Knight at the End of the Day
by Mahir Ali
SIR Salman Rushdie – it has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? A faintly ridiculous ring, much like Sir Mick Jagger or Sir Ian Botham, and not a million miles removed from Lord Ahmed or Baroness Uddin. The British honours system is an absurd and undemocratic anachronism that ought to have been abolished decades ago, yet it seems many people in Britain and across the lands once colonized in the name of the crown still covet the silly titles and the right they thereby gain to embellish their names with initials that invoke a non-existent entity: the British empire.
Lord Anybody and Sir Anything cannot expect to be taken too seriously in the 21st century, any more than those whose lopsided lexicon is heavily laden with terms such as apostasy and blasphemy. And after the cash-for-honours scandal that has rocked the Blair administration in recent years, it is somewhat surprising that anyone with an ounce of self-respect would wish to supplement their surname with combinations of letters such as KBE, MBE, CBE or OBE. However, it seems relatively few recipients are able to resist the temptation.
Fewer still are able to imbue their rejection of a title with the sort of outrage that the poet Benjamin Zephaniah expressed a few years ago: “OBE me? Up yours! I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality. Stick it, Mr Blair and Mrs Queen, stop going on about empire.’
Last year the venerable folk singer Roy Bailey decided that he could not, in good conscience, hold on to an MBE he had made the mistake of accepting earlier in 2006, and decided to return it as a means of expressing “my horror and opposition to our failure to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon and to our complicity with the USA’s policy of supporting Israel’s actions in Palestine”. He went on to mention the death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, adding: “We cannot bomb people into accepting democracy any more than we could slaughter people into accepting Christianity.”
This month, an apolitical knicker manufacturer by the name of Joseph Corre proved himself more conscientious than Rushdie. “My reason for turning down the MBE can be summed up in two words: Tony Blair,” he declared, before going on to cite the prime minister’s record of deception and its appalling consequences. The purported doyen of post-colonial novelists, on the other hand, greeted his knighthood by pronouncing himself “thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour” and “very grateful that my work has been recognized in this way”.
Why, wondered The Guardian’s Michael White, “would a leftie who had abandoned Britain for New York in a huff want a knighthood from the British establishment?” There could be several answers, but one is constrained to question the premise of Rushdie as a leftist. Some of these answers were provided by Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, who pointed out in the same newspaper that Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious fatwa played a role in turning the talented writer into Sir Salman, a servitor of the Bush regime who enthusiastically supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Rushdie,” he says, “has abdicated his own understanding of the novelist’s task as ‘giving the lie to official facts’. No he recalls his own creation Baal, the talented poet who becomes a giggling hack coralled into attacking his ruler’s enemies.”
It wasn’t always thus. Rushdie’s acerbic wit and undeniable way with words was once employed in anti-establishmentarian endeavours, in taking to task not only “Mrs Torture”, the former British prime minister, but also subcontinental leaders, at least a couple of whom were inclined to sue him for defamation. Indira Gandhi, for instance, took issue with Midnight’s Children, which brought Rushdie to the attention of the reading public after it won him the Booker Prize in 1981 (and, a decade and a half later, the Booker of Bookers).
I recollect that when I felt obliged to tackle it during its initial period of fame, the novel took me months to finish. It wasn’t exactly unputdownable but, presumably finding it sufficiently intriguing, I persevered. After all these years, it’s easier to recall the delight occasioned by Rushdie’s refreshing style – he relished word-play and employed it to devastating effect – than an outline of the plot.
In contrast, it took me two days to get through Shame a couple of years later. It was partly a matter of necessity – the book had been borrowed from a venerable colleague, whose daughter had surreptitiously brought it into Pakistan, and there were other eager readers waiting in line – but also a thoroughly enjoyable experience, not least because the author repeatedly lapsed into extended asides in which he eloquently eviscerated the obscurantist miasma that had enveloped the nation under Zia-ul-Haq.
I have a nagging suspicion that the contemptible contribution of the late military dictator’s son to a National Assembly debate on Rushdie’s knighthood had as much to do with Shame as with The Satanic Verses. Be that as it may, the author is likely to have been amused by the spectacle of Virgin Ironpants riding to the rescue. Benazir Bhutto’s broad swipe against Zia’s son Ejaz-ul-Haq may primarily have been prompted by an opportunity to score brownie points in the West, but it is difficult to disagree with her line of attack.
For the record, I was fairly unimpressed by The Satanic Verses. Khomeini’s unusual recommendation made it a must-read, and when the opportunity presented itself – once again via the kindness of a colleague, because the novel was banned in Dubai, where I was based at the time – I ploughed through it within three or four days, and was left wondering what the fuss was all about. It was taken as a given, of course, that those baying for the author’s blood hadn’t bothered to acquaint themselves with the ostensible cause for their murderous wrath.
The Moor’s Last Sigh, published a few years later, was more readable. It was followed in due course by the thorough disappointment of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in which Rushdie made a complete mess of highly promising ingredients. I failed to finish it, and haven’t bothered to look up Shalimar the Clown. Apart from the decline in the quality of his literary output, which may well be related to the personal exigencies he faced following the fatuous fatwa, it was off-putting to find him quite literally wrapping himself in the Stars and the Stripes at the start of the so-called war on terror. It diminished my respect for his intellect. In contrast, his acceptance of a knighthood stirs more pity than antipathy.
However, any doubts that may reasonably be entertained about Rushdie’s literary canon or the appropriateness of a knighthood pale into insignificance in the face of the intemperate tirades unleashed in Iran and Pakistan by uncultured clerics and petty politicians eager for a distraction. It isn’t hard to understand why the troubled governments of the two countries are eager to craft a mountain out of what isn’t, strictly speaking, even a molehill. But does either of them realise how pathetically petulant it makes them seem when the British ambassador or high commissioner is summoned to the foreign ministry for a dressing down over such a silly matter?
There is no evidence that the committee which recommended Rushdie for a knighthood even contemplated the likelihood of a backlash, let alone intended it as a calculated insult to Muslim sensibilities. Whatever reservations one might have about the effete British honours system, there can be little question that, as an author of some distinction, Rushdie is as worthy a knight as any of his co-recipients. There would, perhaps, be cause for concern if it were to be established that the impetus for the award came from sources keen on offending Muslims in Britain or elsewhere. Even in that event, it would have made little sense to rise to the bait, manufacturing a row that has resurrected the demand for The Satanic Verses.
If there is a silver lining in this sordid affair, it lies in the evidence that most Muslims thus far haven’t taken offence. Despite efforts to whip up a frenzy, demonstrations in Pakistan and Britain have attracted dozens rather than thousands of protesters. Parliamentary resolutions in Tehran and Islamabad haven’t been echoed by mass action. True, Pakistan’s ancestrally compromised religious affairs minister, Ejaz-ul-Haq, had the temerity to suggest, effectively, that a suicide bombing would serve Rushdie right (he unconvincingly recanted shortly afterwards), while the speaker of the provincial Punjab Assembly, Afzal Sahi, hinted at personally carrying out such an attack.
Meanwhile, the chief minister of Sindh province, Arbab Ghulam Rahim, plans to return medals earned by Raj toadies among his forebears – as if anyone gives a damn about such trinkets. Enterprising fundamentalists have put a price on Rushdie’s head; they ought to be arrested and arraigned for incitement to murder, along with the clerics calling for blood to be spilled. Above all, it must be hoped that common sense will prevail at the popular level, and the puniness of the protests will continue to bear out their irrelevance.
In the final analysis, the British government owes no explanations to anyone in honouring whomever it deems worthy. Salman Rushdie, like everyone else, deserves the freedom to express himself in any manner he chooses. By the same token, everyone else has the right to disagree with him, vociferously or otherwise. But no one – least of all those who are convinced that he will anyhow be punished in the hereafter – has the right to cause or threaten any harm to his person.
Should the need arise, let’s hope the Bush administration will offer Rushdie at least the same level of protection that the Tory establishment in Britain provided, sometimes a trifle grudgingly, through much of the 1990s. It must also be hoped that the diplomatic row gratuitously stirred by Iran and Pakistan will not escalate. At any rate, Tony Blair, whose prime ministership is history as of this week, must have been relieved to bequeath the problem to Gordon Brown. Blair, after all, has had fundamentalist issues of a more personal nature to worry about. His final official engagement abroad was an audience with the Pope in the Vatican at the weekend, at which he sought benediction for a formal conversion to Catholicism. It has been surmised in the British press that Benedict was scathing in his critique of Blair’s role in the Iraqi cataclysm. There has been no word on whether Blair was suitably contrite. More to the point, his confessional shenanigans in the dying days of his tenure make it incumbent upon anyone who has ever described Blair as inordinately intelligent to, well, think again.