Visiting Brown, Salman Rushdie discusses free speech, literary influences and more
PROVIDENCE, RI [Brown University] – In a discussion at Brown University, famous novelist Salman Rushdie encouraged hundreds of people to do everything possible to protect free speech, even at a time when countries around the world are struggling to preserve fundamental principles of democracy.
Speaking to students, faculty and staff at Brown and community members in the Providence area, who participated both in person and online, Rushdie made a case for defending the freedom of expression, even one that most consider racist or fascist.
“Now we live in a country where people seem to forget the value of the First Amendment,” Rushdie said. “In particular, more and more young people seem to accept that certain types of ideas are not allowed to exist. And I’m worried about that … Ideas don’t go away because you suppress them. Sometimes they increase in strength. It is therefore better to know where the enemy is to be able to discuss with him and defeat him.
The roundtable and Q&A, hosted by the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Affairs on Friday, November 5, focused on the topics of politics, religion and literature, as part of ‘a one-year series of events recognizing 75 years of Indian and Pakistani independence. Panelists included Ashutosh Varshney, director of the center and Brown professor of international studies and political science; Shahzad Bashir, professor of Islamic studies and history at Brown; and Gauri Viswanathan, professor of humanities and director of the South Asia Institute at Columbia University.
For more than 40 years, the novels, short stories, essays and plays of Indian-born Rushdie have captured the imaginations of millions of people. He is best known for his in-depth knowledge of migration between the Indian subcontinent and the Western world, his skillful navigation through decades of complex tensions between India and Pakistan, and his creative use of magical realism to draw parallels. historical, religious and literary. His countless accolades include a knight’s title awarded by Queen Elizabeth II, scholarships to the Royal Society of Literature in the United Kingdom and to the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and the Best of the Booker award for his novel “Midnight’s Children”. “
During the discussion, Rushdie – who has lived in the United States since 2000 – compared the “sacred space” of free speech to a place where all citizens are invited to drop by and discuss whatever they love – an idea he riffed on in a new Yorker Story in 2020.
“It’s that place where you can go say anything and be chatted with,” he said. “The important thing is not that someone wins the argument, it’s that [the argument] can happen, and it can continue to happen. People may change their minds, or … be hardened in their beliefs. But the place of discourse exists. This space … should be preserved.
How Americans, and others, can fight the looming specter of totalitarianism while preserving this “sacred place,” Rushdie acknowledged, “is the big question of our time” – a question he felt unable to answer definitively . But a starting point, he proposed, might be to revisit the story of the Nazi Party’s rise to power in Germany.
“Because Germany tolerated the Nazi Party running for office, that party then abolished the electoral system that brought it to power,” he said. “And so there is a thought there: maybe the limiting point of freedom is … to deny it to people who would deny freedom to others if they came to power.”