Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Rushdie speaks on ‘Satanic Verses’

“The defense of free speech begins at the point at which people say things you can’t stand,” said Salman Rushdie to a beyond-capacity audience in Cordiner last Wednesday.

Students, faculty and community members flocked to campus for world-renowned Rushdie’s lecture, entitled “Culture Wars and the Importance of Free Speech.” Rushdie speaks on

Rushdie was introduced by Whitman’s Professor of English Gaurav Majumdar, who said, “It is my pleasure to introduce Salman Rushdie to you, even though I recognize that this introduction is both unnecessary and, considering Mr. Rushdie’s achievements, inadequate.”

Rushdie’s reputation certainly did precede him to campus; hundreds were turned away from the lecture due to overcrowding. Some stayed just a get a book signed. The bookstore estimated that they sold between 250 and 275 books. “They sold like hotcakes,” said Whitman Bookstore Director Douglas Carlsen.

The Indian-born author has written dozens of books, including “Midnight’s Children,” which was published in 1981 and won the Booker Prize for Fiction, as well as the ‘Booker of Bookers’ in 1993; “Shame” (1983), for which he claimed France’s “Best Foreign Book” award and “The Satanic Verses” (1988).

Rushdie is famous for the disapproval and death threats he received because of “Verses” by some Muslims in several countries, most notably Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini issued a religious edict, or “fatwa,” against Rushdie on Feb. 14, 1989.

Rushdie used his experience with “Verses” to speak to issues of free speech in contemporary North America and Western Europe. “The book is hardly about Islam, or only in a very secondary way,” said Rushdie. “In fact, two chapters of about 40 pages each are where the trouble came from, in a novel of over 600 pages.”

He described how “Verses” is primarily a piece about London and the consequences of mass migration.

“He tried to disrupt the hierarchies between high art and low art, between literary language and common language…I hope somewhere in the audience’s collective skull there was a disturbance in definitions of what is good language and what is bad language,” said Majumdar.

Majumdar covered Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” and “Verses” in his dissertation, but he admitted that he “read hungrily everything Rushdie wrote…I do think he has produced some of the greatest books in contemporary literature.”

After the lecture Rushdie held an extensive question and answer period, in which he addressed issues ranging from his anticipated knighting, to Columbia University’s hosting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to last year’s blackface incident.

“He was really incredible with the question and answer session,” said senior Sarah McCarthy.
Opinions on the lecture and Rushdie’s presence on campus varied.

“I thought the speech was very good and gave good food for thought,” said junior Ashley Fisher.

“A feature of his talk that troubled me was his repeated reference to ‘the Muslim World.’ I was trying to figure out what the perimeter of this world is, where are its boundaries? That is something he didn’t quite clarify,” said Majumdar.

“He’s hard to pin down…I don’t know how I feel,” said sophomore Natalie Popovich.

“I just basically loved it,” McCarthy. “I thought he did such a good job of telling his own story but making it revelant…I’m basically in love with him.”

“I remember, President Bridges once sent out on e-mail to the student body in which he wrote, ‘As an academic community, we strive to foster tolerance and understanding and to accord high priority to respecting and affirming others,'” said Whitman alumnus Shaheryar Akbar in an e-mail. “I feel by bringing Salman Rushdie to campus, Whitman has failed to live up to this commitment. Salman Rushdie has provoked the religious sentiments of Muslims by degrading and insulting their religious values, principles and beliefs. His derogatory attitude and oversimplifications of history are extremely dangerous and disturbing. They serve to create division, instead of unity, hatred, instead of peace. They certainly do not foster tolerance and understanding, nor do they respect and affirm others.”

“Now that he has become this public figure, what he says in public is especially influential, and it gets disseminated very quickly,” said Majumdar.

Rushdie was brought to campus with funds from ASWC, the Intercultural Center and the President’s Office.

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