The University of Alberta hosted Salman Rushdie last Thursday for its "Festival of Ideas," marking the institution's centennial. Making a symbol of an individual, as has been done by the media with Rushdie, obscures inquiry into the individual's situational circumstances, relegating them to a mere superficiality. On this ground, Rushdie is right to resist any labelling because his case becomes increasingly significant with more details.
In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa, or religious edict, which demanded Rushdie be put to death for his novel The Satanic Verses (published the year before). After 20 years under this ban, with the first nine spent in hiding under police protection, he has managed to avoid direct harm.
Associates of his have not been so fortunate. A Japanese translator of the novel was killed in 1991 and an Italian translator was stabbed and left for dead (but survived). A Norwegian publisher was shot three times and also managed to survive. Rushdie's book was burned throughout the Arab world during riots and many were injured in the protests.
None of these victims were Iranian (where apostasy is punishable by death and blasphemy, such as a female unescorted by a male family member, often results in having battery acid thrown in one's face; the less lucky ones are raped and then stoned to death). Rushdie, though, is a British citizen and the others were from democratic societies. How, then, could this happen?
Rushdie spoke Thursday of the difference between a free and an oppressed society. The former, he argued, is open to discussion and argument, where disagreements are due course on the bumpy and pothole-marked road of democracy. The latter, however, jumps to extremism immediately, where it seems the only possible solution is violence and death.
It is time to abandon seventh century morality. Threats, to say nothing of murder, are not a solution to an offence caused by a work of fiction (or a set of cartoons).
Rushdie rightly outlines the two questions religion attempts to answer: why are we here? And, now that we are here, how are we to live? The answers provided by religion are increasingly fallacious. Religion was our first attempt at many things-- including science-- but because of that, it was our worst. Not a single one approaches science in profundity; science is honest enough to admit there remains much work to be done. Regarding the second question, we have no need for an imam, rabbi or priest to tell us how to live. This infantilizing treatment should be considered an insult to humanity.
We are all human and the most frustrating thing is often how similar we are. It also means that we all possess the ability to dispense with childish beliefs and begin perceiving them as the myths and fairy tales they are.
The most unfortunate thing about Rushdie's case is the symbol that is made of him. His novels are wonderful and The Satanic Verses, in particular, should be read for its literary quality, not because of the events that erupted from it. There is, of course, as much truth in his novels as there is in any of the holy books. Nobody need die in defence of either.