Neither Al-Qaeda nor the British government come out of the Salman Rushdie controversy with their reputation enhanced. The threats issued towards Britain yesterday by Osama Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are not only morally unacceptable but betray weakness: you make threats like this when you’re not necessarily in a position to carry them out. Of course, we have to take these threats in deadly earnest. But they’re a rather delayed response to the award of the knighthood to Rushdie, probably largely for logistical reasons. And this does at least indicate that Al-Qaeda is struggling to maintain leadership of the hardline anti-Western Islamic cause. I hesitate to call it the ‘jihadist’ cause (and certainly not the conceptually unhelpful ‘islamist’) because al-Zawahiri refers to a “very precise response”. This suggests a one-off, symbolically targeted attack or series of attacks, not all-out jihad. Al-Qaeda might wish to carry out full-scale jihad but would appear not to be in the position to do so, after all.
Al-Zawahiri’s response was also a highly predictable one: an inevitable consequence of the knighthood award, as I’ve argued in previous blog entries on the Salman Rushdie topic. Rushdie’s much-reviled novel The Satanic Verses is indeed insulting to many Muslims, not just the hardliners; and the British government would have known that awarding an honour to its author would provoke manifestations of more or less orchestrated outrage on the part of Iran, Pakistan, Al-Qaeda and elsewhere. So the decision to go ahead with it was a deliberate choice to fly in the face of such protests and to make Rushdie a symbol of the ‘British way of life’ and its associated ‘values’ that are supposedly under threat from terrorism. As I stated in my article ‘Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?‘, this was a calculated move designed to stir up Islamophobic sentiment in Britain, and to strengthen support for tougher anti-terror measures and the continuing presence of British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iran.
In this context, the government’s statement rebuffing al-Zawahiri’s threats is remarkably feeble. The Foreign Office maintained that the knighthood had been awarded in ‘reflection of his contribution to literature’. When the award was initially announced, very few people in literary circles thought it was merited on those grounds; although, of course, now many luminaries are running around in Mr Rushdie’s defence, including the novelist-cum-presenter Melvyn Bragg, I noticed last night (was he standing outside 10 Downing Street? . . .).
Downing Street itself stated last night that “The government has already made clear that Rushdie’s honour was not intended as an insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad”. Yeah, right! This sort of excuse puts me in mind of a husband and wife row in which the husband knew that something he’s just done would provoke emotional upset on the part of his wife but did it anyway, because he didn’t think that such a response was reasonable! And so the apology goes, ‘Sorry for hurting you, dear’, rather than apologising for the action itself.
But the government must have known the honour would offend many, many Muslims, including many so-called ‘moderates’. And if they genuinely didn’t realise this, what hope have we got that they will ever be able to address the root causes of Islamically inspired terrorism?