Rushdie: Film that sparked Mideast unrest 'disgraceful'

10:25 AM, Sep 17, 2012   |    comments
Author Salman Rushdie on NBC's 'Today' on Mon., Sept. 17, 2012 (NBC)
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(NBC) -- As an Iranian religious foundation raises the bounty on his head, British author Salman Rushdie called the film that has sparked protest in the Middle East "disgraceful."

"I think clearly the video was a flashpoint," Rushdie told TODAY's Matt Lauer Monday of the U.S.-made film that mocks the Prophet Muhammad. "From what I can see it was an outrageous, disgraceful little malevolent thing, but by now I think that the reaction we're seeing is really the release of a much larger outrage. We sort of live in an age of outrage, and people seem to be defining themselves by their outrage and seem to feel that it justifies itself."

Rushdie, an Indian-born British novelist who has nothing to do with the film, was condemned to death in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's late leader, over his novel "The Satanic Verses," saying its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad was blasphemous.

Khomeini's fatwa - or religious edict - was condemned in the West as incitement to murder and an assault on freedom of speech, but a wealthy Iranian religious organization has offered a large reward to anyone carrying it out and decided to increase the bounty amid the furor over the online film.

"I am adding another $500,000 to the reward for killing Salman Rushdie, and anyone who carries out this sentence will receive the whole amount immediately," said Hassan Sanei, the foundation's head, in a statement carried by the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA).

The reward offered by the state-linked foundation now stands at $3.3 million, ISNA reported.

Rushdie had harsh words for the controversial film.

"I think he's done something malicious and that's a very different thing from writing a serious novel," he said. "He's clearly set out to provoke, and he's obviously unleashed a much bigger reaction that he hoped for. One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting."

Rushdie came on TODAY to talk about his new book, "Joseph Anton," which tells the writer's story about living under the threat of murder.

"One of the reasons why in the book I use this metaphor of the Hitchcock movie 'The Birds' is to say that really what happened to me was the first bird, and now we're in the middle of the storm," Rushdie said.

"Surely if the sentence of the Imam (Khomeini) had been carried out, the later insults in the form of caricatures, articles and the making of movies would not have occurred," said Sanei, who is also the foundation's representative to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor as Iran's supreme leader.

Rushdie believes the film is part of a larger industry that exists to inflame the public.

"There is an outrage industry,'' he said. "There are people who look for things to provoke their audiences with, and it is to a large extent manufactured. The fact that you can unleash these violent mobs like this is obviously completely unacceptable."

In his new book, Rushdie recalls what it was like to be in the middle of the maelstrom after being marked for death upon the release of "The Satanic Verses.''

"It was a time of incredible stress,'' he said. "A lot of people who knew me then and afterwards said that 10 years later I looked younger than I had at the time, and it's because of that burden. It wasn't just about me. I was worried about my family, I was worried about my publishers, my translators, booksellers - there was a lot to worry about.''

At the time of the controversy 23 years ago, there were reports Rushdie was living a James Bond-type life, but he said the reality was much different.

"That was for me one of the strangest things, that people should attempt to so dramatically distort what was going on,'' he said. "I think sometimes it did look glamorous. You arrive in places in a bulletproof Jaguar and a policeman leaps out and opens the door. People think, 'Who the hell is he, what does he think he is?' Actually, from my side of it, it felt like jail.''

Rushdie had no sympathy for the filmmaker now embroiled in a violent backlash.

"He did it on purpose," the author told TODAY. "He set out to create a response and he got it in spades."

(The Today Show)

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