Why give Rushdie a knighthood?

It should have come as no surprise to the authorities that awarding Salman Rushdie a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours would cause protests from the Islamic world. Of course, this would be no reason not to reward a person deserving the honour.

The United Kingdom is a country where free speech is valued. It was quite right for Rushdie to be given police protection when his life was threatened in the 80s and 90s, just as anyone should be protected from threats to their life or any other sort of criminal activity (although, it has to be said, he could sometimes be a little more gracious or grateful towards the British authorities in return).

However, the question has to be asked, why was Salman Rushdie awarded a knighthood? Is he so much better than so many other authors? Few best selling writers are made knights or dames, nor do most of Sir Salman’s fellow Booker Prize winners hold that discinction. Is his work so great that he deserves what is almost the top British honour? Maybe making him an OBE or something similar would have been in order. But a knighthood?

Unfortunately, one can only come to the conclusion that many Muslims have no doubt come to: Sir Salman was given his title to cause controversy. It is not too difficult to imagine the civil servants in their secret rooms thinking it could be a good idea to stir things up a bit. Perhaps the idea was to cause a diplomatic crisis to overshadow the start of the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown’s term in office next week. An OBE might have provoked some protests, but Pakistan, as a Commonwealth country, understands the significance of making someone a “Sir”, and it will inevitably be seen as an endorsement of Sir Salman’s work by the British establishment.

It is quite amusing to hear the First Deputy Speaker of Iran’s parliament say:

The British monarch lives under this illusion that Britain is still a 19th Century superpower and that bestowing titles is something still deemed important.

From the level of protests that it has caused, it would seem that many people in Muslim countries still deem it to be important.

However offensive Muslims may find The Satanic Verses, in itself it caused no damage to their religion. What is hugely damaging is when people around the world see violent protests, and hear foreign ministers imply that awarding a mere honour justifies indiscriminate murder. Surely a far better approach would be to accept the principle of free speech, explain why the remarks are offensive, and for scholars to criticise Rushdie’s work in general – in other words, tell us why his writing is no good! People would be far more sympathetic, and without the threats, there would not be so much interest in Rushdie’s work. If this approach had been followed in the late 80s, we would probably not be seeing Sir Salman with his knighthood today.

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