America enters Rushdie's world

On Feb. 14, 1989, Indian novelist Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by Islamic fundamentalists for his perceived treatment of Islam in the novel "The Satanic Verses."

On Sept. 11, 2001, all of us, in a sense, entered Salman Rushdie's world.

The issues that Salman Rushdie has been dealing with for the past 13 years are now our issues: Namely, terrorism versus security, and security versus liberty. "How many more murders and assaults on innocent men and women will the Free World tolerate?" he wrote in October 1993. The answer was thousands.

And, in a sentence that might one day rank with W.E.B. Dubois' 1903 contention that "the issue of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line," Rushdie wrote, in January 2000, "(T)he defining struggle of the new age would be terrorism and security."

During the early, dark years of the fatwa, Rushdie was encouraged to keep quiet about the fact that an entire nation (Iran) and an extreme faction of a religion (Islamic fundamentalists) had ordered his death. His adopted homeland, Britain, was still negotiating with Islamic fundamentalists for the release of British hostages (Terry Waite, et al.), and it was felt that Rushdie shouldn't stir the waters. When they were finally released, Rushdie's voice was finally released, and many of the pieces in his new book, "Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002," were the result.

In articles and letters, and in speeches given around the world, Rushdie kept reminding us that he was not the issue, that what he had written was not to blame. "Many people say that the Rushdie case is a one-off," he told the International Conference on Freedom of Expression in April 1992, "that it will never be repeated. This complacency, too, is an enemy to be defeated."

He spoke out not only against atrocities that related to the fatwa (the shooting of his Norwegian publisher; the murder of his Japanese translator) but against religious extremism everywhere: from the persecution of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin to the Kansas Board of Education's decision, in 1999, to remove evolution from the state's recommended curriculum — an action which, Rushdie writes (tongue firmly in cheek), actually disproves Darwin's greatest theory: "... natural selection doesn't always work ... the dumbest and unfittest sometimes survive."

Throughout, one feels Rushdie's prose sharpening, his anger growing. In the early years, he writes about freedom of expression and national sovereignty. But after Hindu and Muslim violence killed hundreds of innocents in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, in March 2002, he becomes more blunt. "What happened in India, happened in God's name. The problem's name is God."

Not all of the pieces in this collection are fatwa-related. If most writers struggle for the world to take them seriously, Rushdie has struggled with the opposite, and in the first section of the collection, "Essays," Rushdie indulges his pop-cultural sweet tooth with quick articles on U2, the Rolling Stones and soccer. He is most impressive in a long essay about, of all things, "The Wizard of Oz," focusing on the film's internal contradiction: the need to leave ("Over the Rainbow") versus the need to return ("There's no place like home."). He defends the state of the novel (yet again) from those who would declare it dead — making the fine, contrarian argument that the novel's problem is actually its abundance. "Readers ... give up. They buy a couple of prizewinners a year, perhaps one or two books by writers whose names they recognize, and flee."

If there's a problem with Rushdie's collection it's the size of most of the articles, which, written for newspapers, are only two or three pages long. Thus, reading straight through can sometimes seem like riding in a car with a stick-shift novice: Just as momentum builds, you jerk to a stop, only to start up again. Also, many of the pieces are literally yesterday's news. Who wants to read once more about Elian Gonzalez or hanging chads?

Yet there are excellent longer pieces, particularly a 30-page essay on returning to India (which was the first country to ban "The Satanic Verses") after 11 years of exile, in April 2000.

Most important, Salman Rushdie has been living in a post-Sept. 11 world now for 13 years, and his wisdom is earned. His January 2000 column alone should be required reading for everyone in America. "(W)e need to understand that even maximum security guarantees nobody's safety ... " he writes. "And to thank our secret protectors, but to remind them, too, that in a choice between security and liberty, it is liberty that must always come out on top."

Erik Lundegaard writes movie and book reviews for The Seattle Times, as well as Slate, Washington Law & Politics, and The Grand Salami, a Seattle Mariners magazine.

"Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002"

by Salman Rushdie
Random House, $25.95
Author appearance

Salman Rushdie will read from "Step Across This Line" at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Seattle's Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave. Sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Co. and Chaya. $5; 206-624-6600.