Against the Lunatic Fringe

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007
Salman Rushdie last spoke to Brown students in 1996, via satellite from a secret location in London. Eight years earlier, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini had declared Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses blasphemous and ordered its Indian-born author killed.

On February 27 Rushdie arrived in person at Alumnae Hall for a talk sponsored by the student-run Brown Lecture Board. The demand was so great that after the hall's 650 seats were filled, people had to be turned away. Those inside watched Rushdie and Adjunct Professor of English Robert Coover discuss topics ranging from Khomeini's fatwa to Rushdie's blurb on the dust jacket of Bridget Jones's Diary.

Rushdie answered a student's question about his endorsement of Helen Fielding's novel by explaining that he'd once run into her at a party, where the unknown writer asked him for a comment about her forthcoming book. Grabbing a paper napkin, Rushdie penned, "It's so funny even men will laugh." The blurb eventually led to Rushdie's cameo role in the 2001 movie based on the book.

Coover began the evening by asking Rushdie about being forced into hiding in 1989. "I found it very odd to become symbolic," Rushdie said. "I don't feel symbolic. I feel actual. I got turned into this thing that I didn't fully recognize." Rushdie's encounter with fundamentalist extremism gave his views on September 11 a particular sharpness. The primary mission of the hijackers wasn't to kill people, Rushdie suggested, but to destroy airplanes and skyscrapers - symbols of the modern world. "Let's not let the lunatic fringe define our lives," he urged. "Let's not let those people change everything."

One student described last year's campus controversy surrounding the Brown Daily Herald's publication of an anti-slavery-reparations ad, which in turn led to the taking of an entire day's press run of Heralds. Is free speech, the student asked, absolute? Rushdie recalled a movie made years ago by Pakistani fundamentalists that focused on a fictional group of people out to kill Rushdie. When someone proposed a ban on the film in England, Rushdie wrote a letter declaring, "I do not wish to be defended by an act of censorship." The film closed after two days due to lack of interest. Banning the movie, Rushdie argued, would have turned it into a must-see video. "Let people speak," he told the students. "It's better said than unsaid."

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May / June 2002