Knight in need of armour

Published : Jul 13, 2007 00:00 IST

The latest row over Salman Rushdie makes even less sense than the one before, set off by `The Satanic Verses' and the fatwa.


THERE is a sense of dj vu about the latest round of anti-Rushdie protests, described by one British commentator as a show of "Islamist anger". Eighteen years after Salman Rushdie was forced to go into hiding to escape death threats inspired by the Iranian fatwa against him for writing the allegedly blasphemous Satanic Verses, the fanatics are after him again - chanting "Death to Rushdie", burning his effigies, and inciting others to violence. And why? Not because he has written another blasphemous book but simply because the British government has given him a knighthood for his services to literature.

The so-called "Muslim world" is buzzing with conspiracy theories claiming that the decision to honour him is a calculated act of "insult" to Muslims and a sign of Western "Islamophobia". Groups in Pakistan and Iran have offered rewards to anyone who would kill Sir Salman; one senior Iranian cleric said that the Iranian fatwa, suspended by Teheran after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, still stands; and ill-tempered street protests have been held by Muslim groups around the world, including India.

In Britain, where the Muslim reaction has been remarkably restrained so far, the usual suspects are desperately trying to whip up passions. Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the discredited Muslim Council of Britain (once a darling of Downing Street, the organisation has now been dumped in favour of more moderate groups), called it the "final insult" to Muslims from Tony Blair before he leaves office. In case the message was lost on the community, he followed up his remark with a letter to the country's 500-odd mosques describing the knighthood as "an attempt to create deep offence to Muslims and divert their attention from contributing to community cohesion in these challenging times".

In a particularly grotesque remark, Labour peer Lord Ahmed, once courted by the government, said that honouring Salman was as offensive to Muslims as it would have been offensive for an Islamic country to honour the 9/11 terrorists. "He is a controversial man who has insulted Muslim people, Christians and the British. He does not deserve the honour. What would one say if the Saudi or Afghan governments honoured the martyrs of the September 11 attacks on the United States?" he asked.

So far, however, people like Bari and Ahmed have failed to get the backing of the larger Muslim community, which clearly has had enough and wants to be left alone by groups wanting to exploit religious sensitivities for their own political ends. It is a sign of the changed mood among Britain's nearly two million Muslims that they want to get on with more pressing bread-and-butter issues, as Munaf Zeena, chairman of the Council of Indian Muslims, pointed out.

A protest organised by a radical group in London attracted only a handful of people. This was in sharp contrast to the massive rallies and book-burning events held across Britain during the 1989-90 backlash against The Satanic Verses. In a telling reflection of how much the mood has altered, prompted partly by a realisation that it is politically suicidal for Muslims to persist with old ways and partly by a genuine change of heart, Inayat Bunglawala, a former high-profile spokesman of the Muslim Council of Britain, admitted the folly of the old tactics. Bunglawala, who was in the forefront of the campaign against The Satanic Verses, has publicly acknowledged that the methods adopted at the time were a "mistake".

The real action this time has been outside Britain, with Pakistan and Iran in starring roles. Pakistan's Religious Affairs Minister Muhammad Iijaz ul-Haq - son of the late President Zia ul-Haq - sent shockwaves across the world when he appeared to incite violence by justifying suicide bombing as a reaction to the "insult", which he alleged the British government had heaped on Muslims by knighting Rushdie. "If someone exploded a bomb on Rushdie's body, he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the `Sir' title," he told the Pakistan National Assembly.

By the time he was forced to retract his remarks, after a strong protest from Robert Brinkley, the British High Commissioner in Islamabad, the damage had already been done, and President Pervez Musharraf's efforts to portray his government as one of "enlightened moderation" was in tatters.

Even more questionable, however, was Islamabad's official intervention, which amounted to interfering with the right of a sovereign government to honour one of its own citizens. Some of the language used by Pakistani Ministers and officials provoked outrage and ridicule in Britain.

The reaction in Iran was even more hysterical, with clerics, officials and Ministers competing to outdo each other in expressing their outrage. The state-controlled media joined in the anti-Rushdie and anti-United Kingdom bashing, with one newspaper, Jomhuri-e Islami, launching a very personal attack on Queen Elizabeth, reportedly accusing her of having paid Sir Salman 500,000 to write The Satanic Verses.

Given Teheran's troubled relations with Britain, the Iranian response was hardly surprising. But it was Pakistan's over-the-top stance that looked clearly out of sync with Musharraf's claims of having reined in extremism. In the end, the state-sponsored furore, whether in Iran or Pakistan, was suspiciously like an attempt to detract attention from domestic problems. As a spokesman for International PEN (a worldwide association of writers), which lobbied for Rushdie to be made Sir Salman, noted: "He has become a Guy Fawkes figure to be thrown on a bonfire whenever it suits a government to divert attention from what is happening in their own countries."

Ironically, there is something faintly Rushdie-an about the whole affair. It would seem as though his own characters impelled, as they often are, by irrational and absurd logic, have turned on him with a vengeance.

The latest row, or the Rushdie Affair Part II, as it has been labelled, makes even less sense than Part I. In Part I, Sir Salman's detractors could at least claim that they had been offended by what he had written.

For all the horrid scenes of book burning and threats of violence, not to mention the bounty placed on his head, ultimately it was an argument about free speech. It was a debate over conflicting notions of the right to free speech and its limits. A clash between those who held creative freedom to be absolute, not to be trifled with at any cost, and those who argued that respect for people's deeply held beliefs should take precedence over rights that could disturb social harmony.

To the extent that there are people in all faiths who do regard their beliefs to be sacred and beyond the purview of artistic licence, those protesting against The Satanic Verses at least had a point. The question was whether they should have used the means they did to express their anger.

This time, however, they have no point at all. Here is a sovereign country honouring one of its own citizens. And the citizen concerned is "thrilled" to accept the honour. So, how does it become any other country's business? The controversy would make no sense to anyone who knows anything about how awards are given, understands questions of national sovereignty, and is aware of the relative insignificance of knighthood in the hierarchy of the queen's birthday honours.

It is important to remind the protesters that the British Empire is dead for good, and the annual ritual of handing out honours in its name is taken just about as seriously as the monarchy itself - a quaint and harmless hangover of a bygone era, only good for a laugh. Increasingly, the honours are seen as an anachronism, and there is a serious debate going on in Britain on the need to abolish them. So, a knighthood is no big deal.

Of course, no award is bias-free. Lobbying and the political and ideological prejudices of the judges all play a role in deciding the winner. There is also no point denying the existence of Islamophobia at all levels of the British establishment. But attributing the Rushdie knighthood to Islamophobia is ludicrous. Not a single person on the committee that proposed his name can be labelled a Muslim-baiter. It was chaired by Lord Rothschild, former chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and - besides three bureaucrats - included African writer and former Booker winner Ben Okri; writer and theatre critic John Gross; Andreas Whittam Smith, founder-editor of the left-wing daily The Independent; and Jenny Abramsky, director of BBC Radio & Music - all liberal figures respected for their independent views.

There could be some truth in the view that Sir Salman was "rewarded" for his support of the Iraq invasion and his "pro-establishment" stance on the British-US "war on terror". But is it so difficult to forget his politics for a moment, to stop looking for conspiracies, and to remember that, first and foremost, he is a great writer?

Sir Salman has been a source of inspiration for a whole generation of young South Asian writers aspiring for international recognition. Jonathan Heawood, the director of the London chapter of International PEN, hailed him as a "giant of world literature" and the architect of "a writing tradition that exploded in the '80s in South Asia".

Writer and journalist India Knight, writing in The Sunday Times, said: "When you cut to the chase, all that remains is this: Rushdie... is an exceptional writer who has written great books for which he has been awarded prizes and awards both here and internationally. Unlike most exceptional writers, he walked around as a living target for 10 years under constant police protection... . His knighthood recognises all of this, as well as his talent."

And, as for conspiracy theories, let me conclude (courtesy The Times columnist Matthew Parris) with what the famously conspiratorial 19th century French politician Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Prigord said on hearing the news of the death of a rival politician: "I wonder what he meant by that?"

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