Despite the many statements in support of Salman Rushdie's knighthood elsewhere in the media, The Guardian is obviously having great difficulty finding a columnist who's generous enough to wholeheartedly welcome the move. After Priyamvada Gopal's mean-spirited response the other day, today sees Inayat 'I-was-a-teenage-bookburner' Bunglawala sort-of-retracting his former hostility to Rushdie (background info: Bunglawala is Assistant Secretary-General at the Muslim Council of Britain).
The change of heart expressed here is obviously welcome, if long overdue:
Looking back now on those events I will readily acknowledge that we were wrong to have called for the book to be banned. Today I can certainly better appreciate the concerns and fear generated by the images of book-burning in Bradford and the calls for the author to be killed....
In the intervening years I have managed to travel to Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey and elsewhere and it is always with a sense of warmth that I return to the UK. Our detractors had been right. The freedom to offend is a necessary freedom. Moreover, Islam has flourished wherever there has been a free atmosphere. I continue to strongly disagree with the way Rushdie caricatured early Islamic heroes of mine, but banning the book was not the answer.
The trouble is, this retraction appears in the context of a nostalgic recollection of those days of youthful protest, which at times verges on retrospective self-justification:
We were a tiny minority and in the mainstream British newspapers had no voice whatsoever, while our detractors had column after column of newsprint to disparage us and our 'backward' ways. We were utterly powerless.
So on February 14 1989, when the Iranian Islamic leader, Imam Khomeini delivered his fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's death, I was truly elated. It was a very welcome reminder that British Muslims did not have to regard themselves just as a small, vulnerable minority; they were part of a truly global and powerful movement. If we were not treated with respect then we were capable of forcing others to respect us. I remember taking part in the large demonstration in Hyde Park that summer. It was an amazing day. There was an increasing realisation that by giving greater importance to our Islamic identity we could transcend and overcome the narrow sectarian and tribal divides that were widespread among us.
Well, that's all right then: the protests may have led to the murder of a translator and a British author spending years in hiding, but at least they brought people together. And while he's in a retracting mood, does Bunglawala still think it's OK to 'force others to respect us' with threats and fatwas ? Finally, Bunglawala expresses 'gratitude' to Rushdie for 'bringing me closer to faith': I'm sure Sir Salman will be chuffed.
[On the subject of 'respect', see this post from Oliver Kamm. Here's a taster: 'I do not respect Islam (or any religious faith). All I will insist upon as a matter of right for Muslims (or Christians, Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists) is religious liberty. Beyond that, they have no claim. They are not entitled to my respect. As a mere lobby group, they have no right to be listened to, let alone taken seriously, on matters of public policy.']
Like Gopal, Bunglawala can't resist a final dig at Rushdie for his stand in the war on terror: 'For the record, Rushdie's support for Bush's invasion of Iraq only helped underline why I think he is pompous, heartless and self-regarding.' At the risk of repeating myself, let me quote again from Lisa Appignanesi's Guardian letter:
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...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.
Pompous? Heartless? Self-regarding? To whom do you think these epithets better apply: an author who despite real threats to his life and liberty has continued to take a public stand in support of freedom of expression, or a half-repentant Islamist whose 'faith' was forged in a violent movement aimed at restricting that freedom?