Salman Rushdie, 59, has spent many years thinking and writing about terrorism. In this interview with political author Erich Follath, which appeared last month in Der Spiegel and is reprinted here with permission, Rushdie reflects on why apparently normal young men turn to terror, the dangers of religion and whether the United States has turned into an authoritarian state. Rushdie divides his time between New York, London and Mumbai; he appears in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, as keynote speaker at the American Jewish Congress’ event, “Profiles in Courage: Voices of Muslim Reformers in the Modern World.”
Erich Follath: Mr. Rushdie, as an expert on terrorism you….
Salman Rushdie: What gives me that honor? I don’t see myself as such at all.
EF: Your book, “Fury,” with its description of an America threatened by terrorism and published in spring 2001, was seen by many as prophetic — as more or less anticipating 9/11. Your most recent novel, “Shalimar the Clown,” describes how a circus performer from Kashmir is transformed into a terrorist. And for almost a decade, your life was threatened by Iranian fanatics, with a price of $4 million on your head.
SR: If you think that’s enough to qualify me as an expert on terrorism….
EF: While researching your books — and especially now after the recent near miss in London — you must be asking yourself: What makes apparently normal young men decide to blow themselves up?
SR: There are many reasons, and many different reasons, for the worldwide phenomenon of terrorism. In Kashmir, some people are joining the so-called resistance movements because they give them warm clothes and a meal. In London, last year’s attacks were still carried out by young Muslim men whose integration into society appeared to have failed. But now we are dealing with would-be terrorists from the middle of society. Young Muslims who have even enjoyed many aspects of the freedom that Western society offers them. It seems as though social discrimination no longer plays any role — it’s as though anyone could turn into a terrorist.
EF: Leading British Muslims have written a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair claiming that the growing willingness to engage in terrorism is due to [President] Bush’s and Blair’s policies in Iraq and in Lebanon. Are they completely wrong? Don’t the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the cynicism of Guantanamo contribute to extremism?
SR: I’m no friend of Tony Blair’s, and I consider the Middle East policies of the United States and the U.K. fatal. There are always reasons for criticism, also for outrage. But there’s one thing we must all be clear about: Terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate goals by some sort of illegitimate means. Whatever the murderers may be trying to achieve, creating a better world certainly isn’t one of their goals. Instead they are out to murder innocent people. If the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, for example, were to be miraculously solved from one day to the next, I believe we wouldn’t see any fewer attacks.
EF: And yet there must be reasons, or at least triggers, for this terrible willingness to wipe out the lives of others — and of oneself.
SR: Lenin once described terrorism as bourgeois adventurism. I think there, for once, he got things right. That’s exactly it. One must not negate the basic tenet of all morality — that individuals are themselves responsible for their actions. And the triggers seem to be individual, too.
Upbringing certainly plays a major role there, imparting a misconceived sense of mission, which pushes people toward “actions.” Added to that there is a herd mentality once you have become integrated in a group, and everyone continues to drive everyone else on and on into a forced situation. There’s the type of person who believes his action will make mankind listen to him and turn him into a historic figure. Then there’s the type who simply feels attracted to violence. And yes, I think glamour plays a role, too.
EF: Do you seriously mean that terrorism is glamorous?
SR: Yes. Terror is glamour — not only, but also. I am firmly convinced that there’s something like a fascination with death among suicide bombers. Many are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic that is inherent in these insane acts. The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other peoples’ lives. There’s one thing you mustn’t forget here: The victims terrorized by radical Muslims are mostly other Muslims.
EF: Of course there can be no justification for terrorism. But nevertheless, there are various different starting points. There is the violence of groups who are pursuing nationalist, one might say comprehensible, goals using every means at their disposal….
SR: …. And there are others, like Al Qaeda, which have taken up the cause of destroying the West and our entire way of life. This form of terrorism wraps itself up in the wrongs of this world in order to conceal its true motives — an attack on everything that ought to be sacred to us. It is not possible to discuss things with Osama bin Laden and his successors. You cannot conclude a peace treaty with them. They have to be fought with every available means.
EF: And with the other ones, the “nationalist terrorists,” should we engage in dialogue with them?
SR: That depends on whether they are prepared to renounce their terrorist struggle under a certain set of conditions. That appears to be showing at least initial signs of working with the Basques of ETA. I think we have Bin Laden to thank for that to no small extent — the Basque leaders didn’t want to be like him. And with the IRA, it was the loss of credibility among their own people, who no longer saw any point in fighting violently in the underground.
Remolding former terrorist organizations into political parties in the long term is at least not hopeless. It might work with those groups that are not primarily characterized by religious fanaticism — the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, for example, a group which virtually invented suicide bombings, have no religious background at all. They have clear objectives: an independent state.
EF: Should such a state be granted to a minority just because they are particularly ruthless? What about Shalimar, the hero of your latest novel, who murders for Kashmir? Should he determine the region’s future?