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August 23, 2017

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Rushdie says authors in West losing influence

LONDON -- Salman Rushdie believes literature has lost much of its influence in the West, and movie stars like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have taken the place of Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer when it comes to addressing the big issues.

The British author, who has just released his account of 10 years in hiding after an Iranian fatwa was declared against him in 1989, believes the "Arab Spring" uprisings have failed but that there is hope for freer Muslim societies in the future.

He has warm words for his elder son Zafar who was nine when the famous edict which amounted to a death sentence was announced, but the tone turns harsh when dealing with famous figures like Rupert Murdoch, the Prince of Wales and John Le Carre who he said failed to back him during the dark years.

And with the publication of "Joseph Anton," a 633-page autobiography, the 65-year-old is determined to put the fatwa behind him.

"I have a sense of people thinking it (literature) is less important," he told Reuters on Friday in a wide-ranging interview at Waterstone's book store in central London.

"If you look at America, for instance, there is a generation older than mine in which writers like Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal would have a significant public voice on issues of the day. Now there's virtually no writers.

"Instead you have movie stars, so if you are George Clooney or Angelina Jolie then you do have the ability to speak about public issues ... and people will listen in a way they would once listen to Mailer and Sontag. That's a change."

He added that in authoritarian countries the situation was different, and literature had held on to some of its power.

"In those places literature continues to be important as you can see by the steps taken against writers," he said, counting China among them.

Fatwa and Free Speech

More than almost anyone, Rushdie sums up one of the most pressing problems facing leaders today — the tension between free speech and the desire to avoid offending people's faith.

He argues in his book that he does not feel his novel "The Satanic Verses," which prompted the fatwa, should have been particularly offensive to Muslims in the first place.

But Rushdie said he would continue to defend even the most provocative individual's right to express an opinion.

Joseph Anton (Rushdie's pseudonym while he was in hiding) hit the shelves at the same time as a film, made in the United States mocking the Prophet Muhammad, sparked riots across the Muslim world leading to many deaths.

"It's clear that you have to defend things you don't agree with," he said, when asked if he thought the film should have been censored in any way.

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