat, the hard-line settlers in the West Bank, the rapists in the Catholic Church, the bombers of abortion clinics and, of course, our own attorney general.

Amis said it best in a June essay for the Guardian: "Since it is no longer permissible to disparage any single faith or creed, let us start disparaging all of them. To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful." Rushdie echoes this sentiment -- as he writes in an enraged reaction to the killings in Gujarat, "[I]n India, as elsewhere in our darkening world, religion is the poison in the blood ... What happened in India, happened in God's name. The problem's name is God."

But elsewhere Rushdie goes beyond mere denunciation, turning atheism into a celebration rather than a rejection. In a delightful 1997 letter to the newly born 6 billionth person in the world, he encourages us to join Voltaire's battle, "the revolution in which each of us could play our small, six-billionth part: once and for all we could refuse to allow priests, and the fictions on whose behalf they claim to speak, to be the policemen of our liberties and behavior." He ends hopefully, "Imagine there's no heaven, my dear Six Billionth, and at once the sky's the limit."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------