Sir Salman, champion of free speech

Salman RushdieIn reading news articles about the decision by Great Britain to bestow knighthood on Salman Rushdie, one can’t help but wonder why in the world the British would decide to do this. I mean, all they are doing is upsetting a substantial minority of Britain’s population and inflaming Islamic sentiment around the world by honoring a man who is just a novelist. Since when should we honor people who are attacked and threatened with death for what they say or write?

Or should we?

If you read The Times‘ piece on the matter, you come away with the idea that Rushdie was just a royal pain in the neck by writing The Satanic Verses in 1988.

You all know the backstory, and the news reports paid scant attention to it. The Times had one of the more thorough accounts of what happened:

Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for almost a decade after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the death sentence over The Satanic Verses.

On Valentine’s Day in 1989 the spiritual figurehead of the Iranian revolution pronounced on Teheran radio that: “The author of The Satanic Verses, which is against Islam, the Prophet, the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.”

In Britain, the subsequent hate campaign helped to politicise and radicalise a generation of young British Muslims. The taxpayer is believed to have spent more than £10 million protecting Rushdie.

The Times focuses heavily on Pakistan, where legislators are passing resolutions demanding the removal of Rushdie’s knighthood. The article even quote an independent-sounding editor of the Middle East Economic Survey saying that Rushdie’s knighthood will be seen 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.”

Very little ink has been spent explaining why Rushdie received this honor. Perhaps it is because of the reasons cited by the Times: The British government was trying to upset Muslims. Or maybe not.

The Washington Post‘s brief account of the affair managed to include a quote from a British government official:

Pakistani officials summoned Robert Brinkley, the British high commissioner in Islamabad, to express anger over the honor for Rushdie, which was announced along with British government honors for about 950 people on Queen Elizabeth II’s ceremonial birthday on June 16. The knighthood means that the writer, who turned 60 on Tuesday, will be known in Britain as Sir Salman.

“Sir Salman’s knighthood is a reflection of his contribution to literature throughout a long and distinguished career which has seen him receive international recognition for a substantial body of work,” Brinkley said in a statement. Noting that at least two Muslims had also received honors from the queen, Brinkley said, “It is simply untrue that this knighthood is intended as an insult to Islam or the prophet Mohammad.”

I am not a reporter who likes to take the word of government officials, and I don’t think anyone should in this case either. There’s bound to be a backstory to the decision to grant Rushdie knighthood. An angle that I would encourage reporters to look at, even if it is not the actual reason, relates to the very work we do as journalists: freedom of speech.

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  • OJU

    Perhaps the British are caught in a flux between trying to show the steady “stiff-upper lip” and unflinching resolve in the wake of the London bombings.
    It could also the result of a nation doing some soul-searching with the whole debate that questioned its passion for multiculturalism.

    What is interesting though that raised is, who exactly decides who gets knighted? How is that process done?

  • Rathje

    I don’t know. In light of the public problems they’ve been having on the veil issue and past public statements of figures in British government hostile to Islam, I’d suspect there’s actually a faction within British politics which, plain and simple, dislikes Muslims.

    Anyway, I’m suspicious of their motives on this one.

  • Don Neuendorf

    The BBC explanation for Rushdie’s nomination is here. Comments at NRO from Mark Steyn and others consider this evidence that the literary elites in Great Britain are actually pretty clueless about the real-world implications of their actions. They live in a fantasy world that conveniently doesn’t have actual “bad guys” who might kill people for what they say.

  • Brian

    I’m not English, and have zero notion of what a knighthood is for these days (Sir Mick Jagger?), but the free-speech issue here is being twisted in all sorts of truly bizarre ways. As I write this, the first comment at the Times webpage for this story includes the quote: “Freedom of Speech should be protected at all costs, ESPECIALLY when it offends” which for better or worse no one actually agrees with after even thinking about it for a second.

    What is “new” about this story now is that this changes things from tolerating speech aggressively attacking the foundations of Islam to celebrating such speech (at least in part). If the Queen were to knight Richard Dawkins, Christians in particular would feel quite understandably insulted. They would not respond with such violence and aggression of course, but that’s a topic for another day…

  • Maureen

    Oh, come _on_. You can get knighted for having a really nice _dog kennel_. Anybody who’s a bona fide famous, award-winning non-genre British writer is going to get knighted sooner or later, and so will a lot of the genre ones.

    That said, Sir Salman is brave, courteous, and does face down most terrible dragons each day of his life. If there be any souls so froward as to object to the knighting of this good bard, let them duel him in verse or prose for the glory of God and their ladies, and the honor of chivalry.

    Unless they be cowards and caitiffs, which would seem to be the case.

  • Stephen A.

    Yes, this seems to be an effort to *celebrate* giving offense and sticking it to the Muslim radicals.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the radicals don’t deserve to be cow-towed to. But it’s clearly provocative, and was designed to be so, IMO. But then again, the elites like to provoke those who challenge its (often wrong) assumptions. Giving Al Gore’s hideous propaganda lecture an Oscar comes to mind.

    Side note: I find his work tedious and unreadable, offensive or not. While I’ll give him kudos for living under a Fatwa – that can’t be easy – that doesn’t excuse someone for writing crap book after crap book. I’m sure many people buy his stuff to show support for him, or based on a book review that’s overly fauning, written because they wanted to show support for him, or saw him on a TV show in which the questions were friendly, because the host wanted to show support for him.

  • Cole

    “Freedom of Speech should be protected at all costs, ESPECIALLY when it offends” which for better or worse no one actually agrees with after even thinking about it for a second.

    Brian, what exceptions are you thinking of? Invasion of privacy? Defamation? Immediate breach of the peace?

    I mean, none of that seems to apply to Rushdie’s written work, no matter how blasphemous it is. (Maybe if he shouted blasphemous remarks in a crowded theater filled with violent Muslims or something…)

  • Brian

    Cole: Well, the “at all costs” is the first and most obvious part that is nonsensical, since there are plenty of well established ways in which “free speech” is limited.

    The “ESPECIALLY when it offends” part is just plain silly. The notion that “Christians are morons” is more worthy of protection than “Christianity is great” (as if that doesn’t offend some people) is absurd. Defending offensive speech does test the depth of one’s conviction to “free speech”, but that speech is NOT somehow inherently more worthy of defense.

  • Britney

    This is just to show how degenerate the western society is.

  • david

    In all of this there has been almost no comment on the quality of Rushdie’s literature, ie, from a literary perspective is he worthy of the honour? Lets see: Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize (and Booker’s Booker for the very best Booker in 25 years), Haroun and the Sea of Stories won the Writers Guild Award, The Moors Last Sigh won the European Aristeion Prize for Literature.

    Is he less worthy than the endless list of has been sports personalities who get such awards?

    The award was clearly deserved from a merit perspective.

    Was it wrong to be awarded from a political perspective. This seemingly depends where you stand but since we live in Britain, a democracy with free speech (and no capital punishment senentence for any crime), not a theocracy that believes it can dispense the death sentence across borders, the answer must be that if the award is deserved, so it should be given.

    If cross border murder is an acceptable penalty for free speech, do those in the UK who oppose Rushdie similarly accept and condone the murder of the Russian Alexander Litvinenko for criticism of the Russian government? In 1854 Dostoevsky was sentend to hard labour in a Siberian prison for his membership of a literary discussion group as Nicholas I believed it was subversive; is that where we are now, so little progress in 150 years? Muslim’s that criticise this award demonstrate a tyranny equal to any of the great tyrannies over the past century, throwbacks to hard labour for reading and writing books. They are not only trying to control free speech but free thought also. Anyone who questions the doctrine risks their life to do so.

    Rushdie is a brilliant author with a lifetime’s body of work that justifies the highest awards that can be given. He is a British citizen. Everyone is free to disagree with him (and the giving of the award itself to him), people are free to harbour ill will toward him, but no one has a right to bring violence against him or indeed to kill him regardless of religious belief. And the award is not in itself a popularity contest, it is supposed to recognise outstanding contribution to a particular field, and those who deny that Rushdie has made a great contribution to literature over his life time have so often never read his work or are blinkered by religious doctrine.