The American Humanist Association (AHA) is honored to recognize author and activist Salman Rushdie as the 2019 Humanist of the Year. Rushdie is the author of thirteen novels, with a fourteenth coming soon. His second, Midnight’s Children, won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was named “Best of the Booker” in 1993 and again in 2008.
His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988 and contained a variation on a story of Muhammad adding verses to the Koran. The book ignited a huge controversy in the Islamic world, leading to the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini’s infamous fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination.
At the time, Rushdie explained that The Satanic Verses presents a conflict between the secular and the religious view of the world, particularly between texts claiming to be divinely inspired and texts that are imaginatively inspired. “I distrust people who claim to know the whole truth and who seek to orchestrate the world in line with that one true truth. I think that’s a very dangerous position in the world,” he said on ABC’s Nightline. “It needs to be challenged constantly in all sorts of ways, and that’s what I tried to do.”
In addition to his novels, Rushdie has written collections of fiction and non-fiction, and in 2012 published his memoir, Joseph Anton.
Rushdie is the recipient of countless prestigious writing prizes and honors. He’s served as the president of the PEN American Center and helped create the PEN World Voices International Literary Festival. In 2007 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and in 2008 became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He’s also on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, a patron of Humanists UK, and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. Rushdie is currently a distinguished writer in residence at New York University and is finishing his fourteenth novel, a modern remake of Don Quixote titled Quichotte (due out in September 2019).
I had a chance to ask him about the new book, and about the perseverance of the written word. As someone who’s been involved in higher education in the US for some twenty years, Rushdie remarked: “It’s quite encouraging to me how many students are really passionate about books.” He described how “this strange form that everything was supposed to kill—radio, television, film—keeps chugging along” and that on this matter he’s “not a pessimist.” Talking humanism, Rushdie said he’s not interested in saints—because we’re all both good and bad—but thinks that we do have a moral instinct, that our ethics have evolved, and that we have an interest in the good: “That’s the heart of humanism, I think.”
In both his fiction and his commentary, Salman Rushdie has been called courageous, controversial, erudite, irreverent, fabulistic, cosmopolitan, and more. His books have been translated into over forty languages, and move between nations and cultures, religions, nationalities, languages, and creeds, much like humanist thought itself.
Like all great novelists, Rushdie is absorbed by the human condition in novel ways. And certainly it is novel to take on the human condition. To entertain the human condition. To befriend the human condition. To pick a fight with the human condition. And on and on. It is novel to favor telling a good story over picking a side.
In a New York Times column on February 14, 1999, the tenth anniversary of the fatwah, Rushdie posed this question:
Amid the cacophony of the professionally opinionated and the professionally offended, may a voice still be heard celebrating literature, highest of arts, its passionate, dispassionate inquiry into life on earth, its naked journey across the frontierless human terrain, its fierce-minded rebuke to dogma and power, and its trespassers’ fearless daring?
The American Humanist Association (AHA) answers that question with a resounding “Yes.” Such a voice is needed. Video of Rushdie’s remarks in acceptance of the 2019 Humanist of the Year Award will be shown at the AHA’s annual conference June 7-9. See schedule and registration information here and join us in a city near you as well as online.