Culture and Thought --

Books: It's All About Islam ----

These are dangerous times; We mustn't lose courage


These are uncomfortable times for a liberal. If you support the idea of a regime change in Iraq, the left calls you a cheerleader for President Bush. If you express sympathy for the passengers on the aircraft that got turned into missiles by al Qaeda on Sept. 11, the radicals ask: Where were you when the Palestinians (or Rwandans, or Cambodians) were shot? And if you oppose the Taliban, you are accused of overlooking who created them. After all, who supported the Afghan mujahideen during the years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan? But the nationalist right, too, isn't happy with the liberal, for they don't like your call for a borderless world, where people can move from one country to another freely. And they don't support your championing the freedom to listen to rock music and wear miniskirts. And they distrust you because you oppose police brutality and suppression of individual freedoms in the name of safety and public security. It is easy to feel, then, that the whole world has ganged up against you and you are alone. The splendid isolation that such loneliness brings is not new to Salman Rushdie. He has been through worse. For nine years, the Indian-born, Britain-educated and now New York-based novelist faced the very real threat of the fundamentalist regime of Iran carrying out a targeted assassination to eliminate him because he wrote a novel that some of its leaders, who hadn't read it, didn't like. Mr. Rushdie stared back, stubbornly insisting on trying to lead a normal life, taking delight in doing humdrum, normal things, like going to a corner store and buying a toothbrush, attending a book launch, visiting an art gallery, and, increasingly, speaking in public. The Iranian government agreed not to carry out the edict, and Mr. Rushdie is now a free man, yet aware that a lonely assassin may still haunt him, but he wouldn't have the official encouragement or approval of a government. The result of 10 years of excellent essays and journalism is now published in the form of "Step Across This Line" (Random House, 402 pages, $25.95).

The book is divided into four parts. The first, an eclectic collection of essays, includes his varied interests, from cinema to popular music, literature, the Indian subcontinent, and reminiscences. The second part, the most poignant, called "Message from the plague years," covers the period when Mr. Rushdie was forced to live in hiding, to stay away from assassins. Those pieces reveal his anger at the state he has been reduced to, his humor in befriending the guards who protected him, his continued lobbying with Western governments not to forget the case of other writers besides him who were facing threats, and his undiminished optimism that this, too, shall pass. The third section covers his columns. Mr. Rushdie's stint as a columnist started hesitantly. Typically, he plunged into Americana with gusto, expressing opinions on U.S. politics and society aggressively. U.S.-based reviewers have noted that those pieces display a shallow understanding of the complex melting pot of the American society. Indeed, he sounds more certain when he refers to the familiar world of the Indian subcontinent, and the perennial theme of migration. But come Sept. 11, and Mr. Rushdie is in his element, warning and comforting his readers, and stiffening the resolve of a shocked nation. Presciently, in January 2000 he wrote: "The defining struggle of the new age would be between Terrorism and Security. 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." And in a piece written soon after Sept. 11, he observes: "The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his worldview, he has absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences.

To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: 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. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared." From another writer, this might sound rhetorical: when Mr. Rushdie says that, it carries a special meaning, because that is how he lived for nearly a decade. In fact, his clarion call is at its sharpest in the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which he delivered at Yale University this February. In a breathtaking sweep across American history, personal memories, philosophical asides and poetic recollections, Mr. Rushdie makes an eloquent case for the removal of barriers to individual freedom. Like a recurring leitmotif, he reminds: "Will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like his hate-filled, ill-liberal mirror image, or will we, as the guardians of the modern world, as the custodians of freedom and the occupants of the privileged lands of plenty, go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice? Will we become the suits of armor our fear makes us put on, or will we continue to be ourselves?"

Mr. Rushdie's gift is his ability to see clearly through the smog of multicultural relativism. If one opposes authoritarian fascism of the right and the left, one must stand up for free societies against Islamic fascism. The left has failed to grasp this because of its inability to accept a situation in which the West in general and the U.S. in particular might be seen as a victim. Principles can't be jettisoned like unwanted excess baggage. The excuses that some writers have dreamed up "to explain and understand" the root causes of a terrorist's anger are profoundly illogical. Dispossession? Then why don't Tibetans blow themselves up? Poverty? Then how come the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were from wealthy families, and how come the 40-odd poorest nations in the world, most of them in Africa, don't produce such terror? U.S.-support for dictators who rule their countries? Then why, as East Timor's senior minister and Nobel Laureate, Jose Ramos-Horta pointedly asked soon after Sept. 11, don't the East Timorese attack the Stars and the Stripes? The chimera of political correctness prevents us from understanding what this is all about. To those cultural relativists, Mr. Rushdie throws a challenge: Of course, he says in November, 2001, this is about Islam. And the sooner "Islam" accepts secular humanist principles, the closer will be the dream of freedom that many Muslims harbor in repressive societies. Like George Orwell before him, Mr. Rushdie tells it clearly: It is about freedom. These are dangerous times; we mustn't lose courage. Mr. Rushdie says the same thing, but far more eloquently.


Mr. Tripathi, based in London, is completing his first novel.