I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Salman Rushdie had been awarded a knighthood in the Birthday Honours List. How incredibly stupid! If anything was calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with Muslims in this country, that was it.
And sure enough, Iran’s knee-jerk reaction followed the day after as an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted that the award revealed Islamophobia among senior British officials. The Pakistani parliament followed suit yesterday, and the Religious Affairs minister went so far as to suggest that such insults could even justify suicide bombings.
Nice work by the Downing Street team! Perhaps they should have listened a bit more to the boys and girls at the FO. Or perhaps they did: maybe calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with British Muslims is exactly what it was.
To understand decisions like this that at first sight seem incomprehensible, it’s useful to focus on a) the message that it might be conveying, and b) its political effect: as the consequences of the decision unfold, think what political advantages there are to be had from some of them.
For a start, it’s clear that Rushdie’s elevation is in part intended to send Iran the message that Britain will not be intimidated, following the recent episodes of the seizure of British seamen on patrol and the protests outside the British Embassy in Tehran last week. It just so happens that two reports about the capture of the British naval personnel come out today, and this incident has been described as a ‘national humiliation’ (was it, though, really?). So Salman Rushdie’s award was indeed a timely demonstration of Britain’s resolve in relation to Iran!
Incidentally, it was curious how reports on last week’s demonstrations in Tehran mentioned that some of the protests were directed against ‘England’ rather than Britain. I’ve tried to find out why the demonstrators felt compelled to single out England in this way but haven’t as yet been successful. Is it simply that ‘England’ is used interchangeably with ‘Britain’ in Farsi, or was this, too, calculated to be especially insulting – the Iranians realising that insulting ‘England’ is more offensive to most British people than directing contempt merely towards Britain?
Quite whether conferring an honour on one of the most hated personalities in the Islamic world is the smartest way to communicate this message of defiance is another matter. I haven’t been able to shake out of my mind an image this suggests: one of a leering, Union Jack-sporting, 1970s-style punk sticking two fingers up the nose of an Arab sheikh. Or perhaps that’s just the kind of cartoonish, caricatural way it might be presented in Islamic media.
In fact, the knighting of Sir Salman puts one in mind of that other incident involving cartoons: those Danish images of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked such a furore of outrage in many parts of the Muslim world towards the end of last year. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and those cartoons are comparably insensitive in the way they play fast and loose with sacrosanct tenets of Islam. Conferring a knighthood on Rushdie, supposedly in recognition of his services to literature, is indeed tantamount to saying that insults to Islam are perfectly acceptable in British culture: not just in the popular culture, which creates hateful images of Muslims out of prejudice and fear of terrorism, but in high culture and art. In this respect, at least, the Pakistani Minister for Religious Affairs is on the mark in his criticisms.
But why would such a clear insult to Muslims be apparently sanctioned at the highest level? Look at the effect and infer the intentions. One effect is the one described above: Pakistani ministers appearing to legitimise suicide bombings to defend the honour of the Prophet. As if to back this up, the BBC Breakfast programme this morning slipped in a short, unobtrusive item (almost subliminal and appearing to be one that was waiting in their video library) showing a Taliban leader exhorting a group of Pakistani terrorist trainees to go and carry out suicide bombings in Britain and other Western countries.
In other words, part of the government’s intention appears to have been to engineer a perception of a heightened terrorist threat to this country. Too conspiracy-theory? Well, the government must have realised this would be the reaction on the part of the religious hardliners in Iran and Pakistan; so why do it unless it was something that procured some benefit? What’s the benefit? Well, Mr Brown’s got a new Terror Bill to steer through parliament, hasn’t he? The rebel Labour MPs are going to be just a little more reluctant to stick one over on their new leader if the public is getting more worried about the terror threat again. So not stupid, at all; very clever, as far as it goes. In GB (as I’ll henceforth call Gordon Brown in honour of his Britological credentials), we are after all dealing with the secret spin-meister par excellence! Does it matter that / whether the actual threat level is raised or not? Well, politics, among other things, is the art of short-term risk taking for the sake of long-term objectives. If, six months from now, another horrendous terrorist outrage hits London, how many people will make the link with Salman Rushdie’s knighthood? But we may then be having to live with 90-days’ detention of terror suspects without charge, which will seem a small sacrifice of our liberties against such atrocities.
And what about the other ‘benefit’ that could accrue from Sir Rushdie’s honour: the antagonism of Muslim communities in this country? Every time the government wishes to talk up the terror threat, it seems they also feel it opportune to do something to make the Muslim faithful appear to justify suspicions of their terrorist sympathies. After all, this government’s done this before, last autumn, when it stirred up a largely unnecessary ‘debate’ about Muslim women who wear the niqab, or full veil. The effect of this, as opposed to the avowed intention, was merely to exacerbate people’s understandable sense of unease when encountering women thus attired, and to implant in the collective consciousness the idea that Muslims who choose to demonstrate their adherence to Islam in such a striking visual way are more likely to be extremists or even potential terrorists in disguise.
In a similar way, Muslim organisations and individuals in this country who protest too vehemently about Rushdie’s honour can now be dismissed as extremists – ignoring the fact that this award is probably offensive (and understandably so) even to more liberal-minded Muslims. The government’s tactic, in this as in the whole veil episode, appears to be to drive a wedge between the so-called ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ in the Muslim community. On the one hand, the moderates are intimidated by the enhanced general atmosphere of Islamophobia (in the sense of ‘fear of Islam’) into doing what the government has urged them to do: to try to take control of their communities and impose their more moderate views. On the other hand, it’s a way to more easily isolate the extremists, who’ll be provoked into taking more radical public positions, which will then make them easier to police and which is likely to land a fair few of them with 90-day terms of detention without charge.
As part of this campaign to stigmatise and discredit the so-called extremists, the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech. They must have consulted with Rushdie himself about the whys and wherefores of accepting the honour. They would have explained the risks to the man: that there’d doubtless be a wave of revulsion across the Muslim world, even that the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini previously placed upon him could be revived. But if he was willing to take this on, he could accomplish something really worthwhile by setting an example of a Muslim who had fully integrated with British values and culture, even to the extent of obtaining the highest possible accolade that Britain can bestow. If things went belly up, and both Britain and Rushdie received death threats in the form of incitements to acts of terrorism and a renewed fatwa, then this integration theme could be underplayed, and Rushdie could be celebrated and pitied as a victim of Islamist extremism: perhaps even literally as a ‘martyr’ for British liberalism. (But maybe they didn’t discuss that bit of the deal in too much detail.)
Did they really think Rushdie would have any credibility at all as a symbol of the integration of Muslims with British values and society? He can’t even be seen as a liberal Muslim, as he’s renounced Islam – which it is of course his right to do; but more sensible (and dare I say ‘English’) to do so in less deliberately offensive a manner. He’s more precisely a paragon of what you might call the ‘religious liberalism’ that is a characteristic of the Britologists’ British values: liberalism blended with a certain number of inherited Christian concepts (even though it’s ultimately secular in its core assumptions), and espoused and advocated with a certain quasi-religious, even arrogantly absolutist zeal by Blairites and Brownites alike. [It’s what I like to call ‘evangeliberalism’ – but then the love of neologisms is truly one of my biggest sins!]
Yes, indeed, Salman Rushdie is truly a worthy cultural ambassador of this form of liberalism. Look at the Satanic Verses: a liberal, novelistic conceit (and therefore not to be read in a literal manner like those naïve Muslims who read their own Holy Book in such a way) that re-plays an ancient Christian calumny about Islam – that it was Satan who whispered it into the ears of Mohammed, not the Angel Gabriel speaking the words of God. Added to this, a suggestive thematic around the lack of modesty and virtue of the Prophet’s wives, adding grist to the mill that it is threatened, autocratic Muslim patriarchs who impose the veil on their wives, merely because they can’t tolerate the modern secular idea that women are entitled to full sexual and personal freedom.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many Muslims are up in arms? The Satanic Verses is a poisonous cocktail, appealing at once to Christian-derived prejudices and myths about Islam, and liberal contempt towards its literalism, and its ‘uncritical’ veneration of Mohammed and God himself. Indeed, it embodies precisely the sort of pernicious mix that informs so many of the actions and statements towards Muslims of those who have declared themselves the champions of British values.