Salman Rushdie – Secular Values, Human Rights and Islamism

October 27, 2006

Salman Rushdie is a British-Indian essayist and novelist widely acclaimed for his narrative style that blends myth and fantasy with real life. He has won many awards for his fiction, including the Booker Prize. He is best known for The Satanic Verses which provoked violent reaction from the Muslim community and a fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and was banned in India and througout the Islamic world. In recent years, Rushdie has been more visible publicly, and speaks out against Islamic extremism, and for secularism and the West.

In this presentation, recorded on October 11, 2006, Salman Rushdie addressed an audience at an event sponsored the Center for Inquiry’s New York branch, held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. This special episode of Point of Inquiry features Mr. Rushdie’s remarks, in their entirety, with an introduction by Ibn Warraq.

Also in this episode, D.J. Grothe discusses science, the humanities and Islam with noted ex-Muslim Ibn Warraq.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 27, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., in addition to 11 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we try to look at some of the fundamental assumptions of our culture through the lens of science and critical thinking, focusing mostly on three research areas. First, pseudo science and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, secularism and religion. We look at these three areas by drawing on S.F. I’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s show with Salman Rushdie and even work, I want to welcome to new campus groups starting up a center for inquiry, has a campus outreach program. We call it Center for Inquiry on campus. And there are two new campus groups starting up at Marquette University and at the University of Wisconsin, Marshfield in Wood County. So welcome to those two new campus groups. And if you’d like to work with us to start a campus group at your school to advance science and reason in your learning community, go to Campus Inquirer dot org. By joining online, you’ll receive free educational and promotional materials in the mail. I’d also like to mention some upcoming events, if you’re in the Indianapolis area at the Indiana University of Purdue University of Indiana IUPUI, Eddie to bash a guest on Point of inquiry and the chair of our West Coast branch will be giving a talk entitled Why There Really Is No God. That’s Sunday, October twenty ninth. Also Saturday, October 28, the Center for Inquiry’s community in Austin, Texas, will be holding a big event. If you are in Austin or anywhere in Texas. Texans like to drive for events. You can get information on that at Center for Inquiry dot net slash Austin. Finally, next Saturday, November 4th is a regional organizing conference for free thinkers and skeptics, rationalists, faculty members and students who want to work with us to impact the Southern California region. That’s going to be held at our West Coast branch in Hollywood, California. More information on that event. If you’re in that area, we’d love for you to get involved. Well, it can be found at Campus Enquirer dot org. And now I’m joined in the studio by Eben Work, one of the world’s leading Islamic dissidents. He’s laughing right now. But it’s true. He’s an ex Muslim, a noted Islamic scholar. He’s an outspoken critic of Islam, author of Why I’m Not a Muslim Leaving Islam and a number of other acclaimed titles. He’s here today to talk a little with me about science and Islam by way of introduction to Salman Rushdie’s address, even work. Welcome to Point of Inquiry again. Thank you. Nice to be back. 

Such enthusiasm in this podcast and radio show is about the scientific outlook, what science says about the big questions in your writings. You seem to argue that Islam is fundamentally at odds with science, with the scientific outlook. 

Well, it’s I wouldn’t put it exactly like that. 

In fact, if you look at the some of the leading Islam is who Islamic fundamentalists of the last 10 years, many of them had a scientific education. And many of them are engineers. Amazingly enough, many of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were scientists. 

In fact, they used the best science of the day to advance their militant Islamist agenda. Right. They use the best technology. 

Yes, indeed. So there they are, quite at ease with the physical sciences. And in fact, there is now an enormous amount of literature in the Islamic world on how the Koran, as anticipated, every single scientific discovery of the last 50 years. Do you agree with that? No, of course, it’s complete and utter nonsense. But it’s Muslim trying to take credit for other people’s hard work and genius, particularly Jews, of course. 

But what they really fear is the and the humanities, the historical sciences, because that tends to relativize traditions, customs and so on. 

If you compare that the manners of other peoples, you realize that perhaps your your ways of doing things are not the only way of doing things, that there are alternatives to the Islamic way of life. 

And of course, what they have never done, no Muslim is very comfortable with what I would call Koranic criticism in the same vein as biblical criticism, beginning with, in fact, it started in the 12th century. But we often associated with Spinoza in the 17th and of course, the German critics in the 19th century. Certainly the Muslims tend to be very, very wary of Western research on on the Koran. 

Many of them don’t really understand what scholars like Christoph Luxenberg are all about, but they know that it is somehow blasphemous. So for them, the Koran is the word of God. What it what else is there to say? You know, perhaps some of the meaning needs to be brought out. 

Some of the words are perhaps a little obscure. 

But the fundamental questioning of the origins of the Koran, the Koran as a human text in need of hermeneutical treatment is quite alien. 

And it’s quite significant, in fact, that about seven, eight years ago, a Egyptian scholar, Canossa Abuzaid, who always considers himself a Muslim, tried to use modern hermeneutical. Sciences tried to analyze the Koran as a text, as a human text. 

And he was declared an apostate and he had to flee Egypt and he now lives, I think, in in the Netherlands. 

So if Islam is an anti science. Some have argued it’s anti the scientific outlook. What does science say about our place in the universe? What does science say about human origins? Islam is against that outlook. But surely in the history of Islam, there were great scientific advances. 

Yes, sir. Incidentally, the Muslims are all as wary of the theory of evolution as Christian fundamentalists are. 

So there’s an Islamic creation science movement. 

Is yes. But yes, the Islamic world did indeed produce great scientific research and knowledge from the 9th to the 12th century, particularly in Spain, along Deleuze, as it’s called. It was a very much a cosmopolitan culture with Christians, Jews and newly converted Christians to Islam who made incredible number of contributions. But first and foremost, of course, the Muslims, I say Muslims because they were not all Arabs, but the Muslims at that period were transmitting Greek, Greek or Roman knowledge, Greek or Rubenstein’s, especially Greek, rediscovering Aristotle or Aristotle and also some of the medical papers of Gallin. And so they also transmitted a lot of Hindu science would be called the Arabic letters are in fact, should be called more precisely Hindu Arabic letters, really. They came through some of the works of the Arab horas, me and so on. But the zero was considered a a Hindu contribution to human knowledge. 

But you often hear that the Islamic world discovered zero as a place. 

No, no, no. It was certainly in the arts that is recognized many history in the history of of mathematics, like Maurice Clines, for example, you will see it’s quite clearly stated and you have the the Arabs themselves acknowledging it all, Corries, me as that. But they they did also produce the original work. He Muslims in trigonometry, for example. Optical trigonometry, certainly. 

So let me ask you what went wrong? Why with this great heritage of science, did Islam not continue its forward advance? I guess what I’m asking is Islam now in a dark ages? I mean, it never had a reformation, a renaissance and enlightenment like the West had. Why isn’t Islam as advanced as the West right now, or is that even a misplaced question? Is it as advanced? 

No, it’s not. It certainly isn’t. You’re absolutely right. The Islamic world stopped dead in his tracks. And there have been all sorts of arguments have been given as to why the scientific tradition never took root in the Islamic world. 

And I think the most plausible reason that I’ve come across and I write about it in my new book called Defending the West, a critique of Edward SAYES Orientalism, I argue, basing it on the work of people like Toby Uff, that the 12th century philosopher were the greatest influence on the Islamic world was Al Ghazali on Ghazali, who died in Seven-Eleven discouraged scientific knowledge. We did not have anything to do with increasing your piety. You felt that too much. Aristotle and Plato, he singles them out. And this Islamic obsession with Greek rationalism he thought was really, really dangerous. And he advised people to tread carefully because it only led to skepticism and the very people that we admire all the Middle Ages in Europe admired. You put, like I’ve always known, that I was a sinner. Are the ones that he picks out as being infidels. He accuses them of heresy. 

These were Muslims who were steeped in Aristotle and. Right. What was then kind of the best science of the day? Indeed, yes. And he pointed them out as exemplars of the way. You don’t want to be a Muslim. Right. 

And the other reason is a bit more complex. The one of the reasons that scientific knowledge. Institutionalized in the West was the idea of the corporate person. This was a development in Western law, the idea that if an institution is legally a person never developed in Islam. 

And you’re saying that is foundational to the development of science? Absolutely. 

The West, because institutions like the university took root in the 13th century in Europe and they had an independent legal status, although they didn’t have absolute freedom of thought. Nonetheless, traditions could be passed on in this institutional manner, whereas in the Islamic world, it tended to be a private matter between master and pupil. So once the pupil or the master died, unless the pupil himself took on pupils, there was no one to pass this knowledge onto. There was no framework within which these traditions could develop and be passed on from one generation to another. 

So even work. Let me ask you, if Islam is not yet in the 21st century, if you understand where I’m going with that, what does it need to do to get there? 

Well, it’s, again, a very, very complex question. First of all, I don’t think that there will be any reform. There won’t be any progress until we have political freedom, until you have real democracy, protection of freedom of speech, until you have a total separation of state and religion. I think that is fundamental to progress, I think is one of the reasons that the West developed us so amazingly, particularly after the wars of religion and the establishment of the American constitution, which firmly enshrined this this separation of state and church. I think that is going to be fundamental. So political reform, protection of freedom of speech and so on, all the the underlying principles of liberal democracy, until you have those people will not start asking questions about their religion because it at the moment it is punishable by death, because soon as you start questioning any dogmas of Islam, you become an apostate and apostasy is punishable by death. And it has been applied in recent years, particularly in in Iran and in the Sudan. 

So it’s not just a theoretical forgotten law. It is actually applied in some cases. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry this week in work. Thank you very much. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism Dawg. 

A few weeks ago, Salman Rushdie, the noted author who had a fatwa, declared against him for writing the book Satanic Verses. He spoke at an event for our New York City branch. Here are those remarks. The introduction is by IBN Work. 

When I was asked to introduce Mr. Salman Rushdie, I was, of course, delighted. But I was also asked to provide something more than biographical details and a list of publications and their dates. Something more personal. What Mr. Rushdie’s writings mean to me. Well, let me get the biographical details out of the way. Mr. Rush, he was born in Bombay, now Mumbai in 1947. Educated in Mumbai, also in a boarding school in England and King’s College, Cambridge. Mr. Rushdie is a writer, film critic, political commentator, winner of numerous literary awards. Yankees fan and author of a number of novels like Grimey’s Shame, Midnight’s Children, Satanic Verses, Fury, Ground Beneath Her Feet and his latest, Shalimar the Clown. Though Mr. Rushdi, rather like Orson Welles, who got fed up with being asked only about Citizen Kane, must also find constant references to The Satanic Verses only in terms of the Rushdie affair tiresome. I must begin with it, since it was indeed the latter affair that prompted me to write my first book. Why I’m Not a Muslim. Eleven years ago. 

In February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini delivered the infamous fatwa in its immediate way there, followed short interviews with or articles by Western intellectuals Arabistan Islam ologist blaming Rushdie for bringing the barbarous sentence onto himself. They were condescending asides about understanding the hurt felt by Muslims who were urged in, in some cases to beat up Rushdie in some back alley. Here is an example of that tacit approval of the British call for the murder of a British citizen by a respected historian, Professor Trevor Roper, Ropa quote. I wonder how Salman Rushdie is faring these days under the benevolent protection of British law and British police about whom he has been so rude not to comfortably, I hope. I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims deploring his manner should weigh Lahm in a dark street and seek to improve them, if that should cause him thereafter to control his pen. Society would benefit and literature would not suffer. End of quote. Nowhere in these any of these articles is there any criticism of the call to murder. Even worse, there was a recommendation that Rushdie’s book be banned or removed from circulation. Astonishingly, there was no defense of one of the fundamental principles of democracy, the principle without which there can be no human progress, namely the freedom of speech. One would have thought that that this was one principle they as writers and intellectuals would have been prepared to die for. Long before the fatwa, he meant a lot to many from the subcontinent, like 19th century German Jews, who during their assimilationist phase carried a list of Jews who had contributed to German culture. Like the composer Felix Mendelssohn or the painter Mauritz Daniel Open Heim as a kind of talisman to protect them from anti-Semitism. I carried my own list of examples, particularly of known English writers of English Joseph Conrad, Vladimír, not Nabokov and various writers of Indian origin, V.S. Naipaul, our own Jocie Nanterre, Psycho Cushman Singh and of course, Salman Rushdie. 

Finally, soon after Khomeini is fatwa, there appeared this letter in The Observer in Britain. Quote, Salman Rushdie speaks for me. Mine is a voice that has not yet been found. It has not yet found expression in newspaper columns. It is the voice of those who are born Muslims but wish to recant in adulthood, yet are not permitted to on pain of death. 

Someone who does not live in an Islamic society cannot imagine the sanctions, both self imposed and external, that militate against expressing religious disbelief. 

I don’t believe in God is an impossible public utterance. Even among family and friends. So we hold our tongues. Those of us who doubt. End of quote. Well, I do not wish to muscle in on Mr. Rushdie’s act. And you came to hear him. So without further ado, I give you Mr. Salman Rushdie. 

Thanks for coming out on this terrible night. 

And I would be very nice just to stand here and talk about about books and maybe I’ll do some of that, and maybe when you ask questions, you can ask some about books as well as. 

All the usual stuff that we all talk about these days, and I thought I’d other than books I wanted to talk a bit about. 

The thing that I’ve come to call it, you know, the subject that is just the subject seems to be the only one in the world these days not to talk about the distant parts of the subject, not to talk about, you know, Iraq or al-Qaida or Palestine or any of that, but just to talk about some things happening much closer to home. I just I just got here from London and I thought I’d bring you some some news from London. 

There was a couple of few months ago now. 

The comedian Rowan Atkinson and I were involved in an unlikely alliance. Against the Blair government. Which was trying at the time to introduce a law essentially to make it illegal, to be rude about religion. And I remember Ron and I were sitting in a room with a senior cabinet minister, a top cabinet government minister. 

And Ron said that, you know, he had recently in his comedy show had a sketch in which there was a piece of news footage of a large number of Muslims at prayer in Iran. Some were bowing down and he had said over this voice over and the search goes on for the ayatollahs contact lens. I said that I had once written a sentence, which I said it was hard to take seriously, a religion whose believers had so much time with their bottoms higher than their heads. 

We have said, you know, would it be OK to go on saying this, you know, if your if your law gets passed or or will we go to jail? 

Of course, the minister said that she was convinced that we would not go to jail because, you know, there was no intention to ban creativity. And besides, you know, one of her colleagues would have the decision. The last word on this. We felt oddly. 

Diffident about trusting the Blair government in this matter. 

We set out you to have such a big issue as as whether you could make jokes left in the charge of a politician just really seemed like the wrong way to go. And in the end, this really went down to the wire in the House of Commons. There was a wonderful piece of. Sort of vido serves you right about the fact that we won, that we won in the House of Commons by one vote, by one vote, and that evening Tony Blair went home early. So he actually lost his law because he went home early. And there’s a kind of beauty, there’s a beauty in that. So he wasn’t there to vote for his own bill. And so we won. And one can only think in the light of what has happened in the last months, how often that law would have been used and how often it would have been used in a court of genuinely oppressive way. And maybe the search would not have gone on for the item lost contact lens, which I’m not sure that he ever found actually based on his general myopia. Further news from London. There was a moment a few years ago when the Blair government decided that it needed to start funding Islamic schools. There was an argument here, which is that for a long time, the government, various governments of England had either partly or I think never wholly but partly funded Catholic schools, one or two Church of England schools, one or two Jewish schools. And so why not Muslim schools? Was the argument and of course, it’s undefeatable argument that if you’re going to fund religious schools, why not fund more religious schools? And the other argument, which is that maybe you should fund less religious schools, was one which Blair is not very sympathetic to, since the thing he really has in common with Bush is deep religious belief. Anyway, he said that the Labor government started funding a few Islamic schools and interestingly recently after this attempt to blow up planes was foiled by the British police. One of the places where they, which they discovered was a major bomb factory was the basement of one of the Islamic schools. That was the Blair’s government had started funding. And you just kept wondering at what point the penny was going to start dropping. But no, this was not. Of course, the reason for worrying about these girls at all. Meanwhile, the BBC has been instructed, we are told, that the term Islamic terrorist can’t be used because it discriminates against Muslims. Never mind that all the terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of Islam tell us that it is Islam that is their motivation. The DDC can’t say that they’re Islamic terrorists because that’s now what’s this new crime, what’s called Islamophobia? I mean, I just have some problem with the word Islam, because it seems to me if you have a set of ideas, which I don’t like, it’s perfectly OK for me to be phobic about. There were plenty of people who who seemed to have no problem being phobic about mine. But, you know, Sulmona phobia didn’t enter the language somehow. I remember I got a T-shirt soon after the how shall I put it? Soon after the excrement hit the ventilation system. 

Somebody said to me in the mail, a T-shirt, which of the flood of which it said blasphemy is a victimless crime. 

And I always I thought that was the truth there. 

And I think, you know, Islamophobia is also a victimless crime because it must be in any free society. 

OK, to be as. Open, as you want to be, about your dislike of a set of ideas. Otherwise it becomes impossible to think, becomes impossible to have any kind of interchange of thought in a society. If you’re told that there are ideas which are off limits, nothing is off limits. If you take that further into discrimination against or prejudice towards individuals, that’s another matter. You obviously need to protect individuals against prejudice, but you can’t ring-fence their ideas. And that’s what it seems to me, that the white terms like that, your purpose, you’re not allowed to say Islamofascism either, because, of course, no Muslims are fascists, as we know, even though there was a rather brilliant article recently by an Egyptian journalist in which he pointed out that what Muslims needed to take on board is that while obviously not all Muslims were terrorists, it was also did seem to be the case of at the moment, all terrorists were Muslims. And how you couldn’t avoid that connection if you wanted to look at the world as it really is. Oh, there was another joke. I went to say there was not a joke, which we offered the ministers, maybe something that we weren’t allowed to say, which was a joke. That happened almost the day after the July bombings in London, which was a joke about two British Muslims who went into a sporting goods store, tried on rucksacks. And and Ibrahim said to Abdullah, Does my bum look big at this? 

So we asked, you know, is this the kind of thing that’s now going to be a hate crime? 

What would Woody Allen do if he wasn’t allowed to be rude about the Jews? Because, of course, that would be it’s not just Muslims. You have to be it also illegal to be rude about Jews or Christians or, you know, the Hizo, Tom Cruise, the Archbishop Cruise, like you. 

I don’t know what Scientologists hierarchies are called. 

Let’s not go that. 


It gets crazier, this refusal to face the simple fact that to create a kind of linguists, a series of linguistic and cultural barriers which prevent you from speaking plainly about what’s going on. A couple of weeks ago in London, a Muslim police constable who had been given the job of guarding the Israeli embassy refused to do it. He didn’t say why, but he said he didn’t want to. And the thing that was astonishing was that instead of being fired or disciplined, which would be I mean, I can’t think of another situation in any police force, including the British police. Well, ordinary police constable would be given the right to choose what job he did and who he should guard or not guard. But in this case, he was allowed not to guard the Israeli embassy because he clearly had some objections. And there was almost no discussion about this in the media that the Muslim police constable was refusing to guard Jews. And that was considered to be OK. Because, hey, they would use. See, it follows, doesn’t it? I see you read. You see this is going on and I just I got into trouble yesterday. You’ll be amazed to hear. 

Rushdie had trouble. There’s a there’s a headline you’ve never seen because I got ambushed. 

I was doing an interview, which is actually about a sculpture show and that and there’s been this farce in London recently about the veil where this is very strange. The Labor government has been fantastically. Craven. About appeasing Muslim sentiment for years and years. And one of the people who’s been most craven about this is the former foreign secretary, the former also home secretary Jack Straw, who’s now the leader of the House of Commons as a constituency with very, very large Muslim population. But suddenly, maybe sensing some kind of change in the wind, he suddenly announced that he disapproved of the veil and that when women came in to meet him who were veiled, he would ask them to to lift the veil so he could see them because he felt it difficult to communicate with them if he couldn’t see them on the concept. Somebody said in reply that if they heard Jack Straw on the radio, they weren’t able to see him either. 

But but it didn’t stop them. And so I said this is a view that clearly these veiled women wish to be on the radio while the rest of us were on TV. 

And let’s see, you know, old fashioned of them. And I remember saying at one point, I think the thing they most disliked was this was a piece of American slang. I said what Jack Straw was essentially saying was that the veils. Which it did. And that I came from a family of many, many, many Muslim women, all of whom would have refused to wear the veil, that I didn’t see why we should suddenly start seeing that. That was by accepting that that was an icon of identity, when actually for many Muslim women, it’s a thing to be fought against and to be got rid of. So anyway, Rushdie says the veil sucks. That was all over the paper. And as a result, I was abused and called it a rotten a glutton for publicity and celebrity, blah, blah, blah. But it seemed strange that in the third millennium. Somebody saying that it was not all right, that women should walk around the world in black tents hidden from the eyes of men who might otherwise be rose to uncontrollable lust. That that was the provocation, not the fact that women were being forced to do this, because the idea that this is free choice. I don’t buy. Given the amount of pressure on these young girls inside the community to do this little bit, I thought we are living in a very strange time when when the thing that ought to be. The obvious offense, which is the veiling of women, is treated as an icon of identity and a criticism of that is treated as a provocation. The world is turning upside down and. London has been bad at this, but I don’t think that the that American has any reason to be complacent. And I think there was really, to me, very shocking. I don’t know if any of you would agree. Editorial in The New York Times couple of weeks ago demanding that the pope apologize for what somebody had said in the 15th century, which he had explicitly stated he didn’t agree with. The pope must apologize, it must possibly at his probably I can’t think of a time when the papacy has been obliged to apologize to the world several times for something it didn’t really say. It took them 800 years to apologize about Galileo. It took them about eight minutes to apologize about this Byzantine text. It seemed wrong. I thought to demand that the pope apologize because, I mean, believe me, I’m not usually on the pope’s side. This is this is not my understanding of the team. I am on this. I mean, I remember at the time of the Khomeini fatwa against my work, one of the most. At that time, surprising things to me was the fact that the then pope boy to a. Made a statement saying that he perfectly understood the media’s point of view and failed to say anything about how it was a bad idea to kill people for their work. And after that, when many, many Italian writers like Umberto Eco and many others demanded that he clarify his position, he never really did. And that he was joined in this of approval of of Khomeini by the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and by the Roman Catholic cardinal of New York. And I remember thinking at the time that, oh, that’s kind of a team here. Is that you? 

There really is no the God squad is not just I’ve got a phrase that people use. It really is there. They’re all they all think. And I think the thing that’s interesting to me about Ratzinger is that he clearly doesn’t think that he doesn’t think he’s on the same team. 

He’s prepared to say that he thinks his religion is better than their religion, which is very unusual these days, except, of course, with Muslims who say it all the time. I mean, that’s it seemed to what was behind. That farce that suddenly the kind of consensus the religious consensus was breaking down on. 

But a plague of The New York Times to demand that the pope not be allowed to say what he felt like a really seriously worked out theological essay. 

I suppose one has to mention the Danish cartoons, right? I ran into a young journalist at a party in New York working for a small New York magazine who said that he’d been obliged to quit his job because his proprietor refused to publish the cartoons because he was worried about his officers getting bombed. And this kind of cravenness was worldwide. And the name that the cravenness was given was respect. What you get when people said that they didn’t publish them out of respect for Muslims, what they meant is they didn’t publish them because they were afraid of their officers getting bombed. And when you create that kind of a climate of fear. When you concede, you give in to that kind of intimidation, you don’t, as a result, have less intimidation. As a result, you have more intimidation, because I think with with the cartoons that were really, really two quite separate issues. One is whether you thought the cartoons were good or bad and should have been published or shouldn’t be published. And those are decisions that every newspaper editor, picture editor makes every day. And different editors would make different decisions. Some would say, yes, we will publish them. Some would say no. And that’s in a way, not even a contentious issue. But the second issue is when the subject of intimidation enters, then the question is, how do you respond to intimidation? And do you give into it or do not give it it? I think when the intimidation became as heavy as it did, I think the only proper response was everybody should publish the cartoons the next day and. Not to do that was a way of showing that threats work. The purpose of terrorism is to create terror. And if you show yourself to be terrified that the terrorists have done their work. And this is curious climate of fear living it where people are falling over backwards, not to name the phenomenon that’s taking place, which is the progressive intimidation of the world in which we live. But I have to say, I’m not talking about these great big geopolitical things going on elsewhere the world. I’m talking about what is in our own hands to discuss and argue about and fix what is happening in our town, what’s happening in our culture, and the way in which things that we I think certainly I think we in this room probably all value a great deal are being eroded by this kind of intimidation and cowardice and by an unwillingness to call things by their true name. And I have found one of the most strange things about the last. You know, 20 years or so that I’ve been involved in all this. Is that the left and the liberal intelligentsia have not been good on this and that in many cases you find yourself agreeing with people that you’ve never agreed with your life before, the wrong people are on your side. And the quotes, right, people of quotes. In other words, the left people are on the wrong side because there has been on the left for a long time. This view that, you know, third world, good, first world, oppressive and bad. And that kind of Third World ism has led to some very strange intellectual mistakes here, part of which is a kind of infantilization of people to say that they don’t know any better, which would not happen if you were dealing with anyone else who was not, you know, brown of skin. There is also the colossal mistake of cultural relativism, which is, you know, the bastard child of multiculturalism. I mean, multiculturalism, it seems to me, is a completely defensible idea because we do all live in a multicultural society. There is no way that you can walk around the streets of New York City and argue with that, with that fact. It simply is the case. And what’s more, it’s not going to stop being the case in the same way as whether you like globalization or not. You cannot de globalize the planet in the same way you can not de multiculturalist the planet. This is the world in which we now live. We all live jumbled up with each other. And that’s just how it is. We have to deal with it. And that’s one thing. You say that and and you look at its consequences, good and bad. And that’s so. But. There has been entirely on the left. I have to say, a mistaken extension of that to say that you must treat in fact, there’s a British politician who said this recently. You have in order to be fair, you have to treat people differently according to their cultural background. That’s to say things are OK if they’re your culture. If your culture happens to include stoning adulterers as to death, then, hey, it’s your culture. If it includes female circumcision, which of us can argue with that? You see the moment you begin to look at it, it doesn’t stand up. Cultural relativism, because what it does is it absolves us as individuals and as groups from making any kind of moral choices. And you live in a world, therefore, where there’s no such thing as as morality. There’s only relative values. There’s only, you know, what’s sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. And at that point, you genuinely arrive at what? At what is called decadence. When you when you lose the ability to decide as individuals and groups that as a society. To agree about what you argue about. And sometimes to agree about what is right and what is wrong. When you lose that ability, you’re in deep trouble, deep trouble. And that is the trouble that cultural relativism has led us into. And only now you find people beginning to notice that it’s not all right for people to live in ghettos in which they reject everything else about the society that these things are. This is a classic mistake that the left and the left has made this mistake before, because the worst extension of this mistake is when it looks at movements. Radical militant movements, which are, in fact, intrinsically fascistic and intrinsically oppressive and but but use a rhetoric of claiming to speak for the world’s oppressed peoples. And this is the this is the mistake. The left fell into it with Soviet communism, with Stalinism. Here was a fascist movement claiming to be a revolutionary libertarian movement and plonk. We’ll have that, please. And it seems to me that the fellow traveling of a great section of the left with Islamic radicalism is of exactly the same nature. The desire to oppose the many abuses that America, an American power has committed in the world leads people to believe that these others, the people who claim rhetorically to be against that, are actually in some way allies. But actually, the truth is that Islamic radical radicalism, whether it’s al-Qaida, whether it’s Wahhabi ism, weathered by whatever name you call it, is not interested in creating a world of greater social justice. 

It’s not interested in liberating women. It’s not interested in tolerance for minorities and sexual dissidents. It’s not interested in democracy. It’s not interested in having more of us more. The community having a larger share of the pie is not interested in economic redistribution. It’s not interested in any of the things that you would call social justice. It’s interested in what the Taliban is interested in. It’s interested in creating a new religious fascist rule over the planet. 

The new caliphate, the Talibanization of the Earth. And for the left to refuse to understand the nature of the people that they’re refusing to criticize is a historical mistake as great as those who were the fellow travelers of Stalinist communism in an earlier age. And there are people, not justice. I’m not alone in this, but there’s at least another 12 people saying this, but that there need to be there need to be more than that. And on the other side of the on the other side of the fence, minority groups, whether really I mean, you see, I sort of worry about describing groups only in religious language because I think people are not only Muslims or Hindus or Christian Christians. They’re also belong to economic groups, that they live in certain areas and, you know, Yankee fans. And so all our identities are not easily boxed into one box. And certainly when that box is religious, I begin to worry about how well people fit into it. Why do we just talk about people as Muslims or Christians or Hindus instead of, you know, people from Brooklyn or short people or obese people or any of the other many other identities that people might have more centrally than their religious identities? I think there’s a worry there about. How you describe the world that we seem to be falling into a trap of communalist description? Well, we really describe people very, very narrowly defined communal terminology. And that, of course, greatly increases, as Amartya Sen has said, greatly increases the risk of conflict between them. Many minorities have had had made these mistakes at this moment where they. They seem to support censorship. They want things to be banned. They want the books to be banned, players to be banned, movies to be banned. Whereas history shows the most cursory glance, the history of the world shows that whenever censorship gets into the driving seat, it is minority opinions that always suffer first. So censorship is not a tool that ever protects minorities against the majority. Censorship is always used to stifle minority opinion and to create a rule of the majority. So it’s very dangerous path for any any minority, whether political, intellectual, religious, whatever racial, to start thinking that they can be defended by censorship because in fact, they’re shooting themselves in there in their own in the foot. But that is a mistake that’s being made now. That’s another mistake this big night now, which is a kind of cultural defensiveness that the one which says that let’s not wash our dirty laundry in public, the sense of having to close ranks against a hostile media. What that does is make people outside the giving community feel that everyone in the community tacitly or explicitly supports the worst face of the community, which actually has no problem expressing itself and saying what it wants to say loudly enough because other voices are not being heard, anything like that volume. It’s very easy for people to make a mistake about the genuine opinions of their community. So again, the closed ranks ghetto mentality has exactly the opposite effect, what people think is going to happen. People have been saying recent articles, things which I think are true, if you look at what happened in Northern Ireland. One of the things that brought the terrorism to an end there was the so-called Mothers for Peace movement, were the mothers of Northern Ireland just said, you know what, this rubbish anymore. 

That actually was one of the major forces which brought the IRA to a halt. 

Where is the million Muslim march on Washington demanding an end to violence, an end to terrorism? 

That would be a way of showing this country that most Muslims don’t agree with the terrorists. 

You know, it just seems to me extraordinary that what is happening when people are willing to rush around killing nuns because they don’t like what the pope said and burning down offices because they don’t like a cartoon in Danish, which they can’t even read. 

At the same time, what is taking place in Africa is a major atrocity, which is the murder of African Muslims, black African Muslims by Arab Muslims. Why is that not the source of colossal demonstrations in the Muslim world? And why is it that, in fact, the Muslim world seems to be agreeing with the oppressors, seems to be on the side of the Arabs who are doing committing the genocide of other Muslims in Africa? Why is that not the major subject on the table of the of the Islamic Council organization? It just seems that this these absences, these absences and silences. 

Demonstrate. The opposite of what we are always taught to believe. Which is the loving and peaceful nature of contemporary Islam. 

It wasn’t Muslim countries that came to the rescue of the Muslims of Bosnia. It wasn’t Muslim countries that came to the rescue of the Muslims of Kosovo. And in spite of that absence of Muslim activity, Western countries which actually did that are routinely described as being anti-Muslim. There is a colossal intellectual confusion here, to put it mildly. And that confusion is enormously increased by the fact that people don’t often talk in just straightforward, blunt, declarative sentences like this, but always try and kind of pussyfoot around the issue. And we are not going to get anywhere by doing that. Is my point. We give legitimacy to the conservatives. We give legitimacy to the worst people in the society. By doing that. The way I would describe this as a writer. Is that we need all of us, whatever our background. To constantly examine. The stories inside which and with which we live, we all live. In stories, so-called grand narratives, nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live inside and within and with these narratives. And it seems to me. A definition of any living, vibrant society that you constantly question those stories, constantly argue about. You never heard of. In fact, the argument never stops. The argument itself is freedom. It’s not that you come to a conclusion about that, that you live in a world in which you argue constantly about that world youth and youth. And through that argument, you change your mind. Sometimes you decide the things that you used to accept in a society you no longer wish to accept, things that you did not accepted a society. You begin to wish to accept. And that’s how societies grow. When you can’t retell for yourself the stories of your life, then you live at a prison that then those stories don’t become the liberate the source of liberty. They become the source of of of of captivity because somebody else controls the story and somebody else says to you, this is what it means. This is how you think about it. This is the only way in which the story could be told. And if you disagree with that, we will come and do something terrible to. Now, it seems to me that we have to say that a problem in contemporary Islam is the inability to reexamine the ground narrative of the religion. Every other major world religion allows endless interpretation and exegesis, an argument about the core texts and the fact that in Islam it is very difficult to do this makes it very difficult to think new thoughts. Anyone who looks at the Koran can see that the Koran is a bit of a jumble. You know, you read the chapters and they suddenly change direction and 50 pages later. The story that’s been dropped gets picked up again. 

And it’s quite clear that at some point in the collation of the book, the whoever edited it made him a terrible thing, a mistake. 

See, you see, you have to be worried about saying the word mistake about the text, which is supposed to be free of mistakes, and yet nobody who reads the text neutrally can avoid the conclusion that it’s a bit of a mess. 

My father once wanted to rearrange it to make better sense. 

But. I guess it’s a good idea. You’d have a date. 

The other thing that I think it’s very, very worrying that you can’t do with the Koran is that you can’t look at it in historical context. And this is really regrettable because the Koran is really the only one of the great revealed texts that was revealed inside, inside properly recorded history in which an enormous amount is known about the social and historical conditions of Arabia at the time, an enormous amount is known about the life of the personal circumstances of the prophet. And it’s perfectly possible to see how those impinge on the text. For example, the Bible stories of the Koran are mostly stories which correspond more or less exactly to the versions of Bible stories that were prevalent among the sect or the Nestorian Christians, which also of which there were also members in in in Arabia at the time. And Mohammed the Prophet as a as a as a trader, as a merchant before he received the revelations, used to go on large cart along caravan journeys and would have clearly met Nestorian Christians on those journeys. And it’s very interesting that the Bible stories that are in the Koran are identical, more or less to the Nestorian versions. For example, the story of Christ in the Koran. In the chapter called Mariem, Mary talks about Christ as having been born under a palm tree in an oasis and is a bit of desert variation of the story of Jesus. Of course, if you are allowed to historic size, you can say how interesting it is that that’s how the stories are. Not just the New Testament, both Old Testament stories to the Koran. They enter via the Prophet’s connections with these other groups. But of course, if you believe the Koran to be the uncreated word of God, you can’t say this is you historic size, the Koran. You can actually see how the the moral philosophy or the social philosophy of the Koran is partly created by the social conditions in Arabia at the time where a nomadic matriarchal society is giving way to a settled patriarchal society and the extended family is giving way to a nuclear family. And large numbers of people who used to be included in that larger, more extended family structure are being excluded in the new nuclear family structure and are therefore feeling annoyed. The plea of the Koran is essentially for a return to the ethics of the nomadic way of life. In a way, for a return to matriarchy against patriarchy. All this stuff is perfectly obvious for a historical study. But if you believe the Koran is the uncreated word of God, you can’t talk about this because you because God presumably is not very interested in the socio economic conditions of the seventh century. 

I mean, maybe you should have been, but that’s another story. 

There was a wonderful attempt in the 12th century by the man from whose name my name is derived. The great philosopher, if nearest known in the West is Averroes, who was one of the people trying very hard at that time to argue for the interpretation of the Koran and not for chronic literalism. And one of his arguments, which I’ve always found beautiful, is that the the chronic view of God differs from the Judeo-Christian view of God in one very important dimensioned, which is the Judeo-Christian view is that man God created man in his own image and therefore man and God presumably have some kind of resemblance. 

The Koran says God has no human characteristics, that it would be, in a way belittling God to say that God had such a small thing as a human characteristic because he’s God. We’re not. No, Rush argued that language is a human characteristic. And therefore, it would be by the internal evidence of the Koran. It would be wrong to say that God possessed language. God spoke Arabic would be an improper thing to say about God. Therefore, God clearly communicates or the Archangel Gabriel communicates in some means, which is nonlinguistic but divine. And therefore, the act of writing down the Koran itself was already an act of interpretation, an act of interpretation of the divine message, nonverbal message into verbal form. 

And he argued, well, if the if the original thing is an act of interpretation, you can go on interpreting. Why not that on foot? Good argument. Didn’t work. Unfortunately, that that effort was defeated and the literalists have got gradually gained strength. And there is a problem there. 

So I think when people like me argue that there is a need for a reform movement inside Islam, it’s not just to say that, you know, we don’t want terrorist groups. It’s to say that in order to unshackle this philosophy from the literalist chains, you have to create a world in which people can question the first principles. You have to create a world in which people can can rethink the core of the text. And until that happens, you will have a paralyzed culture. And I think that is that is for me that the bottom line problem and that has resulted in our time in a dreadful decay. You know, I have many friends who are writers from Arab countries. And one of the things they bemoan is the decline in the in the great cities of the Arab world within our lifetime. If you look at cities like Beirut and Cairo. And even Baghdad and Tehran, in our lifetime, in the last half century, those were cities which were famous for their cosmopolitan openness, their intellectual artistic brilliance. You know, Beirut was called the Paris of the east. Cairo was a great, great center of learning. The idea that these cities had decayed to the point that they now cannot entirely be blamed on American foreign policy. I mean, many things can be blamed on America. It’s true, but perhaps not that. And that is, I think, a great tragedy out of which comes the kind of new barbarism. As the intellectual freedoms of these cultures have declined, so the new barbarism have risen. You can see an exact inverse path. The rise of Wahhabi ism, the rise of intolerance with the decline of those great capital cities. And you have to see a causal link between them. And in order to defeat the barbarism, the barbaric face of certain parts of Islam, we need to somehow re restart that other that other open, intellectually curious, cosmopolitan culture that within our own lifetimes has existed. But to say that this hasn’t existed is also wrong. It has existed. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be there again. It was there less than 50 years ago all across the Muslim world. And it has it has been defeated, but one has to say one hopes temporarily. You find yourself thinking about this time as a lost world. You know, I remember one of my I’m a great fan of the Doonesbury comic strip and one there was a moment a few months after the catastrophe of a few years ago when one of the characters of the strip said to the other, you know, I really miss September the 10. 

And I think I know exactly what he felt. 

I think I think maybe we all really missed September the 10 and that other that other reality that existed then or apparently existed then. And I think there is a kind of sense that I have when I’m thinking about and writing about as I often on the Muslim world, that it was better once and not so very long ago. And actually, I can remember when and I can remember how it was better. And one of the reasons why I wrote this last novel of mine, Shamar the Clown, is that I wanted to explore one of the places in which that other world existed, which is the value of Kashmir, where my family originally came from and where there existed a kind of Islam which was peaceful and very at ease with its Hindu and Sikh neighbors and mystical in a funny way, almost adulterated with the other religions, which were also adulterated with bits of Islam and that composite culture. Showed that actually sometimes human beings do know how to get on. And they managed to do it for quite a long time. And the reason why Kashmir was destroyed was not because the Kashmiris change. It was because of forces that came in from outside. It was you may hear some echoes here. On the one hand, Islamic terrorism and on the other hand. A democratic countries army claiming to be defending freedom. Which succeeded in repressing the people in a completely different way. There are two ways of oppressing people. One is democratic. And one is fascistic religion. And both of them work. And in Kashmir, what happened is that the people of Kashmir were crushed between those two forces and a place which was legendary for its peace loving culture, became the most violent place in the subcontinent of India. I. Felt when I was writing the book. One of the great joys of literature is that you can bring if you do it right. You can bring back the lost world, that you can actually have it back for yourself in the act of writing it in the act of imagining it back into beating. And that when, at least for the time that you read the book. That world exists again. And it also shows you that such a world can exist. And it also shows you how such a world can be broken. So there’s a I felt. Kind of curious act. It’s not exactly nostalgia, but a sense of trying to repossess what was lost in order to show that it doesn’t have to be lost. That became a part of what I was what I was writing about and the novel ends, I can’t tell you if you haven’t read it. The novel ends on a kind of strange freeze frame, which some of its readers get very annoyed about and insist on knowing what actually happens. There are one or two things that can actually happen on the last page, and it was difficult for me to tell you which because it would spoil the ending. But the point about the FREEZE-FRAME is to suggest that we don’t know the ending, that we live at a moment of enormous conflict and we don’t know the ending. And the ending will be determined by which side has the greater will. 


You have to say that the will of Islamic radicals is extremely powerful. The question is whether our will to defend it ourselves against it. And I’m not talking about armies and invasions that over how to defend the world, the culture that we value against people who despise all those things. Do we have the will to defend it? Because if we don’t, we will lose it. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quale. Contributors to today’s show include Evan Work, Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.