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Censorship, China and shariah law
Celebrated author covers wide range of topics
Paul Gessell
The Ottawa Citizen
The Tulip Festival showcased the western world’s most famous victim of censorship yesterday, a day after the annual springtime event was itself accused of censorship.

Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, a book that inspired death threats, was the star attraction of Celebridée, the “ideas” portion of the Tulip Festival. About 500 people paid up to $75 each to crowd into the Magic Mirror Tent in Major’s Hill Park to hear Mr. Rushdie discuss East-West relations, freedom of speech, “cockeyed” shariah laws, and his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence.

Mr. Rushdie describes contemporary battles between the Christian West and Islamic East as “a false quarrel,” because it is only a fight between the most extreme elements of each side. Actually, he said, the two cultures have borrowed considerably from each other and have much in common.

“The idea of a pure culture is a fascist myth,” Mr. Rushdie said.

Mr. Rushdie particularly criticized China for its failure to protect freedom of speech and the press. Falun Gong practitioners in China offer similar criticisms of the Chinese government, which has banned the spiritual movement.

His comments were preceded on Monday by complaints from the Tian Guo Marching Band, whose members are Falun Gong practitioners, whose festival performance was cancelled over fears they would protest against the Chinese government.

Mr. Rushdie’s long battle with censorship began in 1988 with the publication of The Satanic Verses. By 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, offering a purse of $3 million to anyone who would kill Mr. Rushdie for his perceived blasphemy. The author went into hiding, but popped up occasionally, as he did in 1992 on Parliament Hill, to plead for tolerance and help from the world’s political leaders.

Mr. Rushdie was quoted this week in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, as saying the fatwa, at least early on, sapped all his creative energy and he started questioning the very purpose of writing: “It’s the only time in my life that I ever really thought, if this is what you get for writing, then why do it?”

He hit “rock bottom” when he announced publicly, in a bid to make peace, that he had become a Muslim believer. Although he was born to Islamic parents in India, Mr. Rushdie was not generally perceived as adhering to that religion.

From “rock bottom,” Mr. Rushdie had nowhere to go but up. And that’s what happened.

“I stopped being the prisoner of that thing (the fatwa) because I thought, OK, there are people who are not going to like me and, do you know, I don’t like them.”

In a recent Citizen interview, Mr. Rushdie said he feels “safe” these days.

“It’s been nine years since there was any need for security involvement in my life.”

The Enchantress of Florence is Mr. Rushdie’s 10th novel.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008


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