Who were these hundreds of people? Were they atheists? Were they religious people who were angry at you?
No, definitely not. They are people who have had enough. Particularly in the South, they’re people who don’t like being laughed at by people from the North who think they’re all rednecks and Falwell fanciers. They’re very clear on that. They regard that association as a fucking insult, which it is. Falwell died the week of my swing through the South, making me wonder if someone up there really does like me. So I had to mention it, and I said what I thought about him, and it brought roars of applause. Even the things I said about him that were really, by any standards, quite rude, while the guy’s carcass is hardly cold.
Just look at what’s happened to so-called intelligent design—the Creationist movement. It’s been defeated in every court where it’s been tried—in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, the most conservative district in Pennsylvania around Dover. They’ve been smashed. People don’t want to come from a state they’ll get laughed at for saying they’re from.
From what I’ve read, the judge in the Dover case was actually quite religious himself, which raises another question. There are millions of religious people who would say, “Look, we completely believe in science. But yet, we also have this separate part of our lives that is about ritual and family and personal meaning.” Are you fine with that?
Sure. Those people meet my qualifications. They make it a private belief. The place for religion is in the mind, within the individual. If they insist, it’s within the family, as long as they don’t abuse the children. There are lines they shouldn’t cross: no genital mutilation of people who aren’t qualified to sign an elective surgery form. No, not once, not ever. Preferably, no teaching about hell, I think. But you probably can’t stop people from doing that. No denial of medical care on superstitious grounds. Straight to jail for that. No marrying off your daughters to distant relatives, or not so distant, like the Mormons do.
Last week, I was at Salman Rushdie’s 60th birthday party in London—he was celebrating his knighthood. It was quite a nice evening. Anyhow, I met an interesting Pakastani novelist named Nadeem Aslam. He’s from the Yorkshire towns where a lot of Pakistani Muslims have settled, which is now the hotbed of terrorism in Britian. And he says that something really terrible has happened in this community. Because of their tradition of going back to Pakistan to the same old village, in the most backward part of Pakistan, to get a wife from the tribe and bring her, veiled, back to England, this percentage of the population is responsible for the majority of the deformed births in the country. They’re inbreeding. They're ruining themselves and creating a huge burden for the health and social welfare departments as well. It’s obscene cultism. That bothers me, too. That’s influencing the society I’m living in.
How’s Rushdie doing? There’s been quite a stir surrounding his knighthood.
He’s fine. There was an attempt to jack it up, but it has failed. He was afraid at one point that it would happen again, as it happened before in ’89, that in one of these shops in Pakistan, the police would go nuts and kill a few people. And then the whole thing would take off and there’d be more blood spilled. It didn’t happen, though.
He stayed right here in this apartment when he was still under the fatwa, didn’t he?
He did, yeah. That was when he was on the run. The whole of this front area was a command post with machine guns and dogs and searchlights. There were four hotels that look into this apartment, and they had rooms in each of them.
By “they,” you mean the Secret Service?
It was the Diplomatic Protection Corps. He’d come to visit the White House, so he had to be protected on their dime. They said it was the toughest job they ever had to do because when the Chancellor of Germany is in town, everyone knows she’s in town, so your protection of her doesn’t draw attention to her presence. But they wanted maximum protection—
—and they didn’t want people to ask, “Why are those guys with machine guns standing in that courtyard?”
Yes. Although it got out. Maureen Dowd leaked where he was staying. Thanks a lot. *
*From the editor: Maureen Dowd denies this, and The Atlantic erred in not seeking her response before posting this interview... Click here for more
You mentioned that religion should be a private affair. Where do you stand on the headscarf debate in France?
"The Crescent and the Tricolor" (November 2000)
France today has more Muslims than practicing Catholics, and couscous has arguably become the country's national food. By Christopher Caldwell
There is in fact no mandate in the Koran for covering the head or the face. In many countries that have a Muslim majority, there’s no question of girls wearing veils in school. Turkey wouldn’t have it, Tunisia wouldn’t have it, I don’t think Morocco would have it. We’re applying a Saudi standard to children in Western Europe because we think we must respect their religion.
And it’s a Jewish heresy, covering the hair, which you’d think would put them off. But no, they always borrow the worst stuff. They borrow the dumbest stuff in Judaism: the terrible Abraham story and the pork phobia and the head covering. They also borrow the stupidest stuff from Christianity, like the virgin birth and all that nonsense. It’s awful, witless plagiarism. Why we should respect it, I don’t know.