Salman Rushdie and Timothy Garton Ash
Updated: Jun 24, 2018
Dialogue on Freedom of Expression at PEN World Voices Festival
Salmon Rushdie sat down with his friend and colleague Timothy Garton Ash for a conversation about the importance of freedom of expression during his last year as chairman of the PEN World Voices Festival, which he founded back in 2005.
"If we all had a right not to be offended by anything that offended us, nobody could say anything,” Rushdie said. “I don't like the novels of Dan Brown, but I think he should live." He added under his breath, "I'm not sure about published, but live."
The conversation began with Garton Ash’s description of three different 1989s: Liberation in Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tienamen Square in China, and the Fatwa against Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Garton Ash shared a story of a party he attended with Rushdie in 1989 - Rushdie’s security team inconspicuously leafing through the bookshelves in the background - where Rushdie asked him how it felt when he heard that the Berlin Wall had fallen. Garton Ash had replied that, “It felt good,” and he said this understatement would have been forgotten in irrelevance, had it not been the opening of Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton. A BBC reporter calls Rushdie at home and asks him how it feels that the Ayatollah Khomeini has sentenced him to death, and Rushdie responds, “It doesn’t feel good.”
Their conversation encompassed free speech issues around the world. During the discussion of an attempt to make it illegal under British law to criticize religion, Rushdie shared the story that it only failed by one vote because Tony Blair went home early for dinner. “Say what you will about Tony Blair, but he did his part.” Garton Ash reminded the audience that they were being addressed by Sir Salman Rushdie, which prompted Rushdie to share his awkward exchange with the queen. "When I went up to get the sword on the shoulder,” Rushdie said, the queen began the conversation with, "Are you still writing books?" Rushdie said that the conversation only went downhill from there.
Rushdie said that The Satanic Verses is still banned in his birthplace, India. Although, "If you want to buy The Satanic Verses in India, just download it onto your Kindle." During the discussion of freedom of expression in India, Rushdie expressed that he thought the country was going in the wrong direction. When Garton Ash asked him why he thought this was the case, Rushdie responded that the reason is “Its desire to appease every interest group by allowing them to ban whatever they like, so that you have a banning competition. You know, if the Muslims get a book banned then the Hindus want a book banned and so on." Rushdie continued, stating that in India it only took one individual being offended to ban a book. “The person who's offended your sentiments is guilty because you say so. There is no defense. And that was the problem with the Wendy Doniger book.”
The authors also discussed the United States, focusing on NSA spying and Edward Snowden. While Garton Ash was adamant that Snowden performed a public service, Rushdie agreed that Snowden’s actions had been beneficial for freedom of expression, but he also had reservations. "I don't like the fact that he's sitting in Moscow with Putin."
Continuing on the topic, Garton Ash said, "It's not just free speech versus privacy. In an important way, privacy is an important condition for free speech."
Rushdie countered, "By endlessly putting stuff out there on the internet, we voluntarily surrendered our privacy."
During the discussion of publishing books in China, Rushdie said that he refused to have his books published with any part censored. He said that after a few plans with publishers had fallen through, another publisher was supposed to publish ten of his books in China. After the first one was released, the next nine were cancelled. "You're never given a reason.” Rushdie said. “The reason is, ‘No.’ That's the reason."
On working with publishers pushing the boundaries in China, Garton Ash said, "They're on your side, and they're making the minimum possible compromises." When he was having a conversation with Chinese publishers about publishing his book Free World they said, "We like your book very much, we just think it needs to be improved." Garton Ash responded with skepticism, "In what areas exactly does it need to be ‘improved’?" But Garton Ash said that in the end, they published it with only two paragraphs removed - one of which dealt directly with Tiananmen Square. "That tradeoff is worth it for a political book of nonfiction," Garton Ash said.
"Well you're right,” Rushdie agreed. “Nonfiction has slightly different rules."
The authors took questions from the audience on topics ranging from narrative in the Quran and young writers in Pakistan to the limits of free speech.
Reflecting on the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rushdie said that it was his great regret that Garcia Marquez never agreed to come to the PEN World Voices Festival, despite repeated invitations. Garcia Marquez had been banned from entering the United States until late in his life due to his friendship with Fidel Castro, and Rushdie suspected that this negatively affected his outlook on a trip to New York.
Closing on the topic of freedom of expression, Garton Ash shared one of his ten principles of free speech, "We neither make threats of violence nor yield to violent intimidation."
The PEN World Voices Festival ended on Sunday, with Colm Tóibín, the incoming chairman, delivering the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.