'It is not for Pankaj Mishra to tell me not to criticise the literature laureate,' writes Satanic Verses author in letter to Guardian
An article by Mishra in the Guardian this weekend responded to Rushdie's condemnation of Mo Yan as a "patsy" for declining to sign a petition calling for the release of the imprisoned Chinese Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Mishra asked if we "ever expose the political preferences of Mo Yan's counterparts in the west to such harsh scrutiny", and said there was an "unexamined assumption lurking in the western scorn for Mo Yan's proximity to the Chinese regime: that Anglo-American writers, naturally possessed of loftier virtue, stand along with their governments on the right side of history. Certainly, they are not expected to take a public stance against their political class for waging catastrophic – and wholly unnecessary – wars".
Mishra pointed out that Nabokov "was not declared ethically deficient" after he congratulated Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam war, and nor was Saul Bellow condemned after he "endorsed a bogus book that claimed that the Palestinians did not exist".
"This kind of selective humanism – blind to the everyday violence of one's own side, and denying full humanity to its victims – is probably not what Martin Amis had in mind when he exhorted us to feel superior to the Taliban," wrote Mishra. "Rushdie may have sincerely believed in the Bush administration's resolve to bring democracy through war to Afghanistan."
But Rushdie said that Mishra's piece "makes a series of confused, dishonest and wrong-headed assertions", and also "misrepresents me". "I have never made the claim that the Bush administration was resolved 'to bring democracy through war in Afghanistan'," wrote The Satanic Verses author in a letter to the Guardian today. "I did say that, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the reprisal attack against the al-Qaida-Taliban axis was justifiable, not to 'bring democracy', but to respond to an act of war. In Afghanistan a terrorist group had taken over the levers of a nation state and used that state as a base from which to attack the United States. For all I know, Mishra may feel that instead of fighting back, America should have apologised to al-Qaida for its foreign policy misdeeds and accepted that those killed in the Trade Centre towers deserved to die. I do not accuse him of that. Neither should he accuse me of what I did not say."
Rushdie also took issue with Mishra's assertion that "violence and exploitation underpin all nation states, democratic or not", calling it a " satanic view of human society". "People like me should not criticise people like the craven Chinese Nobelist Mo Yan, because, for failing to condemn our own 'powerful institutions and individuals', we are patsies too," wrote Rushdie. "But democracies are not tyrannies, and responses to the two cannot be this simply equated. Anyway, writers in free societies do constantly criticise the powerful, and are not simply the docile careerists Mishra says we are. When I was president of PEN American Centre I led that organisation in its constant critiques of the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act."
Rushdie added that he has long fought for the release of Liu, "and it is not for Mishra to tell me not to criticise the literature laureate Mo Yan for refusing to support him. Mo Yan defended censorship in Stockholm by comparing it to airport security. Airport security exists to guard us against terrorist attacks. Thus Mo Yan was making a moral equivalence between dissident literature and terrorism. That was and is objectionable, and I do not hesitate to condemn it."