Famed author takes on Kansas

Rushdie bemoans role of religion in public life

Citizens of the world should be concerned about religious extremism whether it’s in Iran or America, says author Salman Rushdie, who was once marked for death by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Rushdie compared the emergence of religion into public life in Kansas with similar movements across the world in a lecture Thursday at the Lied Center.

“I would really love never to mention that word again: religion,” Rushdie said. “But now it seems to be coming right at us all. I don’t just mean radical Islam, by the way. I believe we have some problems right here.”

Rushdie received a standing ovation after the lecture, in which he revealed his thoughts on writing and receiving death threats and also blasted religion, intelligent design and the best-selling book “The Da Vinci Code.”

The standing-room-only event was presented by the Hall Center for the Humanities.

Rushdie is the winner of numerous awards, including the Booker Prize. His latest novel is “Shalimar the Clown.”

In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini responded to Rushdie’s depiction of Islam in the novel “The Satanic Verses” by issuing a death sentence against the author. Rushdie went into hiding for nearly a decade. The sentence, or fatwa, was withdrawn about seven years ago.

“The reason why his case was so sensational was because much of the world believes in freedom of the press,” Kansas University English professor Paul Lim said. “That’s why his case startled everybody.”

In his books, Rushdie explores religion, culture and politics.

With his own form of magic realism, he presses the boundaries of literary convention, said Byron Caminero-Santangelo, associate professor of English. And he deals with complex subjects.

“He’s captured better than any other the conditions of migrancy and hybridity that make up our world today,” Caminero-Santangelo said.

Though he received renown after the fatwa, Rushdie’s prominence is ultimately the result of his powerful writing, Caminero-Santangelo said.

He recalled reading Rushdie’s book “Midnight’s Children” for the first time.

“It’s a daunting work,” he said. “After a while I could not put it down. It’s unusual sometimes to find a fantastic writer who has such a tremendous grasp of the language and is experimenting with narrative forms and at the same time produces page turners.”

Rushdie told the crowd that religion has much potential to do harm in the world today.

“It’s a pretty bad time for us who don’t believe that superstition should rule the world,” he said.

When asked how rationalism could win the fight against religion, Rushdie said with ridicule, argument and battle.

When he was young, the 58-year-old said, he and others thought they’d won the battle. So they turned their heads.

We were “so busy having fun that all the uncool people took over the world,” he said.

And this superstition needs to be pushed back in the cupboard where it belongs, he said.

Rushdie also blasted intelligent design proponents.

“I never had any doubts about evolution theory,” he said. “I gather there are parts of Kansas where the big bang did not take place.”

He expounded on writing.

There is something in the art of the novel that wants to be provincial and to deal with such topics as one lonely wife’s infidelity, he said.

But Rushdie, who spent his early years in India, said his life experiences spurred him to bring more global issues into the novel.

“If you’ve had the kind of life I’ve had, you begin to think that history and private life are getting hard to separate” even for the affluent, he said.

He bashed Dan Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code.”

“Do not start me on ‘The Da Vinci Code,'” Rushdie said. “A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.”

Rushdie once traveled with bodyguards, and some law enforcement personnel were at the Lied Center on Thursday.

Tim Van Leer, the Lied Center’s executive director, said Rushdie’s representatives did not request additional security.

KU Police would not say whether they upped security for Thursday’s event.

“We like to keep those things to ourselves,” said Capt. Schuyler Bailey, of KU’s Public Safety Office.

Rushdie reflected on his time living with a bounty over his head.

He said writers and politicians attempt to describe reality, and there can be struggles over who has the power over “the grand narrative.”

But, as for the basic question “Should you kill people because you don’t like their books?” Rushdie said no.

“Even Dan Brown must live,” he said. “Preferably not write, but live.”