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Why this foolish insult to Muslims?

2007 June 22
by Paul Vallely

Had you asked me last week what would happen were Salman Rushdie to be awarded a knighthood this is what I should have predicted. Within a matter of hours of the announcement the protests from Muslims would begin. Then would come the indignant responses of Westerners insisting that we will give awards wherever we see fit. Next there would be a renewal of the dormant death threats against the novelist. After which would come a lot of high-minded talk about defending freedom of speech and standing firm against extremist blackmail from those determined to put these Muslims in their place.

It is a familiar enough dynamic. It is called escalation. We saw it with the publication in 1988 of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which most Muslims believed grossly insulted Muhammad. We saw it with the unfunny Danish cartoons of the Prophet. We saw it with the Pope’s ill-judged Regensburg address for which a nun in Somalia paid with her life.

And so, once again, Muslims at home and abroad are outraged. Pakistan’s parliament has condemned the knighthood. Iran has pronounced that it reveals clear evidence of Islamophobia among high-ranking British officials. In response militant secularists like Christopher Hitchens have pompously pronounced about foreign governments attempting to violate British sovereignty and Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, has opined: “The idea that any religious sensibilities are somehow beyond offence is something that we have to vigorously challenge and resist. It’s anathema to free speech”. The tit-for-tat continues with more militant Muslims in Pakistan burning effigies of Rushdie and the hapless Queen. In Iran zealots have resurrected the fatwa to kill Rushdie and raised the bounty for anyone carrying out the execution.

It is inconceivable that no-one in the prime minister’s office worked through such a scenario before the decision was made. So what can be the explanation? Those who speak of it being solely a matter of literary merit are disingenuous; where are the honours for Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Peter Ackroyd, Julian Barnes or Michael Frayn? Perhaps it was intended as a belated gesture of solidarity by politicians whose response was largely one of embarrassed silence when Iran issued the fatwa in 1989, though they did spend £1m of taxpayers’ money affording him round-the-clock protection for almost nine years.

Whatever the thinking, someone must have concluded that the wrath provoked by this calculated insult to the Muslim community was worth incurring. For this is not merely an affront to Islamicist extremists. It is something which offends ordinary Muslims, both at home and abroad. Coming in the wake of a foreign policy which the government knows – for all its repeated denials – is perceived as a “war on Islam” no-one but a fool could have thought this would do anything other than pour petrol on smouldering embers. Honouring a hated apostate is seen as somehow giving state endorsement to blasphemies against Islam.

All this is doubly peculiar coming as it does not long after the government appealed to British Muslims to inform on violent jihadists within their community and promised new university funding to train imams in the UK instead of continuing to import them from rural Pakistan and elsewhere. New Labour talks constantly of social cohesion and of persuading Muslims to engage in a dialogue on Britishness.

All of which makes a knighthood for Salman Rushdie not merely mystifying but, at the very least, downright insensitive. More gravely it suggest a subliminal disregard by British government ministers for the Muslim community. And that looks not merely foolish but arrogant.


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