One of the world's most famous authors joined a prominent Holocaust survivor in Toronto Monday night to warn that human rights are increasingly under attack by religious extremists.
"It seems that the right of freedom of speech that was enshrined in numerous constitutions is now under attack by religious institutions," said Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize-winning post-modern novelist, at a sold-out benefit for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies at a midtown synagogue.
Throughout his speech and a later panel discussion with writer and Boston University professor Elie Wiesel, Mr. Rushdie attacked censorship and religious extremism in Arabia, Iran and his native India, citing everything from Iran's attempt to ban books to protests in India against a Muslim artist who painted nude pictures of Hindu goddesses.
The event unfolded under the cloud of an Israeli attack on a flotilla of activists attempting to reach the Gaza Strip. While both Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Wiesel said they didn't know much about the event, Mr. Rushdie noted that the aid convoy had both a Holocaust survivor and a Nobel Peace Prize winner on board.
"The first knee-jerk [reaction]is that this was an excessive use of force," the Indo-British author told reporters earlier in the day. "It would have been a better idea not to start shooting people."
The event was accompanied by tight security, with police surrounding the synagogue and security guards searching bags.
The discussion between Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Wiesel was moderated by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who, just hours earlier, had been condemned by the Oliphant Commission for accepting envelopes of cash from a former lobbyist.
Mr. Mulroney delivered a sentimental speech at the fundraiser in which he highlighted Canada's history of anti-Semitism, but steered clear of any direct discussion of his own troubles. The only oblique reference came at the start of his speech as he strode up to the podium, paused a moment and asked "And how was your day?" of the cheering crowd.
The former prime minister wasn't the only one cracking jokes. During a discussion on suicide bombers, Mr. Rushdie noted that some scholars believe the Koran's purported promise of 72 virgins for martyrs in the afterlife may be a mistranslation, and that the word may be more correctly rendered as "raisins."
"This is a reason for wishing there to be an afterlife. You want to see the faces of the suicide bombers," he said to laughter from the audience.
Mr. Wiesel, who has written extensively about the Holocaust and himself survived the Nazi concentration camps, argued that Jerusalem should not be divided between Israel and Palestine, and blamed other Middle Eastern countries for the inability to reach a solution to the violence in Israel.
He also said the world still hasn't learned from the Holocaust, as evidenced by the Holocaust denial of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Had the world learned, there would have been no Rwanda, no Darfur, no Cambodia, no Bosnia," he said. "[Ahmadinejad]should be arrested and indicted and brought before the Hague for inciting crimes against humanity."
Mr. Rushdie himself lives under the threat of a fatwa and death sentence, imposed by the late Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini for his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.
But he argued against attacking Iran's nuclear facilities to stop the state from developing an atomic bomb.
"The problem with surgical strikes on nuclear facilities is that you only need to miss one, don't you?" he said. "If there were Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, it makes it certain there would be a reprisal attack against the United States at some point."
He also said the fatwa didn't play much role in his life these days, and described the religious edict in philosophical terms.
"It was people treating fiction as non-fiction," Mr. Rushdie said. "The nature of an open society is to have the power to question these grand narratives. What happened to me was a harbinger of what would happen on a larger scale."
One question, however, wasn't getting any answers: How did the pair feel about having their talk moderated by a former prime minister accused of "inappropriate" business dealings?
Both said they didn't know enough to comment.