The lights flickered and dimmed. They tried to rally, increasing to almost full light. But they soon lost the battle, and the room faded into complete darkness.
No less than three times the medium-sized conference room at the USF Embassy Suites fell into darkness Thursday night. But on each occasion a soft voice with a slight English accent cut through the black to deliver world-renowned opinions.
Controversial author Salman Rushdie read bits from his humorous, satirical and sometimes biting literature to an over-capacity crowd of about 500 in the stifling hot conference room. Rushdie’s words spoke of the days of his youth, and the debate over Darwinism and religion’s role in society.
But his opening reading was an ode to Florida. Rushdie called it “How the Grinch stole America.” Playing on the famous Dr. Seuss verse, Rushdie made President George W. Bush the Grinch, saying “Grinchy had proved quite a dud.” He talked of the Grinch stealing the vote in Voteville (Florida) and poked fun at the 2000 election’s infamous recount.
“And they count, and they count, and they count, count, count,” Rushdie said. “They probably end up with a quite wrong amount.”And, what did the Grinch do before the count revealed the “veep” as the winner? He took it to the highest court.
“(The court) ordered all of Voteville to give up its count, before they came up with that wrong amount,” Rushdie said.
While “the Grinch” provided a humorous look at a national embarrassment, it was a more serious reading that revealed some of Rushdie’s controversial views on religion. It was these same views that were called blasphemous and lead to a death edict from the Iranian government in 1989.
Rushdie, writing a letter to the six billionth child born in the world, asked the child to “imagine there is no heaven.”
“(We are) encouraged to imagine a heaven with at least one god in residence,” Rushdie said. “Many of these stories strike you as beautiful … and are thus seductive.”
The letter was commissioned by the United Nations. But Rushdie’s letter, complete with its themes of questioning religion, so infuriated Secretary General Kofi Annan that he refused to write the forward.
Rushdie further recited a passage that said religion is at the heart not only of culture, but of each person’s self.
“It is the pretext for other anointed human beings to order you around,” he said.
Rushdie said armies throughout the world march into battle “as always, with God on their side.” He said religion has gotten in the way of scientific views, and that it has muddled the creation story.
“This is finally what all religions had in common … they didn’t get it right,” Rushdie said.
Rushdie said there is a disturbing trend taking hold in the world today. He said religion, which used to be marginally important, has now moved to the center of culture.
Rushdie said the ideas of the French Enlightenment that have influenced modern democracy are in danger. He said, for those philosophers, the enemy was the church, not the state. He said there was, in that environment “a deliberate use of blasphemy in order to destroy the church.” But, Rushdie said, what was gained during that time frame has now being given up.
“Now the barriers have been brought back,” Rushdie said.
Rushdie said with age he has grown stubborn. He encouraged the audience to stand up against what they believe is wrong.
“Kneel before no man,” he said.
Following his readings, Rushdie took questions from the audience. He was asked for his opinions on the current situation in the Middle East. He said while it’s easy for those countries to blame their problems on the United States, Great Britain and the former Soviet Union, they are themselves partially responsible for what is happening. He said religious extremism needs to change before the conflict will end.
“(The war) will be won not on the battlefield, but only when Muslim countries decide they don’t want that culture,” Rushdie said. “The great thing about trying to to predict the future is that one is always wrong. It is difficult to live now and not have a tragic (view).”