Security was on high alert during Salman Rushdie’s keynote speech last Thursday, but students were not tense as Rushdie closed out the Writer’s Conference.
All the tension only led up to a Y2K- style anticlimax, as Rushdie’s speech went off without a hitch, addressing a full crowd of writers and students who welcomed his presence with open ears.
Rushie’s controversial book “The Satanic Verses” caused riots and book burning when it first came out in 1988. The book was considered blasphemous by many Muslim faithfuls for its outrageous and extravagant retellings of stories of Muhammed and the roots of Islam. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on Rushdie, sentencing him to death and offering a place in heaven and a substantial financial reward to the person who killed Rushdie.
The Iranian government in 1998 recalled the fatwa, and since then Rushdie has been making more public appearances. However, his safety and the safety of his audiences is still an issue.
There was still some concern from the Muslim community questioning Rushdie’s presence on campus and the school’s decision to bring him here.
“I don’t think that the university should be paying people to propagate hate,” Hoda Rifai, sophomore law and justice major, said.
“It contradicts the whole safe zone, no hate policy,” Rashidah Khalifa, senior women’s and gender studies major, said.
Rushdie strongly espoused the idea of separating the author from his characters in his speech. He also supported the radical stances in his novels saying, “If you stay in the middle ground, you may as well not do it.”
These arguments won over most of the crowd.
“People start judging the writer by the artificial,” Muzammil Razvi, president of the Islamic Society, said.
“If you read the novel, it’s really difficult to see what the fuss is about,” Irfan Khawaja, adjunct professor of philosophy, said. He added that, in his opinion, most practicing Muslims find the controversy silly, and if the reader is not a practicing Muslim then it’s even sillier.
Many people present found Rushdie to be funny, charming and informative on the writing process and the world of literature, topics that Rushdie tried to stick to instead of re-hashing old issues.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Eric Menda, freshman journalism major. said. “Every answer started with a joke.”
“I was impressed,” Arjun Majithia, freshman biology major, said. “I think he made a lot of valid points about how reading and writing are not an automatic process.”
Majithia was also impressed with Rushdie’s bravery of speech and his conviction to stand by his work.
“He doesn’t hide behind any shield,” Majithia said. She also said that the criticism “hasn’t made him a timid writer.”
Whatever judgments the audience may have had going into Rushdie’s speech were immediately erased and replaced by a kinder, gentler view of a man of letters standing up for his craft.