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An Iranian American writer makes a case against censorship and for Rushdie


Writers are paying tribute to Salman Rushdie. He's the novelist attacked and seriously injured this month while talking in New York state. Supporters spoke up for him on the steps of the New York Public Library. Here is the British novelist Hari Kunzru.


HARI KUNZRU: Someone once wrote that the role of the writer is to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, stop it from going to sleep. And that's why we're here - because we owe it to him to stay awake and to use our words to shape the world.

INSKEEP: Now, the threats against Rushdie are so old that we have to review a bit here. His book "The Satanic Verses" was published in the U.K. in the fall of 1988. Months later, Iran's then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared the book blasphemous and issued a fatwa, a religious order saying that Rushdie should be killed. He's often been in hiding since but has published more than a dozen more books. He's been welcomed worldwide at speaking events, was knighted by Britain's queen and embraced by his literary peers. The Iranian American writer Azar Nafisi is also among Rushdie's admirers, and her latest book is titled "Read Dangerously." When we talked, she made a case against censorship.

AZAR NAFISI: What is it about a man or a woman whose only weapon is words? What is it about these words that become so dangerous that some of the most powerful men on Earth, with army and guns and even nuclear weapons, cannot live securely knowing that these people, these - the writers exist?

INSKEEP: It's tempting to think of Rushdie's case as exceptional because he happened to come to the attention of a particular government at a particular time, and it went on for so long. But in your mind, does it reflect something more widespread?

NAFISI: Oh, it's definitely something more widespread. In the case of Rushdie, it went to the extreme. But any totalitarian mindset, even totalitarian mindsets in democracies, the first thing that they rely on in order to control the people and to preserve their power is lying. They feed and grow on lies. And the whole idea behind fiction, the whole idea behind journalism, actually, is seeking for truth no matter where it leads you. And truth is always dangerous because once you hear it, if you remain silent, you become complicit. Look at banning books and censoring books and even burning books, taking them off the shelves in libraries. Fiction humanizes what the tyrants dehumanize. And that is why writers like Rushdie are so dangerous.

INSKEEP: You mentioned efforts to ban different books in the United States, and of course, there's this entire political debate over what should be taught in schools, what should be allowed in schools, what should be allowed in school libraries. What advice would you give a parent who hears these debates and is concerned about what their kids are reading in school and wants to have some control over it? What advice would you give them?

NAFISI: I would bring the debate to schools and talk about the fact that what we are scared of, we should be more scared if our children do not know the truth. Some books like Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale," Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," were banned because, for example, Toni Morrison talked about incest and rape. But the whole point is that if we cannot tolerate reading about reality in books, how can we tolerate standing up to ugly realities that are happening every day? We want to arm our children with this independence of mind that can stand up to terrible things that happen every day.

INSKEEP: I don't want to say the political right and the political left in the United States are the same because they each have their own programs, their own approaches. Right now the political right has been using state power to limit what is taught or read in schools. People on the political left tend more often to use cultural power to push against expressions that they...

NAFISI: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Don't like. But is there something in common there, some common lack of interest in other points of view that says something larger about the country?

NAFISI: Yes. Actually, the interesting thing is that both left and right have different political positions, but they demonstrate the same kind of mindset. It's a mindset that is ideological, that only hears itself. I have this anecdote from Iran where the chief censor for theater in Iran was blind - I mean, literally blind. He would sit in on rehearsals, and somebody would sit beside him and tell him what the actors are doing, and he would censor them.

And that blind censor became a metaphor for me for all censorship, for all mindsets that censor. They don't want to see. They don't want to hear. They don't want to connect to those who are not just opposed to them but different from them. And therefore, they have this white-hat, black-hat mentality. And it is a comfortable way of living because you don't have to think. You don't have to doubt. Somebody else is thinking and formulating what you need to say, to think. And so both on the far left and far right, there is this danger of becoming like a blind censor.

INSKEEP: The latest book by Azar Nafisi is called "Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power Of Literature In Troubled Times." Thanks so much.

NAFISI: Thank you very much. Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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