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Thursday, September 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Salman Rushdie discusses God, fear and freedom

Special to The Seattle Times

You know when Salman Rushdie is closing in on an idea. His hands rise. His wrists twist back and forth. His fingers start to scratch, first his beard, then the space above his ears, finally the top of his rather large head.

Here, listen, he's got it:

"This is a much bigger event. It is an event of global implications. The other thing was personal, and so obviously it had a deep personal impact on me. But this, I think, has so much more in the way of consequences."

"This" means Sept. 11 and the terrible and momentous events that followed. "The other thing" is the fatwa, the 1989 decree from the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini that sentenced Rushdie to die for supposedly blasphemous passages in his novel "The Satanic Verses."

Both attacks were violent manifestations of fanatical Islam. One threatened the author's life. The other terrorized his recently adopted country (he's a former resident of Britain), devastating the city he now calls home. And both episodes, Rushdie feels, were assaults on freedom orchestrated by those who would rule through religion and fear — two things he deeply disdains.

Rushdie was in town this week to read from "Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2000" (Random House, $25.95), a collection of essays written by Rushdie over the past 10 years. The book gives a tour of his perspective on fear, terrorism and god (a word he does not like to capitalize.)

The book also showcases his talent and interest in topics that include soccer, "The Wizard of Oz" and rock music.

It is a diverse and satisfying collection. Most interesting are Rushdie's writings from the dark time he spent battling the fatwa, a period he calls "The Plague Years." It is a period that he says he is almost finished discussing. (In 1998, the Iranian government of President Mohammad Khatami distanced itself from the death order, though one spokesman for a revolutionary faction in Iran recently said the death sentence was irrevocable).

"I'm intending that this is the last time," he said Tuesday in an interview, before giving a reading to a packed audience at Seattle's Town Hall.

Bacon sandwiches and Islam

To Rushdie, the carnage and change brought on by last year's terror attacks remains huge and hard to digest. The fatwa seems smaller and more comprehensible.

"If something happens to you individually, unless you're completely idiotic you can in the end work out what it means for you. But when something happens to all of us, like this has, it's really difficult to work out the meaning of it. I don't think it's something that any individual can do by himself."

Rushdie felt compelled to write about Sept. 11 because he sensed "this incredible need out there for people to try to offer up whatever bits of expertise they had." He knew something about standing up to terror, something about conquering fear.

Three essays written after Sept. 11 — "The Attacks on America," "Not About Islam?" and "Anti-Americanism" — show that what Rushdie offers is a clear-sighted skepticism, a sense of humor and a strident belief in defending what really matters.

"If this isn't about Islam," he wrote, "Why did those ten thousand men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, answering some mullah's call to jihad? ... Let's start calling a spade a spade. Of course this is about Islam."

On how to defeat terrorism, he writes: "The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. ... 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. ... These will be our weapons."

The importance of defying fear, the liberation that comes with remaining unafraid, are lessons Rushdie learned from the fatwa. "Fear paralyzes you," he said. "And therefore if you are not to be paralyzed you have to find a way of setting it to one side."

'Out-of-step zaniness'

Also reinforced by the fatwa was Rushdie's nonreligious upbringing, which taught him to believe that God is more trouble than he's worth. In his essays, Rushdie is the supreme advocate of man as a moral animal, deriding religion as a force that "essentially infantilizes our ethical selves."

Writing a 1997 letter to the world's 6 billionth person, Rushdie advises the child to "Imagine There's No Heaven":

"As human knowledge has grown, it has also become plain that every religious story ever told about how we got here is quite simply wrong. This, finally, is what all religions have in common. They didn't get it right. ... The wrongness of the sacred tales hasn't lessened the zeal of the devout in the least. If anything, the sheer out-of-step zaniness of religion leads the religious to insist ever more stridently on the importance of blind faith."

A little harsh?

"I think it's true that on the subject of religion, clearly I've had rather a course of aversion therapy to it," Rushdie said. "No doubt that shows."

Not a tea party

If the forces of fear and religion are so potent, then how to combat them? Secular democracy, Rushdie says. He loves that democracy defends people, but not their ideas. He loves that it allows you to poke holes in the phonies, and pillory the pious.

"I just think democracy is a very impolite thing," he says with a smile. "Democracy isn't cozy. Free speech isn't a tea party. It's rather more like a brawl."

And boy, is he ready to brawl when free speech turns against him. Recently the New York Times' famously finicky book critic, Michiko Kakutani, criticized "Step Across This Line" for being a regurgitation of points Rushdie has made many times before in his nine works of fiction.

"Oh yes, the vile Michiko," Rushdie says. "I don't give a damn what Michiko thinks."

But he does, or, at least, he's not done with her: "I think it's true more or less of any type of writer that he will return to themes because they are part of the way his mind is made up....

"So yes, if I talk about themes of exile and migration and so on — that's true. Those are my things. And I think I come at them in many ways. These subjects are kind of inexhaustible."

A no-holds-barred place

What scares this seemingly fearless man these days? Turns out it's less the terrorists than the fire-breathers among us.

"War scares me. I feel that war is a very much last recourse and the idea of using war as a first recourse, preemptively, worries me a lot. ... If America decides that it will give to itself the right to go after anybody, in any country, before they've actually committed a crime, because America judges they might at some point in the future do so, well, it's going to be very difficult to complain if people come after America. It just makes the world a kind of no-holds-barred place."

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