Salman Rushdie

Literature’s War on ISIS

Air Date: September 26, 2015

Renowned author Salman Rushdie, talks about his latest work: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, faith and reason, and how fiction can be grounded in reality to expose deeper truths.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The courageous literary lion who joins us today has created dangerously, forever epitomizing the pursuit of free expression. Prize-winning novelist, president emeritus of the PEN American center, Salman Rushdie famously authored The Satanic Verses in 1988. Its publication precipitated death threats from hateful theocrats and terrorism raged. Now Rushdie’s first adult novel in nearly eight years re-imagines the classic Arabian lore One Thousand and One Nights. The title, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. It’s another tour de force of magical realism. And in his new age of mythology, strange creatures, the jinn, rule over New York City with brute force in the aftermath of a great storm. In this oft-satirical fantasy, philosophical questions concerning faith and truth are disputed. The dark jinn, fractious inattentive, vain and cruel as they were, feared but also hated, Rushdie writes, found in a short time that their vision of colonizing the Earth and enslaving its peoples wasn’t enough to survive. So I want to ask Rushdie, what are we to gather from these eerily familiar barbarous creatures — and it’s truly an honor to be with you today.

RUSHDIE: Thank you, it’s great to, great to be with you too. Um, you know, thank you for that, that really um, enjoyable summary of the, this crazy book. Um, I mean I think you know, the thing about, the thing I’ve always thought about the literature of the fantastic, you know, the kind of surrealist, non-naturalistic literature, is that it’s only interesting if it’s in some way about the real world. You know, if it’s just escapist fantasy, that’s of no interest to me, I mean that’s, that’s if you like children’s literature. Um, but if grown-ups are going to use this kind of way of speaking, you know, um, it really has to be just another way of talking about what’s going on. You know, and, and uh, I think… the great thing about literature is that it needs not to be too literal. You know, if it’s just preaching about you about what you can find on the news anyway, then it’s not interesting either. You know, so you have to find just another way of talking, you know, and I think for me, this wonderful storehouse of stories which I grew up with, which are the so-called wonder tales of the east, of which the Arabian Nights is the most famous, but by no means the only, the only compendium, they just have always given me a kind of clue about how one can talk, you know, in a way that’s not, that’s not just journalistic. And, and I think you know, that one of the strange things about this phrase magic realism that gets, gets thrown at me quite often…

HEFFNER: Forgive me, forgive me.

RUSHDIE: No no, it’s all right, but it’s that when people use it, they kind of only hear the magic, they don’t hear the realism, you know, and I think that what’s interesting about this kind of writing is that it’s both things. That, that it is actually very often really grounded in, in a, in an idea of reality and the truth and so on, you know, but then uses these other methods to approach it.

HEFFNER: Fantastically.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I, you know, I’ve always been, you know, magic realism is just the latest label, and I think, you know, I think if you look back a little bit to, to things, I mean surrealism, it’s the same thing, you know? Um, in the ‘70s in American literature there was this movement which got called fabulism which was people like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth and Robert Coover and so on, same thing. You know? So this, this idea of using, um, you know, fairy tale, folktale surreal events as a way of telling stories about the real world, you know, it’s always been there. It’s always been there, I mean it’s, you could look at Russian literature and it’s there in Gogol and Bulgakov. You could look, anywhere in the world you find it cropping up every so often, so I’m just the latest outcrop.

HEFFNER: So as you conceived of the jinn,


HEFFNER: What was the realistic analog here?

RUSHDIE: Well, well what I thought was this, that, that we live in this world in which I think many of us feel, uh, that we don’t really understand what’s going on, you know, and that somehow the rules of the game appear not to operate anymore, you know, that uh, we live in a world we don’t understand in which the kind of familiar shapes of the world and, and in a way the way things are supposed to be, you know, you know, no longer apply. You know, and, and something new and rather horrible appears to be going on, which is very hard to grasp, even just mentally hard to grapple with, you know, and, and I think that’s a sense that many people have, you know, of what, of how they feel in the world today. So I wanted to dramatize that. Um, as I say not literally, not to say let’s make a, an allegory about ISIS or whatever, you know, I mean that’s, that’s not really what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to say that there is this breakdown in the familiar, you know, and the world has become an unfamiliar and quite dark place. And how do we live in it? How do we deal with that? How do we confront that?

HEFFNER: You’ve experienced that darkness…


HEFFNER: Intimately.


HEFFNER: And, and so I, I wondered as you reflect on contemporary society and the efforts towards breeding a climate of truce and calm and um, compassion as opposed to Satan, evil.

RUSHDIE: Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: Uh… Do you see it as a viable path?

RUSHDIE: I hope so, you know, I mean I’m not, I mean I’m a peace-loving guy, you know. I mean I, I also think if you look at recent history, the, the path of war has been notably unsuccessful. You know, I mean wherever, wherever you look, whether you look at um, the Middle East or in Afghanistan or wherever you look, you know, um, dropping bombs and shooting guns and sending tanks out there and so on has really, what has that done except make the world in many ways more dangerous than it was?

So, I’m not impressed by the hawkish arguments. You know, um, because they’re, they’re so disproved by recent events. Um, just as whether they’re effective or not. You know, on the other hand, I don’t, I really don’t know what I think about these attempts to make peace in the Middle East, especially with Iran, I mean because you know, Iran’s a treacherous place and, and they’re quite capable of saying one thing and doing another. Um, so I, I would, I think the whole test of this uh, deal is going to be uh, how much scrutiny is allowed of, of the Iran nuclear project and if there’s any attempt to backslide from that openness and transparency then it’s a bad deal, you know, uh, uh, so…

HEFFNER: And as you, the Ayatollah will overrule the foreign minister.

RUSHDIE: Yeah. Although at the moment he seems to be not doing that. He seems to be telling the Iranian press to praise this as a mighty victory. And, I mean I find that language of victory and defeat kind of tedious and boring and you know, anti-intelligent. But, so I mean I don’t know, my, my view is not proven, you know? I think uh, the alternative is dreadful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is a good thing.

HEFFNER: As you and your friend Bill Maher, uh, and many self-identified secularists, atheists have found a new hero and it’s in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis.

RUSHDIE: Oh … don’t put me, [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: But, but, but hear me out because I’m very curious about your insight into this. It’s, it’s a question that’s percolated for me. The, The Pope has been very active in the negotiations and was heralded as the decisive actor in Cuba, normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. Why do you think that he’s been silent on the Iranian nuclear deal? There’s, there’s…

RUSHDIE: I don’t know, but he doesn’t have to have a view about everything, you know, it’s not, it’s not required for him to be an extra politician in a frock, you know?


RUSHDIE: Um, but I mean I, I think he’s an interesting figure, you know, and I think he’s as one might expect, um, in some ways problematic and in some ways surprisingly progressive, you know, and so I think when he, when he talks about um, environmental issues for example, you know, it’s kind of rather wonderful to hear those words coming out of such a powerful mouth, place, you know. Um, but on the hand, you know, in the case of the vote in Ireland in favor of um, gay rights and so on, I mean the Vatican was very hostile to that. You know. So, so, so sometimes he’s progressive and sometimes not so much, you know? And, and I don’t know, my view is it’s a shame we have to look there for our…

HEFFNER: Inspiration?

RUSHDIE: Inspiration, you know, because that’s not where I look.

HEFFNER: Right. Where, where did you look, now obviously you have an inspiring story but one that um, was challenging, um, personally to live through an ordeal.


HEFFNER: Um, and the threats of violence, so as um, that initial spark of, of terrorism, and I really wonder if you think that that, that moment in history was an illustration of, kind of portended a, a, several decades of this cruelty and mischief towards humanists and people who want to freely express their ideas?

RUSHDIE: Yeah. No I mean I, actually, when I wrote my memoir, Joseph Anton, I sort of more or less said that. I mean I, I, I think that, I don’t know that it was the first thing, you know, but it was one of the early let’s say notes of the music, you know, which we now hear everywhere all the time, you know?


RUSHDIE: Um, but one of the things I felt about writing that memoir, which was the book immediately before this, is that it, it felt like I just got that monkey off my back, you know, and I’m, I’m frankly sick of my own story.


RUSHDIE: You know, um, because I didn’t, you know, I didn’t get into writing books in order to talk about myself, you know, I, I wanted to make up stories about other people and the thing that really excites me as a writer is when people that I’ve made up come to life on the page, you know, and that’s, that’s the great pleasure. And uh, and in this book there are, I mean some of the zaniest characters, you know, that I’ve ever come up with but um, zany isn’t enough. You know, in the end they’ve got to be human beings on the page, and uh, when they begin to feel, feel to me like they have a kind of life of their own, you know, that’s what excites me as a writer, you know, and, and one of the things I’ve learned, because in a way of what happened to me and people’s desire to see me in my books all the time, you know, which character is him, you know, um, is that I’ve learned not to have autobiographical characters in my books. Not to have characters where people can say oh, that’s the author in disguise.


RUSHDIE: Um, just as a way of doing what I want to do, which is to tell stories about the world. There’s a theme in the book which is about a kind of collision between a rational, let’s say, let’s say a reason-driven view of the world and a faith-driven view of the world, you know, and uh, and I think you know, many of us can see that that straight-forwardly applies to the world outside this studio, you know…

HEFFNER: Expound on that and, and the narrative that you construct for our viewers.

RUSHDIE: Well, one of the characters in the book is based on sort of my version of this 12th century Spanish, uh, Moorish philosopher known in the west as Averroes and in the Muslim world as, as Ibn Rushd, which is also where my family name comes from. Um, and he in his time, he was a great scholar of Aristotle, um, and his, his vision was to try and find a way of uniting logic, reason, science, uniting that with religion. He was not irreligious, he always considered himself to be a religious man. But he wanted to find a way of uniting these different strands of his own thinking, right? And against that there is a, you know, there’s what we have now come to understand as literalism, you know, which, which rejects the intervention of reason in science into the, into theology, into religious questions, and just simply says God is capable of anything. I mean there’s a little episode there which is actually taken genuinely from this dispute in real philosophy where the philosopher, the literalist if you like, philosopher Ghazali uses the image of a, of a flame and a bowl of cotton. And he says what do you think happens if you touch a ball of cotton with a flame? And the obvious answer is that the ball of cotton catches fire, but why is that? See now the, the man of reason would say well it’s because it’s the natural law that fire burns cotton and, and um, Averroes would have said that once God has put those laws in place, they simply apply. Um, but the counter-argument is no, God, God is not bound by natural laws. If God decided that the cotton would extinguish the flame, he could make that happen, you know, and, and the flame only burns the cotton because at that moment, God decides that’s okay to do. So those two views of the world, um, if you like the magical and the, and the reasonable view of the world, and you know, I’m very often on the magical side. So it’s not like a black-white good-bad thing. You know, um, but in fact, what the book I think one of the things that it tries to suggest is that when these things do blend, when they come together, something rather wonderful happens, you know, and, and that neither of them is entirely able to function without the other. It’s like what I was saying about magic realism, the magic and the realism, put them together, something interesting happens.

HEFFNER: And, and it, are the jinn use, the vehicle through which humanity ultimately reconciles these uh…

RUSHDIE: Well the jinn you know, are, …are this, these supernatural beings,


RUSHDIE: Who live in a separate world to ours. You know, um, which is you know, known in, in the east as Paristan which literally translates as Fairyland. So but that’s where they live. And in, the idea of the novel is that because of a series of natural phenomena on Earth, like giant storms and so on, um, the seals between the worlds are broken, and so these very powerful and rather malicious supernatural beings are able to show up here in New York City and um, make trouble. And, and for me that was just a way of saying — let’s talk about the eruption into the world of the irrational, you know, and, and not just the irrational but the mischievous, you know, I mean it doesn’t have to be evil, you know, sometimes it’s just mischief, playfulness, um, a refusal to obey the normal, the normal rules of things, you know. Doing things to people that they can’t believe like there’s you know, one of the main characters of the novel is this gardener who suddenly discovers that he’s come detached from the ground, you know, somebody whose life is, is love of the earth, you know, is suddenly, suddenly floating above the ground. And I think, I thought the thing that makes it funny to me is that he’s just not floating up at the sky, you know, he’s like this much above the ground, he’s like half an inch above the ground, and which is just as scientifically impossible as being twenty feet up, you know, so um, but that kind of idea that the jinn arrive and mess with our heads and, and, and, and make ordinary life suddenly unpredictable. I mean there’s a jinn in the novel who transforms himself into a giant sea monster and eats the Staten Island Ferry. [LAUGHS] That’s not supposed to happen.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] Well it’s in that merger of the fantasy and, and the reality, because when we see the, uh, images in closer proximity than ever of Pluto and as uh, the work is, is underway to, to see what extraterrestrial life may…


HEFFNER: May or may not be out there.

RUSHDIE: I’m totally in favor of extraterrestrial life, you know, and I think first of all it’s just about inevitable that it’s gonna be there. I loved it that Pluto had a heart on, on its surface. Very cold heart, coldest, cold out there. Um, but you know, I think just the, the idea that we’re alone in the universe is, is just untenable, I think there’s just too much out there. And, and we’re only just beginning to find, you know, Earth-type planets.

HEFFNER: You, you identify the inherent resilience of humanity in this passage here which I thought was quite moving after reading the story. “We can assert with some degree of confidence that the recovery was swift after the jinns’ takeover, indicating both the resilience of human society and the shallowness of the control of the jinn over their conquest.”

RUSHDIE: Mm hm. Well I just thought you know, it would be so easy given what we see in the newspapers every day, uh, to write a book in which everything’s horrible, and then it gets worse, and it ends terribly. You know, um, that, that’s a, right now that’s easy. And therefore …not interesting. I thought… history isn’t like that, you know, history is full of surprises, enormous changes very suddenly. You know, if I had told you even six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall that communism was about to disappear, I would have seemed, you would have thought I was an idiot, ‘cause it seemed so solid and yet it just blew away like dust. You know, people trying to bring it back now, but that’s another story. Um, um, so I think to see history as something which is just inevitable, you know, especially in a dark time, which I believe this is, you know, to think it can only get worse and worse and worse, that’s, that’s a mistake too, you know? Um, and so I wanted to suggest that things change, you know, good moments end, bad moments end. And um, and how, how, and I do believe that the human race is very resilient, you know, and, and has a very, very powerful survival instinct. Uh, and in the same way as, as the, as the communist ideology was blown away, you know, the next ideology will blow away as well. And then I mean there might be something else horrible after that but I, I’m not saying that there’ll be some simple happy ending.

HEFFNER: Right. [LAUGHS] Speaking of which…


HEFFNER: You and activist, fellow activist luminaries, uh, many artists and authors wrote a manifesto in response to both a episode of the Mohammad cartoon and then again after the incident at the French magazine.


HEFFNER: And uh, together facing the new totalitarianism.


HEFFNER: Um, which you signed along with uh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and, and um, a host of others and together you wrote, “Like all totalitarianisms, Islam is nurtured by fears and frustrations…” This is collectively, not you specifically.


HEFFNER: “The hate preachers bet on these feelings in order to form battalions destined to impose an un-egalitarian world.” Um, so charting the egalitarian path forward…


HEFFNER: To you embodies uh, if not atheism, a, a kind of secularism to which you subscribe.

RUSHDIE: Well, well it embodies a need to be deeply skeptical about the assertions of religious belief. Um, and, and particularly when that religious belief is allied to machine guns. Um, and I think it’s very important, it’s a very important fundamental part of an open society that we retain a skepticism about everything, you know, that we, we don’t take politicians for granted, we don’t take ideas for granted. You know, we, we constantly question and argue and, and it’s not the, even that we come to a conclusion, but the ability to question and argue is a kind of definition of freedom, you know?

HEFFNER: And that has been ceaselessly under fire,


HEFFNER: In the part of the world that issued the fatwa.

RUSHDIE: Very much so. And, and remember that the people who are most impacted by Islamic radicalism are Muslims, you know, uh, that’s the ninety-five percent of the, uh, deaths of Muslims around the world are inflicted by radical Muslims, you know, uh, not by western drones like you know, but um, so the attack is first and foremost on the Muslim community itself, trying to bring it into a kind of position of submission, you know, and, and that’s why it becomes frustrating when people argue that to criticize this kind of fanatical totalitarian Islam is somehow to be, you know, uh, hostile towards the Muslim community, you know, it’s actually the opposite of that. It’s trying to say these are the people who are most …in danger from this, you know, I mean we are kind of side effects. Uh, you know, um, and so I think it’s extremely important to be able to, you know, to draw cartoons, to make jokes, um, to mock. I mean mocking religion is something which is extremely important to do, you know, in fact the whole of our idea of free expression, the one which makes it possible for you and me to have this conversation, came out of the French enlightenment originally, you know, and brought here by Tom Paine and others, you know, and um, and the French enlightenment deliberately set itself to break the power of the church to limit what could be said, you know, and writers like Voltaire and Diderot and so on, you know, they understood that the danger to free expression did not so much come from the state, it came from the church. And the church, the Catholic Church at that time with its anathemas and inquisitions and um, you know, excommunications and all these tools that it had to, to bring people into line, you know, and it’s that, the ability, the success of those figures in establishing freedom to speak in spite of the objections of the church is really what created our current idea of free speech, so now we find ourselves in a way repeating the argument, you know, different church, same argument.

HEFFNER: What will make obsolete theocracy?

RUSHDIE: Well I, [LAUGHS] you know, I mean I, the truth is I’m a child of the sixties, you know, and in, I mean I was 21 in 1968, it was a good year to be 21 for various reasons. Um, but at that time, the idea that religion would re-emerge to have such a powerful place at the center of public affairs would have seemed absurd, would have seemed absurd, I mean religion, nobody was talking about it, you know, and it was uh, was a busted flush, and, and uh, so it’s one of the great surprises of my life that, that something which I had – like many people of my generation had discounted, you know, as a force uh, should have re-emerged so strongly as a force, so I mean I’m, you know, I back to, back to the sixties, sex and drugs and rock and roll, that’ll do it. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Salman Rushdie, I want to thank you for being on this show. We really probe the minds and yours is one that uh, is both creatively superior and uh, infectious and thank you for sharing your work with the world.

RUSHDIE: Thank you, thanks a lot.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @ OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.