When expression in any form is banned, that which is forbidden becomes even more powerful, famed author Salman Rushdie told a packed audience at the Yale University Art Gallery on April 2.
Freedom of speech, he told the crowd, “is the liberty on which all other liberties depend” — noting, for example, that freedom of assembly is in itself pointless if people cannot gather and say what they wish.
During his Yale visit — sponsored by the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and the undergraduate journal The Politic — Rushdie acknowledged that he didn’t always believe that all kinds of speech should be lawful. He said he once supported British statutes making hate speech illegal, but that his view changed after his own book “The Santanic Verses” was banned in many parts of the Muslim world. Rushdie’s book led to a demand for his execution in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the grounds that it was “blasphemous against Islam,” which turned international attention on the author.
“Reprehensible ideas do not disappear if you forbid their expression. They sometimes acquire greater power,” said Rushdie, adding that it is safer to allow those who hold such ideas to communicate them openly rather than secretly.
The British-Indian author used an example from his own life to illustrate his point, describing how the British Board of Film Classification prevented the release of the 1990 Pakistani film “International Guerillas” — which depicted Rusdhie as a villain — out of concern that its portrayal might qualify as criminal libel. Rushdie wrote a letter to the board relinquishing his right to legal recourse and advocating for the film’s release. Although popular in Pakistan, “International Guerillas” drew scant interest in England.
“If that film was banned, people would have been clamoring to see it,” Rushdie said. “It became the parable for why it is better to let it out there than to try to quash it.”
Rushdie participated in a question-and-answer session with Yale sophomore Noah Remnick, who began by asking the award-winning author about his years in hiding after Khomeini offered a bounty for his death. The author described how he depended upon the goodwill of friends and colleagues for more than a decade as he moved from one safe house to the next, confined by the strict requirements of his police security team.
“There was this extraordinary attack, and hatred, coming in my direction … but the power of love turned out to be stronger,” commented Rushdie. “Nobody leaked once … there was not a single indiscretion … and nobody made a mistake [by revealing hiding places]. It was an extraordinary act of collective solidarity, as if people said, ‘This is really important and don’t screw up.’” He said that even colleagues in the literary world — which he half-jokingly called the most “back-stabbing, insincere, bitchy group of people in the human race” — were loyal to him as he lived under constant threat of violence and betrayal.
Rushdie says he wrote his most recent book, a fictional memoir titled “Joseph Anton,” partly as a way to thank those friends who helped him survive. The book is named for two authors whose work he admires, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.
The author described how life became easier for him when he finally gained support from various world leaders, who, he quipped, “were a little late to the party.”
“In the early phase, politicians didn’t want to make a big fuss,” Rushdie said, noting that the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the Netherlands, and Mexico were among early supporters of his cause. Eventually, President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair pressured the Iranian government to lift the fatwa.
Rushdie said all of his years in hiding did not affect his writing, in part because he made a concerted effort not to let his circumstances interfere with his creative life.
“If you knew nothing about my life other than the books, I don’t think you’d feel that something weird happens in 1989,” said Rushdie, whose works include the Booker Prize-winning “Midnight’s Children” and “Shalimar the Clown.”
During the conversation, Rushdie decried what he described as a current “culture of offendedness” — wherein people have become defined by what offends them rather than by who they are or what they love.
“There is no right not to be offended,” Rusdhie stated. “It doesn’t trump freedom of speech. Read something else. See another movie. Leave the room. To read a 600-page novel and declare yourself offended by it: You’ve done a lot of work. You could shut it at any time.”
Rusdhie said the recent release of the film version of his first novel, “Midnight’s Children,” has made him feel as though he is “closing a big circle.” He noted that the film — for which he wrote the screenplay — will be released in the United States in late April.
“One of the things you learn making films: They call it an industry, and it is an industry,” said Rushdie. “Occasionally a work of art comes out of it.” He added that he is pleased with the final result, and told his audience, “I hope you agree.”