India Knight, the British daughter of a Muslim shows more courage than the English who taught her their Western values. Just the kind of voice we need to hear.
June 24, 2007
Rushdie, the man they love to hate
Surely there’s a difference between careful diplomacy and pandering to extremists
What an extraordinary, if depressingly predictable, fuss about Salman Rushdie’s knighthood. Eighteen years after the fatwa was issued, Ijaz ul-Haq, tPakistani religious affairs minister, last week told his country’s parliament that “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”.
Union Jacks were burnt in Pakistan, with rioters shouting “Kill him!”. If I were Pakistani, I’d be more inclined to riot about the monstrous off-the-scale corruption that riddled my government, and the corrupted version of Islam that brainwashed disenfranchised young men in the madrasahs, but anyway. A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry said that to honour “an apostate and one of the most hated figures in the Islamic world” indicated that Britain supported “the insult to Islamic values”.
One might respectfully suggest that if people who seek to impose their grotesque distortion of Islam on their unfortunate peoples will insist on making these inane pronouncements, they might at least do so with a degree of calm and a semblance of rationality, because otherwise it’s hard to take them seriously (assuming one were inclined to do so, which is quite an assumption).
It’s as though the Vatican took such exception to The Da Vinci Code that, instead of putting out composed-sounding statements and seeking (not entirely successfully) to reassure people that super-creepy Opus Dei is not in fact creepy at all, its spokesmen started foaming at the mouth like nutters and ordered crusades against Dan Brown for having the temerity to invent a story and write fiction.
Muslim world inflamed by Rushdie knighthood
A Pakistani minister said that Rushdie’s knighthood justified suicide bombings amid offers of rewards for his assassination
British minister: ‘We stand by Rushdie knighthood’
Actually it’s not like that, because Rushdie is a brilliant writer and Brown is a sort of rich monkey with a typewriter, but you get the gist. And no sooner is the knighthood announced in the Queen’s birthday honours than politicians such as Jack Straw are tripping over themselves “sympathising” with the “hurt feelings” of the “Muslim community” and volunteering his opinion of Rushdie’s oeuvre: “I’m afraid I found his books rather difficult and I’ve never managed to get to the end of any of them.” This just makes him sound thick, I’m afraid.
Midnight’s Children is hardly Finnegans Wake, and with the exception of The Satanic Verses none of Rushdie’s books is remotely “difficult”. So either Straw is remedially dim, poor thing, or he’s making the point that since Rushdie’s work is not his cup of tea, neither is Rushdie, and nor, by extension, is his knighthood – nothing to do with me, guv, so please keep voting for me, Muslim constituents.
Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, said she was “sorry” for any offence caused. An unnamed Labour MP told a newspaper that “anybody with common sense would have blocked this”. Thank God for John Reid: the home secretary said that although the issue was “sensitive”, the protection of people’s rights to express their opinions in literature, argument and politics was of “overriding value to our society”.
What on earth is the point of pussyfooting around like pathetic craven saps (and I write as someone who is the daughter of a Muslim and also has some Iranian blood)? Surely there’s a difference between careful diplomacy and pandering to extremist Muslims who violently oppose everything people in this country stand for and believe in?
We live – thank God, Allah and everybody else – in a democracy. We have, and cherish, the right to free speech. It is a glorious thing. People are allowed – encouraged – to have an imagination and to write books, which some people may like and some people may not, but there you go: nobody forces anybody to read anything (though perhaps they should: I’d love to know how many fatwa supporters read the 560 pages of The Satanic Verses).
So what I don’t understand is why, when the knighthood was announced and gracefully acknowledged by Rushdie – “I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour” – it should have been met at home by carping and wriggly apology instead of celebration. Is it too much to ask for our politicians to stand up and paraphrase Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? Yes, apparently, because it seems that pandering to the tiny proportion of the Muslim vote that is both extremist and fundamentalist is worth more than art, beauty, reason or morality.
Part of the problem – and it’s an objectionable one – is that Rushdie is viewed in many quarters as being insufficiently grateful for the protection the (Conservative) government afforded him during the fatwa. Apparently, if millions of people are encouraged to kill you and the country you live in quite rightly thinks that’s a poor show, and helps you, you forfeit the right to express an opinion about anything, whether it’s the price of a pint of milk or the niqab.
In addition to this perceived lack of gratitude is the political perception of Rushdie. To the right, he’s a leftie, which is ironic because he was helped and protected by a Conservative government and a Labour premier, Tony Blair, whom many would consider a kind of low-level Tory.
To the left, he is problematic in the extreme, because the left courts the Muslim vote. “Courts” isn’t quite right – “toadies” is more like it. And in the process, moderate Muslims who practise their religion peacefully and with grace don’t seem to feature: they’re lumped with the extremists and given a hard time as a result, for the reasons outlined above.
There’s a third issue here. Art matters. Literature matters. They matter much more than the ravings of some overexcited, barely literate oik of a cleric with a gift for oratory, even if – especially if – said cleric ends up having global influence. When you cut to the chase, all that remains is this: Rushdie, who was 60 last week, 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.
People associated with his books were also targeted, injured – his Italian translator was beaten and stabbed; his Norwegian publisher shot and left to die – and even killed, in the case of his Japanese translator. All because he wrote a book, used his imagination, made up a story, got it published, and didn’t or wouldn’t foresee the calamitous consequences of his act of creativity – because those consequences were unimaginable to a civilised mind living in a democracy. His knighthood recognises all of this, as well as his talent. I couldn’t be more delighted for him.