by DAVID SHEFF
PLAYBOY: How have these years in hiding changed you?
RUSHDIE: When I was younger, I was quite excitable. I waved my arms a lot and talked too much. I was more argumentative. I feel calmer because of a sense of who I am, a sense of what is in my heart. It comes from facing the big stuff—facing the great realities of life and death, and who you are and why you did what you did. You find out what you think about yourself when your innermost core is under attack. The worst moment came in 1990 when I lost who I was.
PLAYBOY: That was the time you announced you had converted to Islam. Had you actually converted or were you trying to placate those who were threatening your life?
RUSHDIE: Not so much to placate them, but to show to the people who viewed me as some kind of terrible enemy that I wasn’t one. It mostly had to do with despair and disorientation. I had lost my strength and felt completely bereft. Many of my friends pointed out that it was the stupidest thing I had ever done in my life. But I had hit bottom, and maybe it was necessary to hit bottom.
PLAYBOY: Was hitting bottom brought on by the fear of being killed?
RUSHDIE: No. It was brought on by having done something I didn’t believe in. I had given up who I was. I could no longer speak if I had been converted. I was supposed to be reverent, but didn’t know how to be. I didn’t know how to be devout, for God’s sake. But by depriving myself of what was, in fact, my nature, I showed myself what my nature was.
PLAYBOY: And so you therefore recanted your conversion.
RUSHDIE: Yes. I made strenuous steps to get out of the false position and immediately felt clearer about everything. From that point on, I felt that I would fight for what I believed, and what I believed was what I was.
PLAYBOY: Had you initially been reluctant to fight back against the fatwa?
RUSHDIE: It’s hard to exaggerate the extent of the political and public pressure put on me not to fight back. That’s one thing that had brought me to such a low point. I had listened to the purveyors of public opinion. Every time I tried to defend my work, I was accused of making trouble again. The only thing I was ever supposed to say in those days was that I was sorry. But I didn’t feel sorry. I felt as if the crime was being committed against me, not by me. And so it was. I decided I would speak out and fight, and I decided I would not convince everyone. It was a great liberation to realize you don’t have to convince everyone—in fact, you cannot. I decided I would not apologize and would write what I write. If you don’t like it, the hell with you.
PLAYBOY: Before the announcement of the death sentence, there was the banning of the book and other protests. Did you feel in danger?
RUSHDIE: No, but things began to change when the book was burned. Something exploded in my head. I’ve never been so angry in my life. The image of that burning book enraged me in my deepest places. They nailed it to a post, then set fire to it. They crucified and then burned it. Standing next to the burning book in a famous photograph was this little man looking so proud of himself, so smug, so righteous. I had rarely seen so ugly a photograph. Until that point I felt that my best defense was the normal arguments—to explain the book, to get people to read it. For a long time I took that position: The book—i.e., the work of art—speaks for itself. But when the work of art was nailed to a post and set on fire, it occurred to me that maybe I should speak for the work of art. That is when I began to argue and to confront various Muslims involved in the attack on the book. But although I was angry as hell, I had no sense of danger.
PLAYBOY: When did you first hear about the fatwa?
RUSHDIE: I got a call on my way out of the door one morning. I had arranged previously to do an interview on CBS television. Journalists asked me about it and I was bewildered. One journalist said, “Oh, don’t worry about this Khomeini character. He condemns people to death all the time. He condemns the President to death every Friday. Forget it.” And I thought, Oh well. Maybe this is just hot air and it will blow away by tomorrow. But it didn’t blow away. It became clear that it wasn’t some rhetorical flourish.
PLAYBOY: You quickly issued an apology.
RUSHDIE: Yes, but I didn’t write it. At that point, people involved with the British government—I won’t say who—informed me that they were talking with the Iranian government. I was given to understand the situation would be resolved if I would sign a statement they wrote. It was constructed to get a quick fix. At that point everybody desired the quickest fix possible. Remember, I had never been in any position like that before. When the government says to you, “OK, here is the deal: You make this statement and the death sentence will be cancelled tomorrow and everything will go back to normal,” you do it. Especially if the alternative is that you cannot go home or see your child. You have no idea what the hell is going on. You think you might be dead in a day or two. So this statement was put out in my name.
PLAYBOY: But Khomeini refused to reverse the order and a price was put on your head.
RUSHDIE: Yes. It’s an odd thing to have a price on your head. At the same time, though, the reward has never been a real problem. The real threat has never come from people who are trying to claim the money.
PLAYBOY: Does the real threat come from Muslim fanatics?
RUSHDIE: Not them, either. The only real threat has come from the Iranian government itself, and it is the Iranian government that remains the danger. It would be foolish not to recognize that there is a small risk from a fanatic. But there has been no evidence, over this whole period, of any real threat from anyone other than the government.
PLAYBOY: Yet Khomeini said that “it is incumbent on every Muslim” to kill you.
RUSHDIE: Nobody was interested. Iranians have tried to get other Muslim countries involved, but nobody else wants to. Even the hard-line Islamic states such as Sudan are not interested. The Islamic leader there, Turabi, made explicit statements to the general public that the fatwa is against Islam. I mean, it’s not that they like me, but they don’t believe I should be killed.
PLAYBOY: Who in the Iranian government is behind the attacks?
RUSHDIE: People under the direction of the Iranian intelligence ministry.
PLAYBOY: Why was the fatwa continued after the Ayatollah died?
RUSHDIE: It was political. Partly, Iran wanted an easier target after its defeat by Saddam Hussein—though I didn’t turn out to be an easy enough target, apparently. Most of all, the Iranian leaders thought they would strengthen their positions as leaders of the Muslim world is they killed this enemy of their people. Yet now many Muslim intellectuals and academics have changed their opinions of the book; they no longer view it as blasphemous. The fact is, the reason I did so much arguing in the beginning is because the book, considered properly, would not even have been banned. The book was banned and the fatwa was ordered because of rumors.
PLAYBOY: What did you mean when you said, early after the fatwa, that you wished you had written a book more critical of Islam?
RUSHDIE: It struck me that a religious leader who arbitrarily condemns people to death and is willing to resort to international terrorism to carry out the sentences probably merits a little criticism.
PLAYBOY: When the death sentence was announced, did you go into complete isolation?
PLAYBOY: We read that you became a television addict—watching endless Dynasty reruns.
RUSHDIE: You say things to journalists as a joke and they become part of the myth. It’s true that it was very difficult to see anybody for the first couple years. Later I was told by people who came into Scotland Yard that the degree to which my freedom was circumscribed at the beginning was completely unnecessary.
PLAYBOY: Why was it unnecessary?
RUSHDIE: They don’t believe that I needed to be so sequestered in order to be kept safe. There is a difference between protecting people and concealing them. For a long time I was offered concealment rather than protection. This has slowly changed, partly because of my argument that if I am seen to have been locked away for the rest of my life, the aggressors have won—the fatwa has worked. They didn’t have to kill me if they succeeded in silencing me. It was a guarantee that the technique would be used again. Make a threat and get the other side to shut up their own people. That would be dreadful.
PLAYBOY: When you did go out, were you paranoid, looking over your shoulder?
RUSHDIE: The opposite, really. I have spent a great deal of time reassuring other people. I can’t tell you how many newspaper articles there are about me in which the journalist gets very upset when a nearby car backfires. The backfiring car is a kind of motif for these people.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you ever jump when you heard one?
RUSHDIE: No. In the stories about these backfiring cars, it’s always mentioned that I did not twitch. One of the writers called this denial. It was not. It was knowing the sound of a backfiring car. So I spent a lot of my time telling other people that there was nothing to worry about.
PLAYBOY: Yet there was something to worry about.
RUSHDIE: When you know what there is to worry about, you also know what there isn’t to worry about. If you’re talking about a professional hit, you know you are safe in certain situations. I came to understand what was risky and what wasn’t. It was not risky to be eating in a café, because terrorists know that the risk of being identified and captured is great. We are safe in this room, because even if there were a guy with a submachine gun in the street outside, he would not enter this building to attack me, because he doesn’t know what he would meet. There is zero risk here.
PLAYBOY: Did you have nightmares?
RUSHDIE: No. I did think in the beginning that I probably would die quite soon. You live with that. Yet the question of fear was not an issue. There was initially shock, which was followed by bewilderment and by a kind of loss of balance. Then this was replaced by a kind of single-mindedness, resolve and determination. Fear has not been relevant.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever consider changing your identity?
RUSHDIE: It was never offered and I would not have been interested.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever use a disguise?
RUSHDIE: There was one ridiculous occasion when they offered me a wig. I looked ridiculous, but I decided to try it out on a London street. I got out of a car in the wig and there were all these stares and comments: “There is Salman Rushdie in a wig.” It was so ludicrous that I determined I would never succumb to that kind of thing again. I wore a hat and occasionally dark glasses and I began to venture out a bit more.
PLAYBOY: British Airways and some other airlines would not allow you to fly on their planes. Is that still true?
RUSHDIE: It’s getting better. The fact is, I’ve flown all over the world on all sorts of airlines and nobody has ever had the faintest bit of trouble as a result.
PLAYBOY: Do you understand their fear that there would perhaps be some nervous passengers?
RUSHDIE: Well, nothing has happened on the 17 different airlines I’ve flown, so I don’t understand it, no. When people recognize me on airplanes they are incredibly friendly. They have their picture taken with me and ask me to sign their menus. The fact is, airlines are supposed to have good security precautions and either they do or they don’t. When I get on a plane, just like when any other person gets on a plane, it is made certain that proper precautions are taken. So actually it’s safer on planes.
PLAYBOY: What was your reaction when your translators and publishers were attacked?
RUSHDIE: I was devastated. It was appalling and tragic. It happened long after the initial declaration of the fatwa, too, so there had been a sense that surely it was safe now. These attacks showed that to be untrue. It was terrible and so senseless. In each case, the book was already published. It wasn’t that they were going to shoot the translator and stop him from translating the book; it was finished. So what was it for?
PLAYBOY: Did you feel responsible?
RUSHDIE: I did—I knew I was the one who was meant to be murdered. It was such a tragedy, such a waste. At the same time, when they attacked William Nygaard, my publisher in Norway of 15 years who had become a good friend, I was able to call him in the hospital. The first thing he said was that he didn’t want me to feel responsible. He wanted me to know he was extremely proud to be the publisher of The Satanic Verses and he would publish it again if given the choice. But you cannot help but feel responsible. He hates to be called heroic, because he says he was just doing his job. So were the other publishers and many other individuals. Immediately after this began, some of the bookstore chains in America pulled the book off their shelves, claiming they were protecting their staffs. But their staffs refused to be protected in that way. That act of heroism got the book back on the shelves. So did the actions of the writer Stephen King, which people don’t know about. A lot of literary writers received credit for the way they stood up for me—the Susan Sontags and Don DeLillos and Julian Barneses. But King has not. According to people inside the book chains, he was incensed and did a great deal of arguing on behalf of The Satanic Verses. He went so far as to threaten the chains that he would pull his books off their shelves if my book was not on them. He also apparently talked to other best-selling writers to get their support.
PLAYBOY: Was King a friend?
RUSHDIE: I have never met him. But I certainly owe him one.
PLAYBOY: Amid your many supporters, there were also some surprising critics. How do you respond to them?
RUSHDIE: Whom are you referring to?
PLAYBOY: John le Carré, Roald Dahl, Germaine Greer.
RUSHDIE: That’s quite a roll call, isn’t it? If those people were all together in a room, I’d prefer to be in a different one, OK? But there were so many supporters. It’s worth emphasizing that had it not been for their extraordinary campaign and support, I would very possibly not have found the strength to face this thing. People rose to the occasion in extraordinary ways. Some were my friends, but many were not. I didn’t know Arthur Miller when he spoke up. I didn’t know Don DeLillo. I didn’t know Norman Mailer. Some of the ones who were old friends of mine, including Julian Barnes, did more for me personally than I can ever say. So had it not been for this army of people getting it right, I might be more upset about the small handful who got it wrong. It may be wrong to speak ill of the dead, but Roald Dahl, for one, was a bastard. He was a dreadful, horrible old man, a racist somewhere to the right of Hitler. The only thing worse than being attacked by Dahl would be to be his friend.
PLAYBOY: What about le Carré?
RUSHDIE: Somehow I wasn’t upset about le Carré, and I think it’s because he’s not a writer I cared enough about. I have a terrible feeling he may have reacted the way he did because of a review I once wrote of one of his books—a bad review.
PLAYBOY: And Germaine Greer?
RUSHDIE: Well, Greer has made a lifetime habit of stabbing her friends in the back, so why would she stop now? She has since claimed to have been misquoted and misunderstood, but Germaine has spent her life claiming she was misquoted and misunderstood.
PLAYBOY: How do you respond to the attacks from the right-wing English press?
RUSHDIE: I must say I have been more surprised by the venom in the attacks against me from non-Islamic sources than from Islamic ones. Fanatics behave like fanatics; they are acting in character. But I never expected that other people, even those whose politics were unlike mine, would take this opportunity to kick me so hard when I was down. It has been a harsh lesson. I used to get upset, but I learned to take them with a grain of salt. The fact is, despite this extraordinary vendetta, my detractors have failed to convince the British public that I am a bad fellow. Whenever I go anywhere, I am invariably recognized, and people are fantastically supportive.
PLAYBOY: One writer said that it’s too bad you weren’t a nice guy like John Updike. It would have been much easier to defend you.
RUSHDIE: But I am a nice guy like John Updike. It was just easier for some people to pretend that I was not. So there was an extraordinary attempt to destroy my character, and like all the other attempts, it didn’t work.
PLAYBOY: Among the political leaders who criticized you was Jimmy Carter. Did that surprise you?
RUSHDIE: I was shocked about Carter. However, he’s since sort of made an attempt to back off that stance. I know people who asked him about it. He told them that he’s a little sheepish about what was said. I never saw the text, and there is a problem of reporting that gets skewered. In this case, I am disposed to let it slide.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that President Bush and his administration refused to meet with you or take a firm stand in your support?
RUSHDIE: Yes. I don’t know why. Somebody suggested that it might have been because at that stage the Iranians knew where all the bodies were buried in the Iran-Contra business. Maybe people didn’t want to upset that too much.
PLAYBOY: Did you expect a change when Clinton became president?
RUSHDIE: There was a great change. However, it was disappointing that the Republicans viewed this through partisan eyes. Republicans as well as Democrats should be able to agree that we don’t kill people because we don’t like what they write.
PLAYBOY: How difficult was it to meet Clinton?
RUSHDIE: It took a lot of lobbying on the part of my supporters in America. John Major also helped pave the way. He believed it would be helpful if I could meet Clinton.
PLAYBOY: Were you disappointed when Clinton seemed to waffle in his support after the meeting, almost apologizing for it?
RUSHDIE: There was a kind of wobble, yes, but I have to say that the administration has remained very helpful. The meeting with Clinton was of enormous political consequence in Europe. It immediately unlocked all the gates to power here. Because of Clinton, seeing me stopped being uncool. Suddenly they were all queuing up to meet me—all the prime ministers and presidents. There has been a dramatic change in the position of the Iranians.
PLAYBOY: How was it changed?
RUSHDIE: In continuing conversations between the European Union and Iran, Iran keeps putting up straws in the wind. They have said the fatwa will not be carried out, though they refuse to put it in writing. But the tide has changed. They have woken up to the fact that they’re broke, they have no friends in the world and they need help. This issue gets in their way wherever they go. Wherever they go for meetings, they spend two-thirds of the time being asked about me. And it’s a pain in the neck. So they want to end this crisis, but have so far refused to sign a formal agreement.
PLAYBOY: Perhaps they’re just trying to get out of this quietly, while saving face.
RUSHDIE: But the European Union has said that a minimum requirement to end such a large crisis is a formal agreement. I agree, because assurances from Iran mean nothing. We need a document that they can be held accountable to, not something they can deny tomorrow. I have a feeling that we may be only two or three steps away from that. Meanwhile, the situation has changed. I’ve been much more open recently. I’ve deliberately tried to prove that the situation has changed by doing ordinary things such as book signings that are announced in advance.
PLAYBOY: There still has been heavy security at such events.
RUSHDIE: Not by the standards of what it was a year ago. Scotland Yard is still careful, because it has to be until it’s actually settled. It is not only my safety that’s an issue. If it were, I would dispense with the security precautions at this point. I am tired of being hemmed in. But Scotland Yard continues to respond to what it considers to be the worst possible case, even if the threat has lessened. And now that there have been a few successful events, its attitude has relaxed even more.
PLAYBOY: So you feel your campaign has been successful?
RUSHDIE: Successful, though if we get a deal with the Iranians tomorrow, I will not feel victorious. I have lost seven years of my life. I have lost the opportunity to share a lot of my son’s childhood. I will never get that back. When most fathers were out in the park throwing a ball around with their children, I was not. That time is forever lost. So I won’t feel victorious. I feel pleased to have been able to stand up for things I believe in. And I’m pleased this horrendous attack, which attempted to dictate what people can write and read, didn’t work.
PLAYBOY: When you were in hiding, how long did it take to begin writing again?
RUSHDIE: I soon wrote a few book reviews as a way of showing that I’m still here, folks. Then I wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories and then the book of short stories.
PLAYBOY: Was it difficult to begin writing again?
RUSHDIE: It was difficult to concentrate. There was also a great sadness in me because of what had happened to my book. I spent five years writing in the most serious way, and then had the book reduced to a series of slogans, insulted and vilified and reduced and burned. I felt, for a while, if this is what you get, it’s not worth it. Thank you very much, I’d rather be a plumber. Of course that was simply an expression of misery, nothing else. Eventually I realized that I have to write; it doesn’t matter what people think or say.
PLAYBOY: Do you find that love is the central issue in most people’s lives?
RUSHDIE: Love and death. That’s not an original thing to say, but yes. I’m enough of an old hippie really to believe that all you need is love. The central story of Aurora and Abraham in the book is a story of what happens when love dies. When it goes away it leaves this dreadful vortex.
PLAYBOY: Does it have to go away?
RUSHDIE: Passionate love, the sledgehammer love, isn’t the one that usually lasts. Then, when it goes, one can be disoriented. That kind of love takes a lot of recovering from and it’s easy to tumble out of control.
PLAYBOY: Did you find your marriage to be an object lesson?
RUSHDIE: Not necessarily my marriage—either marriage—but I have been through it. The most all-consuming love affair I ever had was not with a woman I’ve married. But like everyone else, I have had my experiences in love gone wrong. It would be very difficult to write about if I hadn’t been through it.
PLAYBOY: Of all of those who have attacked you, it was your wife, who had initially gone into hiding with you, who became your most bitter critic. Why?
RUSHDIE: I think she had to invent me as a person worth leaving. Otherwise there would be a tendency to believe that she should have stood by her man in that old-fashioned way. She tried to create an image of me as being worthless, which then made it possible for her to leave with dignity.
PLAYBOY: Otherwise it would have seemed she was abandoning ship.
RUSHDIE: Yeah. There are a number of fictions about this period that I haven’t talked about before now, but I think I just will say it. First of all, to be strictly accurate, she did not leave me. I asked her to leave. The reason I asked her to leave was that her behavior had become upsetting in ways I don’t want to comment on. I preferred to be by myself, which is a mark of how upsetting it was. The idea that Marianne could not live with me because I was unable to live up to history is not true. I asked her to go away because I couldn’t stand having her around. There was an enormous amount of dishonesty. There were actions that, in my view, were positively dangerous. So I ended the marriage. Since then she has attempted to construct the view that she decided to leave me, because no doubt it seems nobler. But the fact is that I discovered many things about her that were extraordinarily shocking and distasteful. I’m very glad to have seen the last of her. I feel foolish is all I can say. It is the problem of falling in love with the wrong person. Your friends tell you, but you don’t see it until it is too late.
PLAYBOY: Did that experience disenchant you with love?
RUSHDIE: It certainly shook me. I don’t deny it. There was so much dishonesty involved and I’m not a dishonest man.
PLAYBOY: You were in particularly bizarre circumstances to be single.
RUSHDIE: Yes. I remember going on 60 Minutes shortly after my marriage broke up. Mike Wallace rather courageously asked me what I did for sex.
RUSHDIE: As I told him, I was rather glad to have a break, actually. He seem shocked by that answer. But life goes on, and I am not afraid to tell you that my sex life since then has been fine.
PLAYBOY: How do you manage to date and have relationships?
RUSHDIE: Let’s put it like this: People should not feel sorry for me.
PLAYBOY: There was a report that your friends were supplying you with women.
RUSHDIE: I sued when that was printed. The paper that printed it had to pay and I gave the money to a free-speech organization. It’s ludicrous, this idea that my friends were running some kind of pimping service.
PLAYBOY: How religious was your family?
RUSHDIE: Not very. I was brought up more or less without God. Although we were Muslim, religion was worn very lightly. I think my father would take me to the mosque twice a year, the equivalent of going to church at Christmas. We did not eat the flesh of swine, but that was about it.
PLAYBOY: The religious people in your books are not very admirable. Conversely, secularists are generally the more moral. Is that your view?
RUSHDIE: It is. I object particularly to fundamentalism, whether it’s Hindu, Muslim or Christian. It’s completely barren on any intellectual level. Fundamentalism purports to defend culture, but it doesn’t know about the culture that it’s defending. If religion is supposed to be a repository of a certain kind of truth, fundamentalism seems to me to be a denial of the truth. It is about the creation of falsehoods and goes after the worst sides of people. I’m alarmed by what’s happening wherever fundamentalists rise—such as the rise of the American religious right. It is at least as dangerous as anything happening in the Third World—with more weapons, probably. I don’t think Americans can afford any longer to see this as something happening to other people. It’s important to understand that fundamentalism does not even pretend to be a religious movement. It is a political movement. It’s about power. So watch out.
PLAYBOY: Do you view all religion as dangerous, even the less extremist forms?
RUSHDIE: No. I’m perfectly able to see the ability of religious systems to provide identity, a sense of community and belonging, a sense of hope and comfort and even a kind of moral structure in people’s lives. But these past years I’ve been given an object lesson in the ability of religion to do some other things, which are not so likeable. I’ve experienced the capacity of religion to do harm. So while I am completely fascinated, even mesmerized by the history of religion and religious myths, I can’t stand the system of rules. This inevitably filters into my books, although I have never seen myself as a religious novelist. There are others for whom religion is the central issue. I am instead a writer of memories, a playful writer, a writer who tries to look at history, a writer with some kind of central linguistic ambition. And I see myself as one who wrestles with his times and tries to make sense of them. Even The Satanic Verses isn’t a novel about religion, but about migration.
PLAYBOY: From the outset, did you plan to write political novels?
RUSHDIE: Only indirectly. The thing that made me a writer was the fact that I came from over there—that is, India—and I ended up over here, in England, and I had to make sense of that. I had a bundle of stories I brought with me, my literary baggage, and I wanted to tell those stories, and have those stories lead to other stories. Part of the stories is the way history and people’s lives rub up together. We find ourselves in a position in which public life often determines our fates in ways that have nothing to do with what sort of people we are. Economics is destiny, politics is destiny, terrorism is destiny.
PLAYBOY: How do you feel about having become a symbol of freedom of speech?
RUSHDIE: I have no interest in being a symbol. I want to be a writer, and that’s all. I do want to be a good writer and one who engages in public themes, as well as private ones. I wanted to have my say—to be part of that conversation. But I didn’t want to become some kind of statue.
PLAYBOY: But isn’t there, in your work, an intent to stir up trouble, to incite?
RUSHDIE: It depends on what you mean. I think all good art is provocative. I don’t particularly like the idea of demonstrations in foreign cities—that wasn’t something I wanted—but I do want art to stir you up, to make you think and feel. I think the reason for being a creative artist of any sort is that you want to be a part of the conversation: I see this. What do you think? Here’s how I feel. Do you feel it? That’s what the work of art does to you. If it doesn’t, it’s inert. If it does, it’s provocative. Certainly I would hope that everything I wrote provoked people. But that doesn’t mean provoke them to anger or violence. It can mean provoke their sense of duty or their sense of horror or their sense of justice or injustice or their sense of humor. It’s true that I have a fairly emphatic view of the world and I express it. Inevitably it means a lot of people don’t like it. That just comes with the territory. Midnight’s Children was written in the aftermath of the Bangladesh war, in which mass genocide was committed by the Pakistani army. Immediately afterward, everybody denied the genocide had taken place. It also came in the aftermath of the emergency rule of Mrs. Gandhi, when there were all kinds of atrocities. Once again, afterwards a lot of the evidence was destroyed and the experience was denied. If I’m trying to offer a truthful picture of what happened in those times, remembering what happened inevitably becomes politicized. Just writing down the story of the mass graves found in Bangladesh by the liberating army or the people who got their testicles cut off in various prisons around North India brings you into conflict with the authority figures who denied that those things happened.
[The interview is interrupted with news that Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa has been executed. Rushdie is silent, near tears, for ten minutes. He then begins speaking again.]
Writers have been wiped out all over the place, and it is horrifying the way in which nothing much happens as a result. I will be interested to see what happens to Nigeria as a result of this. I suspect a three-letter word that begins with O and ends with L—with I in the middle—might prevent anybody from being too harsh. Yet here is a man who has been killed because he set himself up against the interest of oil. A very brave man, because he didn’t write from exile. He wrote from inside the belly of the beast and it was dangerous. Then he gave up his writing to put himself at the head of the democracy movement. He knew the rest of the world was getting to be wishy-washy and nobody was willing to do anything. [He stops again, collects himself.] You know, I feel that so much attention has been paid to me while so many other writers have been in danger. I have spoken about other writers because it would be obscene to use this attention and not talk about those others. I wish people would listen more to this.
There were great writers in the Soviet Gulag whom we fought for. We smuggled out their work and published it, and gave them voices and fought for them. Now another group of writers is fighting against equivalent tyranny and equivalent injustice, in the Muslim world or out. Because our interests do not dictate it, we ignore them, we let them die, we let them go to jail and rot. We must stop a situation in which writers are getting wiped out every five minutes, in which writers are being exiled, in which Saro-Wiwa can be murdered. China continues to persecute its writers. All over the world, writers are being thrown in jail. They mysteriously die in police custody and they are falsely accused of committing crimes. It is open season on writers and it must stop.