Lecture Hop: Salman Rushdie Speaks, Once Others Let Him

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Salman Rushdie stopped by campus yesterday to appear at the launch of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. Bwog contributor David Berke was there, and sends along this report.

If you happened to mosey by Alma Mater yesterday around 4:45, you would have noticed Salman Rushdie, celebrated author and assassination target, nonchalantly chatting it up with Faculty Dean Dirks.  Contrary to what you might think, the duo was not meeting Gayatri Spivak on Low steps for Pinkberry.  Rather, Rushdie, who recently won the ultimate Man Booker prize for Midnight’s Children, was on campus for the launch of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.  The daylong ceremonies concluded with Comparative Lit. Professor Gauri Viswanathan interviewing Rushdie about imagination, religion and their intersections.

The talk began in typical Columbia form, with flattering introduction upon flattering introduction.  Dirks introduced President Bollinger, heralding Prezbo’s first amendment scholarship on tolerance and his support for creating the Institute.  Bollinger took the stage and lauded his introducer, thanking Dirks for his instrumental role in founding the Institute.  Bollinger then praised the official introducer, Orhan Pamuk, a king of the Columbia literati and 2006 Nobel Prize winner.  Perhaps aware that enough time had been wasted with reciprocal complimenting, Pamuk was brief in his introduction of Rushdie.

Though Viswanathan’s questions often wandered on without ever finding a question mark, Rushdie took the reigns and was insightful and good-humored.  He discussed religion and spirituality’s roles in literature as well as religious and irreligious characters and histories within his own work.  The main focus was his most recent novel, The Enchantress of FlorenceEnchantress whirls a tale encompassing Renaissance Florence and the 16th century Indian empire of Akbar the Great.

Rushdie also discussed the current religious landscape, lamenting the rise of radical Islam.  In opposition to this religious fundamentalism, he emphasized the importance of open debate and discussion.  Rushdie also stressed the limitations of tolerance.  His referenced a case from India, where a Muslim wife, who was raped by her father-in-law, was assigned blame by Islamic authorities, deemed impure and instructed to accept a divorce from her husband.  Rushdie criticized unquestioning multiculturalism and moral relativism that backs religious authorities in situations like that one, asserting the existence of universal human rights that transcend culture and religion.

The following question and answer session was civil but heated.  Audience members questioned Rushdie’s sympathetic characterization of Emperor Akbar and his views on religion.  One audience member went as far as to ask if Rushdie appreciated the celebrity boost he gained from the Fatwa that the Ayatollah of Iran issued against him.  Though he could have been indignant at the offensive question, Rushdie turned it onto a joke, sarcastically advising anyone who could avoid death threats and years living in hiding to do so.

To finish the talk, a student, apparently frustrated with Rushdie’s secularism, asked the author, “What do you live for?”  Rushdie thought for a few seconds before giving his one word answer: “dinner.”


  1. ...  

    too bad you had to be one of the first 10 people in line to see him if you didnt have any VIP-type reservations

  2. this was  

    an excellent talk. Rushdie is brilliant and funny.

  3. michelle  

    i came at 4 40 and there was already 20-30 people in line. from what i could tell, very few people actually made it into the talk who weren't pre-registered or invited guests. this was pretty frustrating, since the event was supposed to be "no registration required"! the most annoying part was that no one had the courtesy to inform us that the event was full, so everyone was waiting in line until 5 10 or later, when we finally went to the door and the security guard told us nonchalently that we couldn't get in. thanks columbia!

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