In the Queen's birthday honours, the UK government stored up a little surprise for most of us, a knighthood for Salman Rushdie, the well known author. Rushdie definitely has the literary reputation to justify such an award- his novels are well known and he is part of a praised generation of English writers- Barnes, Amis and McEwan would be the other notable ones- who are now the literary establishment.
But Rushdie's Knighthood has caused shock in many parts of the world. British flags have been burnt in Pakistan. The Muslim Council of Britain has denounced the move. A Pakistani Minister said that it justified suicide bombings in the UK (though he later withdrew that statement) and the Iranians have said that it demonstrates that Britain hates Muslims. Why have these people said this, why such shock and is it justified?
Well the simple answer is that back in the eighties Salman Rushdie published a book called the Satanic Verses, which was shall we say less than complimentary about Islam and its founders. Rushdie's attack was not greeted with universal happiness by the British or international Muslim community. A fatwa to kill him was pronounced by Ayatollah Khomeini and his book was burnt on the streets of Bradford. As Inayat Bunglawala declared in the Guardian today
it was the Rushdie case which inspired the growth of a political islam in the UK- something to be honest that your correspondent doesn't greet with glee.
But Rushdie's knighthood is something that your correspondent greeted with glee- personally I'm not someone who has read much Rushdie so I will leave more learned literary lions to grapple with his work- however the knighthood symbolises for me the way that the British establishment will not be cowed by those who are opposed to freedom of expression. The Rushdie case is symbolic I think personally of something very positive about the British state at the moment- and very positive about the government.
To consider this its worth realising the importance of subjecting religion to criticism. In the 17th and 18th centuries as Jonathan Israel's latest work on the enlightenment makes perfectly clear the radical inspiration for that enlightenment flowed out from the realisation that religion could be criticised. It was the bold and brave stances, often at risk of their lives, taken by individuals like Spinoza and Count Radicati (great name for a radical enlightenment thinker- the radical Radicati) that contributed to the way that secular democratic and liberal values developed- similar stances taken about Islam can help break down the monolithic structures of religion within the societies of the Middle East- just as they did and do in Europe.
What we are talking about here is not some racist lunatic like the late and unlamented Bernard Manning (a racist British comedian who died today, who requires referring to on Bits but who I can't be bothered to eviscerate at any length), but an intellectual critique sustained within art and developed out of the original Muslim writings. You may rightly dispute the conclusions that Rushdie came to- as usual I don't know enough- but I think he had the right to come to them and in my view the critiquing of religion is almost always neccessary and almost always (so long as it is an intellectual exercise and not a prejudiced one) beneficial.
Rushdie's knighthood has aroused passions and hatred- personally though I think that its much less obnoxious than the knighthood awarded to his great opponent Iqbal Sacranie (who called for Rushdie's execution)- Rushdie's criticisms may be misguided but criticising religion is often in the present climate a bold step. Furthermore its one that as Rushdie knows can end in hiding and hatred being expressed against you. In that sense, Rushdie deserves a salute for his courage- but more than that the British government deserve a salute for saying that this is a man of literary merit and that no matter what the criticism they will recognise that.
The Knighthood awarded to Rushdie is not an insult to Islam- its a statement about a literary figure, and insofar as it says anything about the controversy it reminds us that it is important to critique religion- and that when religion seeks to silence critiques of it in the public sphere as Christianity has done in the past, Sikhism recently did in the Bezhti case and Islam in the Rushdie case, it must be resisted and defied. The Enlightenment is an inheritance worth protecting!