Britain rattled, but stands by decision to knight Rushdie

By Prasun Sonwalkar, IANS

London : Britain is rattled by the level of anger in Iran and Pakistan at the decision to confer knighthood on noted Mumbai-born writer Salman Rushdie but has refused to reverse the decision or be apologetic about it.

Support TwoCircles

Refusing to be on the defensive, Home Secretary John Reid said: "We have a set of values that accords people honours for their contribution to literature even if we don't agree with their point of view.

"That's our way and that's what we stand by. We have very strong laws about promoting racial intolerance. It isn't a free-for-all. We've thought very carefully about it. But we have a right to express opinions, and a tolerance of other people's point of view, and we don't apologise for that."

He admitted that the issue was sensitive, but added that the protection of people's right to express their opinions in literature, argument and politics was "of overriding value to our society".

As Britain grapples with the fallout at the diplomatic level, quite a few have noted the largely muted reaction to the knighthood within Britain's Muslim community. The only major voices of criticism have been those of Labour peer Lord Nazir Ahmed and Mohammad Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

In a significant intervention, recalling the protests in 1989 that were sparked by Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses", Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary general of the MCB, wrote in The Guardian: "Looking back now on those events I will readily acknowledge that we were wrong to have called for the book to be banned.

"Today I can certainly better appreciate the concerns and fear generated by the images of book-burning in Bradford and the calls for the author to be killed. It seems crazy now, but I really did believe that some committee of learned elders should vet all books before they could be sold to the public.

"And from reading various British Muslim message boards on the Internet there appears to be a strong desire among many younger Muslims not to get distracted by the Rushdie knighthood. It is a hopeful sign".

However, echoing the protests in Pakistan, Conservative MP Stewart Jackson, who is also the chairperson of the all-party group on Pakistan, said: "Salman Rushdie was subjected to one of the most famous death sentences in the 20th century.

"If the senior officers of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were not able to use their knowledge of the Islamic world to consider the likely ramifications of this decision, then I'm extremely concerned.

"He has been a critic of the UK, a country whose taxpayers have paid for the protection he required from the fatwa. He's only semi-resident in this country and his books are rubbish, tedious and without literary merit.

"There's no question that we can rescind the award, it would make us look weak and it's not for Britain to kow-tow to extremists but perhaps it would be appropriate for Salman Rushdie to make the decision not to accept this award."

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that the arts and media committee that recommended Rushdie for the knighthood did not discuss any possible political ramifications and never imagined that the award would provoke the furious response it has in Iran and Pakistan.

The committee was chaired by Lord Rothschild, the investment banker and former chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery. The other committee members were Jenny Abramsky, the BBC's director of radio and music; novelist and poet Ben Okri, who is vice-president of the English chapter of PEN International, which campaigns on behalf of writers who face persecution; Andreas Whittam Smith, former editor of the Independent; John Gross, the author and former theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph; and two permanent secretaries, one from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and one from the Scottish executive.

PEN International, which campaigned on behalf of Rushdie when he faced death threats and was in hiding, has lobbied consistently for him to be honoured. Jonathan Heawood, director of its London chapter, said that he was taken aback by the scale of the reaction to the knighthood.

He said: "The honour is for services to literature and a very belated recognition that he is a world writer, who was in the vanguard of a writing tradition that exploded in the 80s in south Asia."