Britain in a tizzy as ‘Sir’ Rushdie turns 60

By Prasun Sonwalkar, IANS

London : As noted Mumbai-born writer Salman Rushdie turned 60 Tuesday, the issue of his being knighted unleashed a welter of words that promised to be as controversial as his novel, "The Satanic Verses", which turned him into the most protected fugitive in Britain's literary history.

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The familiar voices of condemnation and support for Rushdie were in full flow as reports poured in from Pakistan and Iran, where state and non-state actors criticised Britain's decision to confer knighthood on Rushdie for services to literature.

British authorities were watching the situation closely, while Scotland Yard sources said the angry reaction to Rushdie's knighthood meant that a new threat assessment would have to be drawn up for him.

Rushdie is expected to be given fresh advice on the precautions he takes abroad, and the unit around him in Britain is likely to be upgraded.

Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said many Muslims would regard the knighthood as the "final insult" from Prime Minister Tony Blair before he leaves office next week.

Bari said: "Salman Rushdie earned notoriety amongst Muslims for the highly insulting and blasphemous manner in which he portrayed early Islamic figures. The granting of a knighthood to him can only do harm to the image of our country in the eyes of hundreds of millions of Muslims across the world.

"Many will interpret the knighthood as a final contemptuous parting gift from Tony Blair to the Muslim world."

Labour peer Lord Nazir Ahmed described the decision as provocative and damaging to Britain's relations with Muslims. "Actually I was appalled to hear that Salman Rushdie had been given knighthood, particularly when this man has been very divisive."

"This man – as you can see – not only provoked violence around the world because of his writings, but there were many people that were killed around the world and honouring the man who has blood on his hands, sort of because of what he did, honouring him I think is going a bit too far," he said.

Gerald Butt, editor of the Middle East Economic Survey, told The Times: "It will be interpreted as an action calculated to goad Muslims at a time when the atmosphere is already very tense and Britain's standing in the region is very low because of its involvement in Iraq and its lack of action in tackling the Palestine issue".

Some time ago, Rushdie abandoned London's literary circuit and shifted to New York, in a move that came in for considerable criticism, particularly because the British taxpayer had spent millions protecting him here. When he comes here visiting, he continues to receive round-the-clock police protection.

Meanwhile, not a few in London's literary circuit were surprised at Rushdie agreeing to accept the knighthood and also saying that he was "thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour".

This, they point out, comes from one who not only enjoyed British protection when faced with death threats, but had gone on to pour scorn on London and had moved to New York in a huff.

In a comment titled "Sir Salman's long journey", Cambridge-based academic Priyamvada Gopal wrote in The Guardian that the knighthood was a reward for Rushdie for abandoning the anti-establishment stance he once espoused.

Gopal wrote: "From Indianness to Englishness, speculates the narrator of The Satanic Verses, is an immeasurable distance. For Sir Salman Rushdie, 'humbled to receive this great honour' from the monarch of a nation he once compared to 'a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones', that journey has culminated in a knighthood.

"The Sir Salman recognised for his services to literature is certainly no neocon but is iconic of a more pernicious trend: liberal literati who have assented to the notion that humane values, tolerance and freedom are fundamentally western ideas that have to be defended as such.

"Vociferously supporting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on 'humane' grounds, condemning criticism of the war on terror as "petulant anti-Americanism" and above all, aligning tyranny and violence solely with Islam, Rushdie has abdicated his own understanding of the novelist's task as 'giving the lie to official facts'.

"Now he recalls his own creation 'Baal', the talented poet who becomes a giggling hack corralled into attacking his ruler's enemies. Denuded of texture and complexity, it is no accident that this fiction since the early 90s has disappeared into a critical wasteland. The mutation of this relevant and stentorian writer into a pallid chorister is a tragic allegory of our benighted times, of the kind he once narrated so vividly".