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Jewish Journal

Salman Rushdie Q & A: there's a fascination with death among suicide bombers

by Erich Follath

September 14, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Salman Rushdie, 59, has spent many years thinking and writing about terrorism. In this interview with political author Erich Follath, which appeared last month in Der Spiegel and is reprinted here with permission, Rushdie reflects on why apparently normal young men turn to terror, the dangers of religion and whether the United States has turned into an authoritarian state. Rushdie divides his time between New York, London and Mumbai; he appears in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, as keynote speaker at the American Jewish Congress' event, "Profiles in Courage: Voices of Muslim Reformers in the Modern World."
 
Erich Follath: Mr. Rushdie, as an expert on terrorism you.... Salman Rushdie: What gives me that honor? I don't see myself as such at all.
 
EF: Your book, "Fury," with its description of an America threatened by terrorism and published in spring 2001, was seen by many as prophetic -- as more or less anticipating 9/11. Your most recent novel, "Shalimar the Clown," describes how a circus performer from Kashmir is transformed into a terrorist. And for almost a decade, your life was threatened by Iranian fanatics, with a price of $4 million on your head.
 
SR: If you think that's enough to qualify me as an expert on terrorism....
 
EF: While researching your books -- and especially now after the recent near miss in London -- you must be asking yourself: What makes apparently normal young men decide to blow themselves up?
 
SR: There are many reasons, and many different reasons, for the worldwide phenomenon of terrorism. In Kashmir, some people are joining the so-called resistance movements because they give them warm clothes and a meal. In London, last year's attacks were still carried out by young Muslim men whose integration into society appeared to have failed. But now we are dealing with would-be terrorists from the middle of society. Young Muslims who have even enjoyed many aspects of the freedom that Western society offers them. It seems as though social discrimination no longer plays any role -- it's as though anyone could turn into a terrorist.
 
EF: Leading British Muslims have written a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair claiming that the growing willingness to engage in terrorism is due to [President] Bush's and Blair's policies in Iraq and in Lebanon. Are they completely wrong? Don't the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the cynicism of Guantanamo contribute to extremism?
 
SR: I'm no friend of Tony Blair's, and I consider the Middle East policies of the United States and the U.K. fatal. There are always reasons for criticism, also for outrage. But there's one thing we must all be clear about: Terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate goals by some sort of illegitimate means. Whatever the murderers may be trying to achieve, creating a better world certainly isn't one of their goals. Instead they are out to murder innocent people. If the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, for example, were to be miraculously solved from one day to the next, I believe we wouldn't see any fewer attacks.
 
EF: And yet there must be reasons, or at least triggers, for this terrible willingness to wipe out the lives of others -- and of oneself.
 
SR: Lenin once described terrorism as bourgeois adventurism. I think there, for once, he got things right. That's exactly it. One must not negate the basic tenet of all morality -- that individuals are themselves responsible for their actions. And the triggers seem to be individual, too.
 
Upbringing certainly plays a major role there, imparting a misconceived sense of mission, which pushes people toward "actions." Added to that there is a herd mentality once you have become integrated in a group, and everyone continues to drive everyone else on and on into a forced situation. There's the type of person who believes his action will make mankind listen to him and turn him into a historic figure. Then there's the type who simply feels attracted to violence. And yes, I think glamour plays a role, too.
 
EF: Do you seriously mean that terrorism is glamorous?
 
SR: Yes. Terror is glamour -- not only, but also. I am firmly convinced that there's something like a fascination with death among suicide bombers. Many are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic that is inherent in these insane acts. The suicide bomber's imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other peoples' lives. There's one thing you mustn't forget here: The victims terrorized by radical Muslims are mostly other Muslims.
 
EF: Of course there can be no justification for terrorism. But nevertheless, there are various different starting points. There is the violence of groups who are pursuing nationalist, one might say comprehensible, goals using every means at their disposal....
 
SR: .... And there are others, like Al Qaeda, which have taken up the cause of destroying the West and our entire way of life. This form of terrorism wraps itself up in the wrongs of this world in order to conceal its true motives -- an attack on everything that ought to be sacred to us. It is not possible to discuss things with Osama bin Laden and his successors. You cannot conclude a peace treaty with them. They have to be fought with every available means.
 
EF: And with the other ones, the "nationalist terrorists," should we engage in dialogue with them?
 
SR: That depends on whether they are prepared to renounce their terrorist struggle under a certain set of conditions. That appears to be showing at least initial signs of working with the Basques of ETA. I think we have Bin Laden to thank for that to no small extent -- the Basque leaders didn't want to be like him. And with the IRA, it was the loss of credibility among their own people, who no longer saw any point in fighting violently in the underground. Remolding former terrorist organizations into political parties in the long term is at least not hopeless. It might work with those groups that are not primarily characterized by religious fanaticism -- the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, for example, a group which virtually invented suicide bombings, have no religious background at all. They have clear objectives: an independent state.
 
EF: Should such a state be granted to a minority just because they are particularly ruthless? What about Shalimar, the hero of your latest novel, who murders for Kashmir? Should he determine the region's future?  
SR: You have to look at each individual case. The only way to find out why someone decides to engage in armed combat is to look at their individual personality. In Shalimar's case, it's a mixture of personal and political reasons.
 
EF: Injured male pride plays a role, because the American ambassador in Delhi stole his true love. But it's also about how Kashmir develops from a peaceful, multicultural society into a hotbed for terrorism. It's about brutal attacks by the Indian army, which drive Shalimar into the arms of the jihadists. Didn't you get into trouble with this portrayal of the Kashmiri reality?
 
SR: Fortunately, very little. My book wasn't banned in India, as "The Satanic Verses" was -- as was, for a short time, "The Moor's Last Sigh," because of alleged libel against an Indian politician. I received many positive reviews in India and even the most important literature prize. Being half Kashmiri, I am particularly fond of that region -- that lost paradise. Perhaps another reason why there were no protests is that everyone realized how thoroughly I had done my research there and how much I know about conditions there.

EF: Your protagonist is a likeable man, at least at the beginning of the novel.
 
SR: Yes. I was not interested in painting a black-and-white picture: here the perpetrator, fundamentally depraved from the start, and there the innocent victim. I didn't want to make things that easy for myself. I was interested in showing the development, how someone gets into the clutches of the fundamentalists. And how on the other hand, terrorist groups keep a lookout for potential assassins, spy out their environment, beguile people and seduce them and exploit their weaknesses. The book is called, "Shalimar the Clown," not "Shalimar the Killer."
 
EF: National political issues play a major role in the struggle over Kashmir, but religious issues are also key. Are you worried about the power of radical religious currents worldwide?
 
SR: Fundamentalists of all faiths are the fundamental evil of our time. Almost all my friends are atheists -- I don't feel as though I'm an exception. If you take a look at history, you will find that the understanding of what is good and evil has always existed before the individual religions. The religions were only invented by people afterward, in order to express this idea. I, for one, don't need a supreme "sacred" arbiter in order to be a moral being.
 
EF: Perhaps not, but many people seem to need a god. Religions worldwide are experiencing a comeback. Striving for spirituality is more pronounced than ever. Is this a negative development in your opinion?
 
SR: Yes.
 
EF: That's a clear answer. But also offensive to many people.
 
SR: In my opinion, the word "spiritual" ought to be put on an index and banned from being used for, say, 50 years. The things that are put about as being "spiritual" -- it's unbelievable. It even goes as far as a spiritual lap dog and a spiritual shampoo.
 
EF: You yourself once wrote: "We need answers to the unanswerable. Is this life all there is? The soul needs explanations, not rational ones but ones for the heart."
 
SR: Of course there are things beyond material needs; we all sense that. For me the answers are simply not in the religious, heavenly realm. But I don't dictate to anyone what to believe and what not to. And I don't want that to be dictated to me either.
 
EF: Why is it that Islam -- with its claim to supremacy and strict rules for everyday life -- exerts such an attraction on many young people?
 
SR: You don't expect me to explain the attractions of Islam, do you?
 
EF: Which compromises should and could the West make in order to contain the threat of terrorism?
 
SR: I'm not the man for compromises, either. I think you're talking to the wrong person.
 
EF: But in the light of the attacks Sept. 11, 2001, attacks you yourself wrote that in order to protect free societies against terrorism, limiting rights was inevitable.
 
SR: I was thinking of stricter aircraft checks or things like that -- of annoying but easily understandable constraints. I hadn't thought it possible that the Bush administration would go about setting up the machinery of an authoritarian state.
 
EF: Has it done that?
 
SR: Oh yes. Over the past few years, I've been the president of PEN in New York, the chairman of the American writers' association. Again and again, we've had to deal with these far-reaching attacks on civil liberties. And most complaints have been justified, because it wasn't even apparent in what way arrests and surveillance operations were connected with anti-terrorism. And I know what I'm talking about. From my own history of being threatened, I have indeed developed a sympathy for intelligence activities, my protectors enjoy my greatest respect.
 
EF: So are Bush and Blair going too far?
 
SR: This is the problem with politicians who by nature tend toward being authoritarian: When they are given the chance, they go too far. We have to watch out there. I find it deeply depressing that the Anglo-American politics and Arab politics are currently corroborating each other -- that is: their worst prejudices.
 
Take a look at Iraq, at Lebanon. There is no just side in either conflict. But at the same time, we need moral clarity, something I have often missed recently in many liberally minded people -- and I myself am liberal. We need clarity about what is right and wrong, the willingness to defend our values with clear words and to actually call the guilty persons guilty.  
EF: What do you mean by that?
 
SR: I've always been strictly against blasphemy laws, which are supposed to protect religions against alleged defamation. It's perfectly all right for Muslims to enjoy religious freedom like everyone else in a free society. It's perfectly all right for them to protest against discrimination, whenever and wherever they are faced with it. And undoubtedly there are often reflexive reactions in the West, which lead to premature, anti-Islamic suspicions. What is not at all in order, on the other hand, is for Islamic leaders in our countries to demand that their faith be protected against criticism, disrespect, ridicule and disparagement. Even malicious criticism, even insulting caricatures -- these are part of our freedom of speech, of pluralism, of our basic values, which they have got to bow down to if they want to live with us.
 
EF: What role can literature play to encourage tolerance -- and to discourage intolerance?
 
SR: There is no alternative to the peaceful coexistence of cultures. Promoting that is a task that literature ought to set itself. You see, fundamentalists believe that we don't believe in anything. In their view of the world, they are in possession of absolute certainties, while we are descending into decadence. We will be able to triumph over terrorism not by waging war on it, but through a conscious, fearless way of life. If there is a choice between absolute safety and freedom, then freedom must always prevail.
 
EF: After Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa in 1989, you lived underground for practically a decade....
 
SR: ....And I was just about to thank you for the fact that the word "fatwa" hadn't been mentioned yet in our conversation....
 
EF: ....But it is inevitable. Much as you may hate it.
 
SR: Yes, yes, I know. It's as though something that is not me were world famous. In the years afterward, I sometimes felt as though other people were writing the story of my life. But I have left that behind me long ago. I live a free, normal life as a resident of New York and London, and I go on frequent trips to the town of my birth, Mumbai (Bombay).
 
EF: All three of them are cities that have been hit by serious terrorist attacks. But all three have proven resilient and have maintained their commitment to a free and open lifestyle.
 
SR: It's interesting you should say that. Perhaps that's precisely why I love these cities.
 
EF: According to the Shiite interpretation, Khomeini's fatwa cannot be withdrawn because it is a religious edict. Even if there is officially no bounty on your head any more, agitators surrounding the current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could reactivate the fatwa at any time.
 
SR: I have read these speculations by journalists. But I don't consider them of any importance.
 
EF: Do you still remember the day when the fatwa was proclaimed. Do you mark its anniversary every year?
 
SR: How could I strike that date from my memory -- it was Valentine's Day. That way at least I don't forget the flowers for my wife.
 


On Sept. 17, the American Jewish Congress 30th Annual Dinner "Profiles in Courage: Voices of Muslim Reformers in the Modern World" with Salman Rushdie, will be held at 6 p.m., at the Four Seasons Hotel, 300 South Doheny Drive, Los Angeles. For tickets and information, call (3133) 496-4280. {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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