With a trim beard and spectacles balanced on his nose, Salman Rushdie took to the top floor of the Union Square Barnes and Noble store in Manhattan to a rousing applause.
“What have I done to deserve this?” he joked.
Rushdie is, if nothing else, one of the most famous civilians to have ever incurred the wrath of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Muslim world. Thus, he had more than a few thoughts on the current unrest that has seemingly spontaneously sprouted in the past few weeks.
“Oddly, I’ve been asked this question quite a few times in the past week,” Rushdie said, feigning surprise and inspiring a few chuckles in the audience.
“There are two things to talk about, the first, is the YouTube video, and the second is the response,” he said. “The video is trashy. It’s badly made, it may be the worst video on YouTube, and that’s saying something, competing with all those videos of people’s cats.
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“And its intent was to stir trouble,” he continued. “As I understand, the video was around for a year, before it was dubbed into Arabic and intentionally sent to several people with the goal of getting them in a bad mood. And that worked.”
And while it may be true that the First Amendment has to be upheld, Rushdie continued, that doesn’t mean we can spare the filmmaker from criticism.
“It’s a disgusting little thing,” Rushdie said, of the film. “But the Internet is full of disgusting little things. That’s what the Internet is. It’s for the garbage of the human race. Anything that you hold dear, you can find someone on the Internet insulting it. And most people’s response is simply to go on with their day.”
But the response this time, Rushdie said, “is ludicrous. To think that there is an entity called America that is completely responsible for all the acts performed within its borders is a paranoid response.
“It’s a colossal over-reaction,” Rushdie continued, and is indicative of a phenomenon he called “outrage identity,” which he defined as “Identity politics defined by rage. It’s people deliberately looking for things to point across to America and say ‘Look, look what they’re saying about you.’”
“The leader of Hezbollah strongly over estimates the influence of U.S. intelligence,” Rushdie joked, referring to a statement made by the leader of the Lebanese-based militant group that the CIA had helped birth the film.
Rushdie’s head also was re-priced in connection with a recent fatwah issued against the “Innocence of Muslims” filmmaker, but Rushdie said this didn’t concern him.
“As I understand this was one priest in Iran looking for a headline,” he said, “And you put Rushdie, Iran, and $3 million in a sentence, that’s a headline. He was just shooting his mouth off.
“I would strongly recommend not trying to collect,” he added, to some laughter.
Rushdie was there in Union Square to read from his new book, a memoir titled “Joseph Anton,” a pseudonym, he explained, that was an allusion to Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov that he chose during his years in exile so that he could still “rent properties and write checks.” The book touches on his life after “The Satanic Verses,” Rushdie’s fourth novel that got him in very hot water with the Muslim world in the first place.
Rushdie read a chapter from the beginning of the memoir about his father in his mellifluous British accent, and noted after that he was happy he was “able to make a portrait of his father that was more sympathetic than the pictures of fathers in my novels.”
After the reading, Rushdie mused on the affect “The Satanic Verses,” had on his life and the world.
“If you can possibly avoid being condemned to death by the tyrannical leader of a country with death squads at his service, I highly recommend you do so,” he joked, saying that the “novelistic quality” that his life took on after “Satanic Verses” came out made for “a good story, but not a very good life.”