AFTER a year-long silence, Salman Rushdie, still in hiding, still living in fear of the death sentence proclaimed against him by the late Ayatollah Khomeini - and the violent threats and demonstrations engendered in its wake - has spoken out in a pair of essays that seem destined to become classic manifestos of artistic freedom. The first, In Good Faith (New York: Granta, 22 pp., $3) is a direct attempt to set the record straight in the face of the continual, often grotesque, distortions of fact and logic that have been in circulation ever since the so-called ``Rushdie affair'' began. On one hand, it is the crystal-clear, cogent, white-hot riposte of a man who has found himself in the exasperating position of having to explain the most basic facts about himself and his work. On the other, it is a heartfelt attempt to open a dialogue between the author and those he calls ``the great mass of ordinary, decent, fair-minded Muslims, of the sort I have known all my life.''
Such a dialogue, he reminds us, must rest on the assumption that both sides are acting ``in good faith.'' Rushdie assumes that ``the many Muslims I respect would be horrified by the idea that they belong to their faith purely by virtue of birth'' rather than active belief. As someone who has never in his ``adult life affirmed any belief,'' Rushdie contends that he is not a Muslim and hence cannot be accused of heresy or apostasy. He affirms his identity as a ``secular, pluralist, eclectic man'' upon whom Muslim culture has been a shaping influence, but not the only one.
He is also disturbed by the way that the increasingly ``brutalized'' public debate in Britain has tarnished the image of the Muslim community, made to seem barbarous and intolerant thanks to the behavior of certain Muslim leaders who have led the attack. He finds further irony (and worse than irony) in the way that some non-Muslim voices in British politics and the media have been raised against a writer for offending the sensibilities of a religious community instead of being directed against those who call for a writer's death.
Rushdie's eloquent and timely defense of ``secularism,'' not as an alternative belief, but as the cornerstone of any complex society that must accommodate plural beliefs, ties in with his defense of the novel as a hybrid, urban, eclectic genre.
In his more polished, but no less passionate second essay, Is Nothing Sacred? (New York: Granta, 16 pp., $3), Rushdie argues that the best novels serve, not as vehicles for religious or ideological propaganda, but as discussions about differences. Literature is neither ``finished'' nor ``perfect:'' It is ``an interim report from the consciousness of the artist.''
Written to be the Herbert Read Memorial Lecture for Feb. 6 of this year, the essay was delivered in Rushdie's absence by the playwright Harold Pinter. It begins by comparing the love and devotion that many of us feel for books with the more militant devotion of the ``true believer.''
In posing the question, ``Is nothing sacred?'' Rushdie is responding to the charge often made by religious fundamentalists that the ideals of religious and artistic freedom constitute a ``secular fundamentalism,'' an attempt to privilege and sacralize so-called ``humanist'' values above all others.
It has been fashionable for Westerners to complain about the rootless, decadent world in which they live and to sentimentalize the comforts of religious or ideological absolutism. But, as Rushdie reminds us, freedom means as much to Indians, Iranians, and Pakistanis as it does to Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles.