Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Salman Rushdie’s message valuable

Harrison BarryW.E.B. Du Bois once wrote that the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color-line, not in the sense that the color-line is a problem that has a single solution or is a problem in the sense that it must be eradicated: rather, the color-line is a problem that must have the attention (and, with it, the conscience) of a nation to bring it to the safest and most mutually beneficial resolution possible. Du Bois himself had no qualms against acknowledging that he himself was a “problem” by his own definition, for in some sense, we all swim against what seems to be the general current of society.

Alongside global warming, the depletion of the rainforests, the need for new sources of energy and fresh water, is the similar problem of Islam: while some may claim that we are still shocked by the presence of faces a different shade from our own, the West must interact with a culture that has a foreign framework of values and morals. That is putting the “problem” in sanitized terms: The West is convinced that Islam is a threat.

When Salman Rushdie spoke about free speech in Cordiner Hall last week, he implied that the values of Islam are so radically different from those in the West as to make the two cultures virtually irreconcilable. If one were to read the Koran, one might be inclined to believe him, for there are few passages in that book that offer peace, salvation or harmony to non-believers.

The Koran is not known for its moral flexibility: for many Muslims, it is the incarnate word of God, definitive on all points, a guide to life; and while it is an extension of the Judeo-Christian outlook, it does not represent a system of values that runs parallel to the liberal bent of the West.

It is in this vein of thought that Rushdie remarked on Islam. There are those among us, I’m sure, who believe that Rushdie is a sower of discontent: that he capitalizes on his own experiences with radical Islam to pit one set of values against another, and in that discussion, there can be no dialogue between Muslims and those in the Judeo-Christian tradition: which is simply not the case.

As Rushdie himself pointed out, the history of Islam is peppered with great artists and scholars who have defied the religious imperative to interpret the Koran literally. In its 1400 year history, Islam has developed liberal, moderate and hard-line factions (take the different ways in which Muslim women wear the veil). While Rushdie has strong opinions about Islam, and accepted our thousands of dollars to tell us a little about them, never did he say that we should accept his views as a matter of course, and if what he says happens to offend us, I can only cite the words of wisdom that graced the advertisements for his talk in Reid: “If a book offends you, close it.”

Based on some of the ways in which his speech was advertised, no less by some of the things he said, it is easy to see how some might grapple with his presence. His comments on Islam and Mormonism, in particular, shocked me, but Salman Rushdie has never shied away from giving offense. Like Rushdie said in his lecture, tolerating voices that offend us is the surest affirmation of our commitment to free speech.

That truth observed, Rushdie also imparted unto us a small piece of wisdom: that we should attain a sense of discrimination. A developed sense of self is augmented by the ability to discern between two ideas and to know that some are good ideas and others bad.

Had I felt called upon to advise Rushdie, I would have told him that it was a bad idea to mock Mormonism in a room potentially full of Mormons. He would have probably told me it was futile to try to instill in him a sense of discretion. In reality, I asked him to sign my copy of “The Da Vinci Code.” He refused, so he signed my copy of “The Satanic Verses” instead.

Like the “blackface” incident last year, Salman Rushdie’s speech has the power to inflame our sensibilities. But should we go so far as to say that he should have never come?: to say that even though we believe in free speech, we will not tolerate his presence because his experience tells him that some people simply do not believe in free speech?

I am reminded of earlier this year, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia: Certainly, I’m not bound to agree with what he has to say, but this is America; surely he has the right to speak.

In an open letter he co-signed with 11 other writers, Rushdie defines “Islamism” as synonymous with totalitarianism to limit his discussion to radical Islam, which he claims is “nurtured by fear and frustration.” Fair enough: Examples of this abound, from the Taliban in Afghanistan to the theocracy in Iran.

More importantly, Rushdie “reject[s] the ‘cultural relativism’ which implies an acceptance that men and women of Muslim culture are deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secularism in the name of the respect for certain cultures and traditions.” For Rushdie, there is no excuse to deprive a person of the right to disagree, or cast a critical eye to what he calls “maltreatment and dogma.”

Here at Whitman College, we embrace this secular ideal while trying to respect the rights of others, and one must say that it is a difficult balancing act, particularly when one feels strongly about something. Listening to Salman Rushdie’s speech was the first step towards understanding just how difficult that balancing act is, for unlike during the “blackface” incident, the values of free speech and respect conflict in ways we are, perhaps, unused to.

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