Author Salman Rushdie’s talk on “Culture Wars and the Importance of Free Speech” Wednesday night at Whitman drew an appreciative audience to an overflowing Cordiner Hall.

Salman Rushdie

More than 1,400 students, faculty, staff and area residents filled Cordiner to capacity to hear Rushdie. Assistant Professor of English Gaurav Majumdar acknowledged the stature of Whitman's guest and the anticipation in the moment in his introduction: “I realize that this introduction is both unnecessary and, considering Mr. Rushdie’s achievements, inadequate,” Majumdar said.

Those achievements include many award-winning books, from “Midnight’s Children” (1981) to Rushdie’s latest book, “Shalimar the Clown.” Rushdie is the recipient of the Booker Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Novel Award and the Writer’s Guild Award, among others. He currently serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University in Georgia.

Rushdie’s talk dealt with the much-publicized fatwa issued against him by Iranian leadership in 1989, prompted by perceived “blasphemy” against Islam in his fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses.” The strong reaction to the book led to riots and the murder of its Japanese translator.

Rushdie drew from his own experience with censorship to discuss the necessity of free speech, contentious or sympathetic. He also spoke about religion and migration in a talk that stretched beyond an hour.

“It's nice to talk to someone who isn’t caught up in the kind of (politically correct) culture that’s going on at the moment,” Whitman student Allison Armstrong ’10 told a reporter for The East Oregonian. “(Rushdie) just basically said people need to be more thick-skinned.”

Rushdie received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd. He then answered questions on topics ranging from his recent knighthood to Columbia University’s hosting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in September.

Rushdie’s speech was sponsored by ASWC, the Intercultural Center and the President’s Office. Prior to the event, the author dined with a handful of Whitman students and professors at Sherwood House.             

— Katie Combs ’08