Monday, 18 June 2007

Warm and not-so-warm welcomes for 'Sir Salman'

OK, so as a lifelong republican I'm not a great fan of our archaic honours system, but if you're going to give people knighthoods, then Sir Salman certainly deserves his. In the past Britain has been slow to honour writers, as compared to producers and directors, so I think the 'literary world' was right to welcome this development. Not everyone's happy, of course. Predictably, the Iranian government (that great friend of free, creative expression) has condemned the decision as (what else) 'Islamophobic'.

But even Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches English at Cambridge, can't bring herself to be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about this recognition for one of our leading literary figures. While acknowledging the early Rushdie's anti-colonialist credentials, Gopal believes the knighthood is the establishment's reward for the author's recent support for British and US foreign policy:

Vociferously supporting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on 'humane' grounds, condemning criticism of the war on terror as 'petulant anti-Americanism' and above all, aligning tyranny and violence solely with Islam, Rushdie has abdicated his own understanding of the novelist's task as 'giving the lie to official facts'.

Note the scare quotes, which close down any possibility that support for the campaign to depose the fascist Saddam or the fundamentalist Taliban might have been inspired by humanitarian motives, and note also the crude misrepresentation of Rushdie's brave stand (given the personal costs) against Islamic fundamentalism. What Gopal's blinkered view fails to grasp is the fundamental continuity between the liberal, progressive values that inspired Rushdie's early tirades against empire and his later opposition to the authoritarianism of the Islamists.


The perfect riposte to Gopal's partisan and ungenerous column is provided by this letter to The Guardian from Lisa Appignanesi:

Your front-page article on Salman Rushdie's knighthood rightly applauded his great fiction. What it failed to mention were his other 'services to literature'. During the dark years of the Fatwa, Rushdie lent his fame to help less well-known writers around the world who suffered similar fates or found themselves persecuted either by states or religious hierarchies for their work. As a vice-president of English Pen, the world association of writers, and for some years president of American Pen, he worked indefatigably for the cause of free expression, joining with us here to combat the worst excesses of the government's 'religious hatred' legislation. Perhaps in awarding him this honour, the government has also come to recognise the crucial importance of a freedom which underpins so many others.

Rushdie's 'services to literature' also extend to a singular generosity in helping young, and particularly Asian, writers make their way in what is often a difficult literary marketplace.

Further update

Now that other bastion of cultural free expression, the lower house of the Pakistani parliament, has joined in, passing a resolution condeming the award of a knighthood to Rushdie. According to no less a personage than the country's religious affairs minister, Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, has said: 'This is an occasion for the (world's) 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision.' After last year's furore over the Danish cartoons, I think we know what that means. In case there's any doubt, the minister went on:

The West is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body, he would be right to do so unless the British government apologizes and withdraws the 'sir' title.

If people like ul-Haq and the government of Iran are against this honour for Rushdie, then it must be right.

Final update (I promise)

Both Norman Geras and David Thompson have incisive things to say about this whole business.

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