"I am delighted for him," Ian McEwan said, when told that his friend and fellow novelist Salman Rushdie had been knighted. "He's a wonderful writer, and this sends a firm message to the book-burners and their appeasers." It would seem that the message was heard all too clearly, and not only in Iran and Pakistan.
This is the last honors list of Tony Blair's long premiership—and it's not Buckingham Palace but Downing Street, with some help from pompous committees of "the great and the good," deliberating who else might be considered great and good enough, that decides who will be honored. By awarding the knighthood, the outgoing prime minister has invited again the charge of "Islamophobia." Whatever that may mean, and however true the charge is, what we've certainly seen is a resurgence of Salmanophobia, that other powerful force of the age. The response to his honor in London, as well as in more distant capitals, reminds us that this man can unite Muslims, conservative nationalists, and the fashionable academic-intellectual left in hatred of him. It's an impressive feat.
Last Saturday was the queen's "official birthday," which, along with the New Year, is when assorted gongs are handed out, according to degree, to persons likely and unlikely. Those honored this time around included a former England cricket captain, Dame Edna (or at least Barry Humphries), rock singer Joe Cocker, and "the founders of the erotic lingerie line Agent Provocateur," along with Sir Salman.
He himself was "thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way," while others saw a belated endorsement or even recompense. Critic and former professor John Sutherland thought it was by way of apology from those who had not supported Rushdie clearly enough in his hour of need 18 years ago. "It's astonishing that Tony Blair, among others, has been so reluctant to be seen shaking Rushdie's hand, and here he is getting a knighthood from the Queen."
But there are still plenty of others who have no wish to shake Rushdie's hand, even figuratively. In the House of Islam, the reaction was all too predictable. "Salman Rushdie has turned into a hated corpse, which cannot be resurrected by any action," Mohammad Reza Bahonar told the parliament in Tehran, where the knighthood was angrily denounced as a further provocation. For good measure, one speaker called our dear queen "an old crone." Iran was, of course, the country where the fatwa was pronounced on Rushdie by the ayatollahs in 1989.
At points east, the knighthood was unanimously condemned by the parliament in Pakistan, our supposed ally in the "war on terror." Many Union Jacks were burned in cities there. (As with the innumerable Danish flags burned in Muslim countries when the cartoon affair broke out, one has to admire the entrepreneurial spirit that either stocks the offending flags in such numbers as a contingency for such events or runs them up at speed.)
In Islamabad, Robert Brinkley, the British representative, was summoned to be rebuked for the "utter lack of sensitivity" in knighting Rushdie. In turn, he expressed the British government's deep concern at the reported comment of religious affairs minister Mohammad Ejaz ul-Haq that the knighthood could justify suicide attacks. The minister later "clarified" this by saying that he meant it might seem to some suicide bombers a justification. So, that's all right, then.
All this was familiar from the eruption over Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses 18 years ago, but the response in England was also painfully familiar. So far, there haven't been book burnings in the streets of London and Bradford, but there has been quite enough indignation.
When Lord Ahmed was made a member of the House of Lords by Blair, he was paraded as a moderate Muslim voice. He sounded only fairly moderate when he said on television that "Sir Salman" was an outrage against Islam and that the government should have knighted journalist Robert Fisk instead. (He really did say that.)